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Steve Flink: Guga's Goodbye

5/16/2008 12:19:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The last couple of years have been immensely painful for the best male tennis player ever to come out of Brazil. Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten has not been able to solve the riddle of a deteriorating body. The burden of a bad hip has been impossible for this resolute man to overcome, and so it was a wise move for Kuerten to make the 2008 French Open the site of his farewell to the majors. In many ways, it was Roland Garros that launched his illustrious career.

I wish I could have been present to watch him play Paul-Henri Mathieu in person, but I did have the chance to see his 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 loss on television. Facing the No. 18 seed, Kuerten played reasonably well, but it was unmistakably apparent that he is no longer even close to being what he once was. His mobility was very limited. He could not force the issue off the forehand as once was his custom, and too often he was caught on his back foot by the depth of Mathieu's returns. Guga did string together some impressive patches. After being thoroughly outplayed in the opening set, he battled back gamely in the second.

In that chapter, Mathieu was up a break, serving at 4-3, seemingly in utter control. He reached 30-30, and then the 31-year-old Brazilian suddenly turned the clock back many years. He broke back for 4-4 with a pair of vintage backhand down the line winners. But that flicker of genius did not last. Mathieu is a seasoned veteran who knows how to navigate his way through matches against renowned adversaries. In 2002 at the Hamlet Cup on Long Island, he became the last player ever to beat Pete Sampras at an official ATP Tour Event. In this case, he was not going to panic, even if he was facing a three time French Open victor.

Mathieu quietly collected eight of the last ten games to gain a well deserved win. And then a dignified ceremony was held to honor an individual who had become a heroic figure on those grounds. The way Kuerten was greeted by the appreciative fans was a large testament to the wisdom of his decision to announce in advance that this would be it for him at the world's premier clay court event. He left on his own terms with his own inimitable style and charisma.

And he leaves behind a cavalcade of vivid memories for all of us. In 1997, Kuerten was ranked No. 66 in the world coming into Roland Garros. He had never won a tournament of any kind in the big leagues of his sport. Kuerten proceeded to defeat 1995 French Open champion Thomas Muster, 1999 finalist Andrei Medvedev, and defending champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in five set clashes. That took him into the final round against two-time former titlist Sergi Bruguera. Kuerten took apart Bruguera 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to walk away with the crown.

Kuerten needed time to adjust to his newfound status as a Grand Slam tournament champion. He finished 1998 at No. 23 in the world, and failed to advance beyond the second round of all four majors. The following year, Kuerten made significant progress, reaching the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Upon the conclusion of that season, he found himself ranked No. 5 in the world. And yet, his best was yet to come.

In 2000, Kuerten celebrated the greatest season of his career. He won the French Open for the second time. In the second half of that year, Marat Safin improved by leaps and bounds, winning the U.S. Open, and concluding that season with seven singles championships in his possession. Safin seemed almost certain to finish that year as the world's No. 1 ranked player. He reached the semifinals of the season ending Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon. The only way Kuerten could take that commendable honor of concluding the year at No. 1 away from the swashbuckling Russian was to defeat Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi back to back in the penultimate and final rounds.

Improbably, Kuerten did just that. He rallied tenaciously against Sampras, winning that battle 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4. Buoyant and immensely confident after achieving his first win over Sampras, Kuerten played stupendously to oust Agassi 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 and seal the No. 1 ranking. He had earned that distinction by managing to overcome his two estimable rivals on successive days indoors on hard courts, where both presumably had a big advantage over the Brazilian. Kuerten had demonstrated in the process that he was much more than a towering clay court player.

In 2001, Kuerten captured his third French Open title, garnered six tournament wins across the year, and finished at No. 2 in the world behind Lleyton Hewitt. In the summer of that year, he upended Patrick Rafter to take the Masters Series title in Cincinnati on hard courts. It seemed entirely possible that Kuerten might back up that considerable triumph by winning the U.S. Open, but, hindered by an injury, he lost to Kafelnikov in the quarters at Flushing Meadows. He was never really the same formidable player again as his body gradually wore down and his heart could not make up the deficit.

But Kuerten did celebrate one more proud moment at Roland Garros, cutting down world No. 1 Roger Federer in the third round 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 on his way to the quarterfinals in 2004. In any case, after losing in the second round of the 2005 U.S. Open, Kuerten did not compete again at the majors until he showed up at Roland Garros this time around. Be that as it may, I will always carry around in my mind's eye the image of Kuerten conducting business in his prime. His most majestic stroke was, of course, his one-handed topspin backhand.

No one could hit that shot quite like Guga. He had the grace and fluidity of Stefan Edberg off that side. It was the stroke that defined his greatness. He could roll it with heavy topspin or flatten it out with equal facility. But Kuerten's forehand was a serious weapon as well, and his first serve was highly under-rated. I always loved his ability to hit the flat delivery wide to the backhand in the advantage court; few right-handers hit that serve as accurately and deceptively as Kuerten.

Above all else, Kuerten was an artist, one of the game's most remarkable personalities, a champion of multi-faceted moods who explored the boundaries of his emotions and took his audiences along with him for the compelling ride. Since Open Tennis started in 1968, few have done more than Kuerten at Roland Garros. Bjorn Borg, of course, holds the men's record with six titles. But Kuerten is in a second place tie with three French Open titles, sharing that status at the moment with Rafael Nadal, Mats Wilander, and Ivan Lendl. In my view, only Borg and Nadal have been better clay court players. Kuerten could have held his own with Wilander and Lendl; he was that good, and his talent ran that deep.

To be sure, Gustavo Kuerten's legacy is prodigious. I will miss watching him brighten the landscape of the sport with his extraordinary creativity. I regret that his time as a top flight performer has come and gone. The game is losing a man who was larger than the sum of his achievements.

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