Roland Garros 1997: going ga-ga over Guga
From Tennis Confidential by Paul Fein
“He’s just what tennis needs”
raves hard to please John McEnroe. Indeed, Gustavo Kuerten is the proverbial “nice guy” without being bland or boring, and a colorful personality minus boorish antics. Throw in spectacular athleticism, and you can see why everyone is going ga-ga over Guga.
Crowd loved Kuerten’s smiling insouciance during his fairy-tale French Open. Chants of “Guga, Guga” everberated in Stade Roland Garros and buoyed the unseeded, unheralded Brazilian to one of the Open Era’s most shocking and exciting Grand Slam triumphs. The sixty-sixth-ranked Kuerten, who had never advanced past an ATP tour quarterfinal and was only 2-7 on clay this year, knocked off former French champions Thomas Muster, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Sergi Bruguera for the prestigious title.
The fact that twenty-year-old Guga looks like a cartoon caricature endears him to fans even more.
His stringbean body, ingenuous face, unkept curls, and eye-catching attire give him the most distinctive appearance of any top player since the young Agassi. Kuerten says his gaudy gold and electric blue soccer-style outfits – which prompted French Tennis Federation president Christian Bimes to advocate a stricter dress code – “show my personality.” In Cincinnati, he promised his clothes would be flashier than Agassi’s.
When the charismatic Kuerten made history as the first Brazilian man to capture a Grand Slam singles title, he became the new national hero and ignited a tennis boom in Brazil. Tennis racket sales jumped 40 percent in his hometown of Florianopolis during the French Open fortnight, and manufacturers sold $3 million of his trademak outfits in Brazil in the week following the tournament.
“Guga has brought so much happiness to the Brazilian people. You can’t imagine,”
says Diana Gabanyi, his publicity director.
“Everyone from the taxi drive to the people at the bus station to the people in his hometown talks about him. Everyone loves him. His personality and smile captivate people. He’s winning and he’s taking Brazil’s name throughout the world. Right now Guga is as big as soccer star Ronaldo. That’s incredible!”
When I asked Guga what it’s like being the hot new star in men’s tennis, he laughed and modestly downplayed it.
“My life has changed a bit, but I don’t see myself as a big star. I’m too young to be a star. I don’t want to change. I just want to keep playing tennis and enjoy it.”
Fame and fortune haven’t spoiled Kuerten. He’s spent very little of the $660,000 (roughly half a million dollars more than his previuos career earnings) he pocketed for his French title, and he postponed making any endorsement deals until after the US Open.
Family and friends, not material goods, have always been paramount to Kuerten, and he misses them dearly during his extended trips on the pro tour.
“I really enjoy being with them,” he says. “Families in South America are very close, and they want to help each other.”
When Guilherme, his brain-damaged younger brother, became ill, Kuerten cancelled a date with the Brazilian president, a meeting that was to have celebrated his historic triumph in Paris.
The brothers have a poignant relationship.
“Guilherme doesn’t know what’s going on, but he’s happy,” says Gabanyi. “And whenever he sees Guga, he smiles. In his eyes you can see caring.”
Guilherme gets all credit for Kuerten’s world-famous nickname. When he was little he couldn’t say “Gustavo”, only “Guga”, so it stuck. Now Guga gives his brother his trophies, which Guilherme treasures as if they were his own.
Their impressive grandmother, Olga Schlosser, has become Guga’s secret weapon. She studies all the players and phones him at tournaments so “she can tell me how to play each guy,” says Kuerten. Grandma Olga even showed up at Roland Garros, with Mama Kuerten and older brother Raphael, a teaching pro, fo her grandson’s history-making final.
On Father’s Day, Kuerten gave a memorable interview to the Brazilian newspaper Globo. He talked about his beloved father, who suffered a fatal heart attack after umpiring a junior tennis match when Gustavo was a boy of nine. “Guga cried, and the whole country cried with him,” says Gabanyi.
Kuerten has dedicated his life to his father, Aldo. After he won the championship point against Bruguera in Paris, he recalled memories of him. “Everytime I play, I think of my father because of his heavy influence not only in tennis and in sports but also in education and the rest of my life. He was a real sportsman. He played tennis, basketball, soccer – almost every sport. He really liked to try his best, and he always fought for what he wanted. So I think I got some of this from him. He just wanted his sons – me and my two brothers – to grow up and do well in their lives and have a good reputation? My father, for sure, would be very glad and happy if he knew I won a Grand Slam and got this ranking.”
Aldo would also have been especially proud of his son humility. Before stepping onto the victory platform at Roland Garros, Kuerten brushed the red clay off his shoes. Then he modestly bowed to six-time French Open king Bjorn Borg “a big idol for me” – before accepting his congratulations and the silver bowl.[…]
McEnroe, now an incisive TV tennis analyst, praises Kuerten’s studious approach to the game.
“What I like about Kuerten is that he lost two matches (to Jim Courier and MaliVai Washington) in Davis Cup earlier this year but claimed that was a great learning experience. And he’s clearly learned from the losses.”
Boris Becker, who never reached the French final in his fourteen-year career, is fascinated by Kuerten’s coup in Paris and explains what makes him so effective:
“He is not a one-dimensional player. He can serve and volley, he can stay back. Obviously his physique is excellent to be able to come through three five-set matches. He never seemed to get nervous; he always kind of knew what he was doing. The whole combination made him a champion.”
Brazilian Thomaz Koch, world-ranked number twenty-four in the 1960s, pays Kuerten the highest compliment:
“I never saw anyone come into a competition this important as an unknown and keep his emotional stability to the end. It’s incredible.”