Gustavo Kuerten, who every Brazilian is calling Guga these days, is
tennis’ latest upstart and Brazil’s newest sports hero. He won the French
Open title with a stunning straight-set victory over Spaniard Sergi Bruguera.
With this achievement, Kuerten became the highest ranked Brazilian male
ever to play the game.
On Sunday, June 8, virtually unknown Gustavo Kuerten—a 20-year-old
Brazilian—stepped onto the hallowed clay surface of Roland Garros in Paris
to battle veteran Sergi Bruguera for the French Open crown. Just one hour
and fifty minutes later, Kuerten left the court triumphant, claiming his
place in tennis history as the lowest-ranked Open champion and the first
Brazilian man ever to win a Grand Slam event.
En route to the title, Kuerten—who had never advanced past a quarterfinal
in any international tour event—defeated the last three French Open champions
and won fans with his colorful personality and aggressive style of play.
He took home a first-prize check of $695,448 and vaulted from No. 66 to
No. 12 in the rankings, the first Brazilian to crack the Top 20 in the
Kuerten’s dramatic emergence from relative obscurity, and the incredible
odds he beat along the way (see side box), make one of the most compelling
stories in sports this year. His 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 demolishing of Bruguera,
a clay court specialist and two-time champion at Roland Garros, was the
icing on the cake in a remarkable run during which the young Brazilian
also victimized 1996 champ Thomas Muster (ranked No. 4 in the world) and
1995 titlist Yevgeny Kafelnikov (No. 6).
Kuerten was so overlooked at the Open that event organizers initially
didn’t bother to confront him about his unorthodox attire, which featured
the bright blue and yellow of his country’s flag—all the way down to the
shoes and socks. When it later became clear that this glaring anomaly of
a tennis player was not going to fall by the wayside as expected, officials
pleaded with Kuerten’s clothing sponsor to have him tone down his act.
In a token gesture of compliance, the proud Brazilian doffed a white scarf
on his head.
The international press dubbed him the “clay surfer,” referring to his
laid-back style and grace on the difficult playing surface of Roland Garros.
Indeed, “Guga,” as he goes by, appears a strange vision on the court. At
6’3″ (1.91 meters) and with a scrawny, slight frame that is still developing,
he is all arms and legs. He only seems to acquire harmony when in motion.
With his long hair, unkempt beard, and brilliant apparel, he’s likely to
be mistaken for a dazed soccer player who wandered into the wrong stadium—a
sharp contrast to the clean-cut norms and impeccable garb of professional
Despite his odd look, Guga’s solid baseline game and bold shotmaking
earned him praise from the experts during the tournament. American tennis
great-turned-commentator John McEnroe said he believes Guga has the talent
and personality to stay on top. Another former U.S. player joining McEnroe
in the broadcast booth, Jimmy Arias, declared it had been some time since
he saw a new player with such a consistent game.
The first time Guga went to Roland Garros, in 1992, he was just a wide-eyed,
adolescent spectator. He didn’t have tickets, but with his trainer’s help
he snuck into the stadium at dawn, hid under the bleachers until the paying
public arrived, and then watched his idols fight it out on the legendary
Five years later, Guga stayed in the same hotel and frequented the same
establishments that he did on that first visit. While big-name players
sought the luxury of Paris’ finer accommodations and restaurants, he was
content with a $70 room, his favorite pizza place, and a few games of pinball
in the arcade.
Guga’s refreshingly down-to-earth nature doesn’t surprise those who
know him. When he competes in the U.S., for example, he doesn’t stay in
the hotels that organizers book for him; rather, he prefers to stay with
“Aunt Vickie,” a British woman who put him up the first time he played
there in a juvenile tourney.
A native of Florianópolis, a seaside town in the southern Brazilian
state of Santa Catarina, Guga is the second of three sons in a middle class
family descended from German immigrants. He always had what he calls a
good life, though not without hardship. His father died 11 years ago from
a heart attack while officiating a tennis match, and his younger brother
is afflicted with brain paralysis.
Guga dedicated his victory at Roland Garros to his father. “When I lost
him, I wasn’t even nine years old,” he said. “I didn’t expect that I was
going to be a tennis player. I really miss him a lot.”
His mother is a social worker and his older brother a tennis instructor
and computer science graduate who takes care of Guga’s business affairs,
as well as his internet home page [http://22.214.171.124/gugakuerten].
Guga started playing tennis seriously as a 13-year-old and had already
played the international circuit by the time he finished high school. Like
most Brazilian boys, the sea, surfing, and soccer had been early passions.
But one of his first tennis coaches told him he must make a choice between
the dilapidated fields of second-division soccer in Brazil or the distinguished
courts of international tennis.
Despite invitations from U.S. universities and German clubs, Guga preferred
to stay close to home. He started his pro career in 1994, and like most
lower-ranked players, he had to play in minor tournaments without big prize
money to accumulate points to improve his ranking. By the time he reached
Roland Garros, Guga had developed the ability to focus on small, immediate
goals—a skill that served him well during his championship run in Paris.
Bruguera had been here before, winning the French back-to-back in 1993
and 1994, but on this day he seemed powerless. Guga dictated the flow,
moving his adversary from side-to-side, keeping him off the net, and stepping
in to knock off winners.
Using a devastating forehand and a lot of heart, Guga played with a
surprising ease and confidence that made Bruguera seem the less-experienced
player. His pinpoint groundstrokes often hit the lines, and he allowed
only four points on his serve through the third game of the second set.
The feisty Brazilian simply refused to give Bruguera a chance to get into
In the first set, Guga used a nice drop volley—one of many that kept
his slower opponent scrambling—to break Bruguera’s serve at 3-2, which
was all he would need to win the set. During a memorable long rally in
the second game of the second set, the gangly Brazilian showed impressive
mobility, covering all angles of the court from baseline to net, and then
celebrated the point with characteristic flair. After trading breaks, both
players failed to take advantage of several more chances over the next
few games. It was Guga who broke the drought in the final game, this time
with a forehand blast just out of Bruguera’s desperate reach.
With a two-set lead, Guga let up a bit early in the third set, fighting
to save two break points on his serve. Both players held serve until the
sixth game, when Guga took advantage of Bruguera’s only double fault to
set up a couple nicely placed drop shots that secured his winning break.
Two games later the match was over when Guga broke Bruguera for the sixth
time on the day, completing a remarkably efficient dismantling of one of
the strongest clay-court players of this generation. The match time of
1 hour and 50 minutes was the fastest final at Roland Garros since 1980,
when Mats Wilander beat Vitas Gerulaitis in 1:46.
A look at some numbers confirms the lopsidedness of the match. Guga
had twice as many opportunities to break serve as Bruguera (18-9), and
he won 82 percent of his first service points, as compared to a dismal
58 percent for Bruguera. Without a doubt, the Brazilian’s powerful serve
(at 206 km/h, Guga’s serve is ranked among the top 20) was a crucial factor
in the match, but perhaps just as significant were Bruguera’s 40 unforced
“I knew I needed to impose my game,” said Guga. “If I followed his pace
of high balls, I would be lost. I varied the serve and always tried to
attack, making him run from side to side.”
“I want to give all the credit to Kuerten. I think he played an outstanding
match,” said Bruguera. “What surprised me the most was his ability to maintain
the same level during the entire match. I expected to take advantage of
his lows, but he didn’t give me a chance.”
Despite his lead during the match, Guga never allowed himself to think
he was going to win. “I only felt that I would win at 5-2 [in the third
set]; before that I couldn’t believe it.”
At times, he seemed oblivious to the significance of the occasion, grinning
at the Brazilian fans’ chants of “Gu-Ga! Gu-Ga!” (the chair umpire had
to quiet the noisy partisans on more than one occasion).
“I never thought, ‘Wow, this is the final of Roland Garros, I’ve got
to win!'” he said, “I just played like it was practice. I was pretty relaxed.”
After the match, Guga paid homage to two tennis icons who were on hand
to present the awards, bowing in reverence to six-time French Open champion
Bjorn Borg and embracing Guillermo Vilas, winner in 1977. “It was a great
emotion for me to receive the trophy from these idols,” said Guga. “It
was a new thing for me to meet famous people and I liked it.”
Asked how he felt about the Brazilian fans, who sang and played a samba
in celebration of his victory, Guga replied, “Normally, the party’s for
soccer, so it’s cool to see this for tennis.” One event organizer said
it was undoubtedly the most exciting victory celebration in the history
of Roland Garros. Guga joined the revelry with a little champagne, but
not without some trouble opening the bottle. “I never won a title,” he
said. “That’s why I don’t know how to open champagne!”
Before Guga could savor the moment of his triumph, someone asked, “What
changes now?” Guga replied, “It changes a little; I’ll try to win as much
as I can, but if I don’t win the championship [every time], I won’t be
disappointed. I’ll do exactly what I did here, thinking only about the
game at hand, not about who I’ll face next.” Guga speaks in unequivocal
terms about his next goal: “Now I want to be among the top 10 and stay
there as long as possible.”
When asked what he was going to do with his newfound riches, Guga revealed
a humble and contented manner. “There’s nothing I want or need right now,”
he said. “My life is perfect and was already perfect before the tournament.
I have a good house and my mother’s car [laughs], so for now I don’t think
about buying anything special.”
Since winning at Roland Garros, Guga has struggled with his singles
play, making an early exit from Wimbledon after losing in the first round
to American Justin Gimelstob. But with little experience on fast-playing
grass courts, his expectation at Wimbledon was merely to learn and gain
Regardless of his performance in future tournaments, Guga gives a much-needed
infusion of color to a sport dogged by the lack of charisma of its big
champs. Perhaps more important, he brings recognition, respect, and promise
to a new generation in Brazilian tennis.
Let’s consider the odds for a moment. Go ahead, put yourself in Gustavo
Kuerten’s shoes. You’re only 20 years old, ranked No. 66 in the world,
playing only the 49th match of your career, and you’re trying to win your
first-ever singles title on the international tour. You hail from a country
where soccer is the undisputed king and only 400,000 people play the game
of tennis (by comparison, nearly 20 million Americans practice the game).
You’re not trying to follow tradition, you’re trying to create it,
as Brazil never had a man ranked in the top 20 (Thomas Koch was the highest,
peaking at the 24th spot in the 1970s).
Just three weeks before you arrived in Paris for Roland Garros, you
were playing in a small-time satellite tournament in Curitiba, Brazil.
Now, as the competition gets underway, you are just one of dozens of anonymous
players that compete at the prestigious French Open each year [the French
is one of the four most important tournaments in tennis collectively known
as the “Grand Slam” events. The others are Wimbledon and the U.S. and Australian
Opens]. And despite beating top players such as Andre Agassi and South
African Wayne Ferreira earlier in the year, you still carry a losing record
You’re hoping you can survive some of the first rounds and make a good
showing. You don’t dare look back at history, because it doesn’t offer
much assurance: It has been 15 years since a player won a first career
singles title in a Grand Slam event (but if it’s any consolation, it last
happened here at the French for Mats Wilander). In short, your prospects
are daunting. Can you become:
The lowest-ranked player ever to take home the vaunted Roland Garros
The first Brazilian to win a Grand Slam event and enter the Top 20 in the
The lowest-ranked male to win a Grand Slam singles title since Mark Edmondson,
ranked 212th, captured the 1976 Australian Open?
Only the third unseeded player ever to win the French Open title?
It’s simply too staggering to contemplate. So you don’t. But the incredible
odds aren’t the only thing standing in your way. You’re also facing three
past Open champions who want nothing more than to dispose of you as quickly
as possible in their push for another title. But don’t panic because you
do have one small advantage. You know your opponents’ games much
better than they know yours. So if you remember that and stay focused on
one game at a time, who knows? Anything’s possible!
Peter Castle is an American living in Rio. He can
be reached by E-mail at email@example.com