Guga Kuerten, Roland Garros 1997

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.”

Read More

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

By the time day two was done at Roland Garros, the men’s tournament was in complete disarray. On that second day, both Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker lost. Never in Grand Slam tennis history had the top two seeds lost in the first round.

Both losses were shockingly decisive. Edberg, playing at eleven in the morning, acted as if he were in a different time zone, winning a grand total of seven games against Sergi Bruguera, a Spanish teenager who had shown much promise in the ppast twelve months. Bruguera didn’t even have to play very well to win this match, though. Edberg’s performance was summed up perfectly by his coach, Tony Pickard: Asked what he thought had happened, Pickard shrugged and said,

“There’s not a word I can say about this match that’s printable.”

Becker didn’t play nearly as poorly as Edberg, but he ran into a very hot, very talented player. Goran Ivanisevic was the same age as Bruguera – nineteen – but a completely different player. The Spaniard was a clay-courter all the way, a kid with solid ground strokes who would make a lot of money from the game without ever being great at it. Ivanisevic had greatness in him. He was from Split, Yugoslavia, a six-foot-five lefty with a serve that could be past you before you knew it was off the racquet. He could play superbly or horrendously no matter what the surface. He had been tossed out of the European Championships at the age of fourteen and, by his own admission, had a tendency to tank when things went wrong.
On this day, nothing went wrong. He beat Becker in four sets, playing, as Becker put it, “completely out of his mind.”

While the men were losing their two most glamorous names on the tournament’s second day, the women were watching it all, feeling just a little bit envious. Upsets of the Becker-Edberg magnitude just didn’t happen in the women’s game. There simply wasn’t enough depth for the top players to lose that early.
In the fifty-six Grand Slam tournaments of her career, Chris Evert had lost before the quarterfinals twice – in the third round at Wimbledon in 1983 and in the third round of her last French Open, in 1988. In the 1980s, Martina Navratilova never lost before the fourth round – and lost that early only three times in thirty-seven Slams. Steffi Graf had not lost before the quarterfinals of a Slam since 1985, when, as a fifteen-year-old, she had lost in the fourth round of the French to Evert.

Slowly that was changing.

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

Becker and Edberg had reason to want to do well on the clay this spring. Each believed that he allowed the French Open to slip away the previous year. Becker had come from two sets down to go up a break in the fifth set against Edberg in the semifinals, but had run out of gas. That put Edberg in the final against Michael Chang. He went up two sets to one and had what seemed like a zillion break points in the fourth. But he never could convert, and Chang completed his miracle by winning in five.
Having come so close a year ago, each was pointing to Paris now. Lendl‘s absence from the clay-court circuit provided another bit of incentive. Both Edberg and Becker had a chance, if they played well, to take over the No. 1 ranking.

Edberg didn’t look close to being ready. In his first match, he played Jimmy Arias. For six games, Arias looked like his circa-1983 version, jerking Edberg all over the court. He got to 5-1 40-15, but collapsed. “I blew the two set points at 5-1, and the first thing that flashed through my mind was, Wouldn’t it be something if I ended up blowing the set?” he said later. “Not a great way to think.”
His premonition proved correct. Edberg won the set in a tiebreak and the second set 6-3. Arias knew that Edberg was very vulnerable.

“He plays someone who can return well, he’s going to get beat,” he said. “A good clay-courter will take him.”

The next evening, Edberg came up against a good clay-courter. Juan Aguilera had been ranked seventh in the world late in 1984, at the age of twenty-two. But the next four years had been miserable for him. He had fallen out with his coach Luis Bruguera, and his father had died of cancer. Also, assorted injuries had limited his court time.
But Aguilera, a quiet, sensitive man who played guitar and drums in a Spanish rock group, didn’t give up. He won a small tournament in 1989, his first since the splurge of 1984, and moved back into the top one hundred. The week before Monte Carlo, he moved back into the top forty for the first time in five years, winning the tournament in Nice. In the second round of this tournament, he had won an emotional match from Sergi Bruguera – his old coach’s son. That give him a chance to prove Arias right. And he did just that, beating Edberg in two tiebreaks. Aguilera was too steady for Edberg, who looked impatient and nervous on the big points.
Edberg, who once shrugged off an early-round defeat at Wimbledon by saying, “There’s always another tournament next week,” hardly semed disturbed by this loss.

“I’m just not playing well at the moment,” he said. “I missed too many easy shots, ones I would normally never miss. It’s just a matter of time to get my movement right on clay. This isn’t anything to worry about.”

Ion Tiriac was worried, however, about Boris Becker. In the quarterfinals, Becker looked to be on his way to an easy victory over Emilio Sanchez. he led 6-4 5-3, and had a match point with Sanchez serving. He even got a second serve. Here, though, Becker’s fast-court instincts took over. He went for too much on the return, pushing a forehand deep. Suddenly, Sanchez had life again. He proceeded to win seven of the next eight games – breaking Becker’s serve three times in four tries. On clay, that can happen, even to Becker. To his credit, Becker didn’t quit. He came back to force the final set into a tiebreak but lost it 7-3.
Sitting in the stands watching, Tiriac was not happy. Becker was doing exactly what Tiriac had told him he could not do – playing clay-court tennis. The match had taken nearly three hours. To Tiriac’s way of thinking, that was too long. Becker had to dictate the tone and style of the match, not be dictated to. Already, watching him practice, Tiriac had spoken to Bob Brett about his concern.

“I have told Bob that if Boris keeps playing this way, the entire clay-court season will be a disaster,” Tiriac snorted. “Actually, worse than a disaster. Will Boris listen? Probably not.”

The Sanchez loss seemed to confirm Tiriac’s speech to Brett. Yet Brett knew that trying to convince Becker of that right now would be impossible. He didn’t want to push too hard, too soon. There were still four weeks left before Paris.

Andre Agassi, 1990 Lipton Open

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

As always, the Lipton was full of strange matches on the men’s side. None was stranger than Ivan Lendl’s three-set loss to Emilio Sanchez in the fourth round. Sanchez was a good player, solid on hard courts although more comfortable on clay, but he never seemed to beat the big names. This time he did – even after blowing four match points in the third set and letting Lendl break. Down 4-5, Lendl went up 30-0, serving to even the match. Then he collapsed, losing the last four points.
The wind swirled around the stadium throughout the match and Lendl clearly was unhappy with that. Lendl doesn’t like anything that takes away from his precision. Gerry Armstrong, umpiring the match, knew Lendl was in trouble when he tossed the coin before the match began and the wind took it.

“Ivan had this look on his face,” Armstrong said, “that said, ‘I want out of here’.”

Lendl certainly didn’t tank. He is beyond the stage in his career where he does that. But when the match was over he made no bones about the fact he was delighted to get out of town.

“I’ve never liked playing in south Florida,” he said. “The only reason I’ve always played here is because it was in my adidas contract. I committed to play this year when I still thought I was going to be with adidas. I’m not with them anymore, so I probably won’t play here again in the future.”

Now he was gone from the Lipton and not at all sorry about it.

Boris Becker was gone too. He lost a round earlier than Lendl, in the third, to Jean-Philippe Fleurian 7-6 6-1. Becker’s mind just wasn’t on tennis. He was in the process of breaking up with his girlfriend of the previous two years, Karen Schultz, and still not all sure about what he wanted to do with his life. Play tennis? Party? Save the world? All of the above? None of the above?
Becker didn’t leave Miami after his loss. He stuck around to play the doubles, reaching the finals with partner Casio Motta, and to hang out with friends. After starting the year on the verge of wresting the No. 1 ranking from Lendl, Becker had now dropped behind Edberg into the No. 3 spot. If truth be told, he didn’t much care.

With Lendl and Becker gone, the Lipton became your basic Andre Agassi-fest. There was no doubt that Agassi was playing good tennis. He won three straight three-setters over Andres Gomez, Jim Courier, and Jay Berger (who reached the semis when Sampras had to default), and then beat Edberg in the final.
Edberg was there only because a line judge had botched a call on match point in his quarterfinal against Jakob Hlasek. Hlasek had hit a half volley winner just inside the line while ahead 6-5 in the final set tiebreak. The line judge called it wide. Hlasek lost the next two points, and Edberg made the final even though he wasn’t playing very good tennis.

Agassi rolled him in four sets, then acted as if he had won Wimbledon.

“I guess people can’t say I don’t win the big ones anymore, can they?” he crowed afterward.

Clearly, the kid had lost touch with reality. Even Butch Buchholz wouldn’t claim the Lipton was a big one. Bigger than a bread box, perhaps, bigger than Memphis or Sydney or Bologna. But not quite up there with the Slams.
After all, the Slams all knew where they were going to be held the following year. As the workers began tearing down the temporary stadium on Key Biscayne, Butch Buchholz had no idea where his tournament would be held in 1991.

Surviving stardom

Jennifer Capriati

By Cindy Hahn, Tennis Magazine, October 1992:

Jennifer Capriati, her ankles still encrusted with the red clay of Il Foro Italico, faces a den of crass, middle-aged sportswriters. One, an Italian journalist, will write a story tomorrow whose headline screams that she looks like a pig. The 16-year-old, sweat-soaked and exhausted, hasn’t yet suffered that cruelty, and good thing, for her heart aches enough: She has just lost in a miserable, third-round match at the Italian Open – to a player ranked 25 spots below her. Her eyes swim with tears.

A cool shower – and time alone to soothe her anguish – might have made this post-match grilling less painful. But at her father’s command, Capriati was shuttled from the Campo Centrale directly into the interview room… Do not shower, do not pass go, do not change into you favorite Grateful Dead tie-dyed T-shirt. After all, Diadora is paying Capriati several million dollars to be seen in its tennis togs. Better for her to appear before the TV cameras as a disheveled Diadora girl than as a freshly scrubbed heavy metal-head – the identity Capriati currently prefers.

“Do you think you lost because you’re overweight?”

an Italian reporter asks.
Capriati cannot hear the interrogator and asks him to repeat the question. softening his query, the reporter responds: “Do you think you lost because you’re not in good physical condition?” But Capriati suddenly compehends his original question: He has announced before a roomful of international journalists that she is … fat. New tears glisten on her eyelids as her face flushes crimson.
Mercifully, another question is asked. Capriati concentrates hard, trying to block out the notion that she is fat. The moment of tears, of truth, passes.
When the press conference ends, Capriati retreats through a door into the locker room, where she collapses onto a bench and drops her head to her hands. More moments, more tears. There was no time for a shower, but there is time for tears.

This isolated scene, played out this past May, poignantly dramatizes the tragedy of pro tennis in any season: A parent placing mercenary interests before the emotional needs of his child; a girl forced to answer to uncaring adults; and a teenager’s private problems, such as weight gain, showcased as a media event. Threaded together, these plot lines form a disturbing, if familiar, story in professional tennis.

This report is not about a person but a process; it does not focus on a single star but rather on the constellation of problems in a system that embraces talented children, and then exhausts them. Capriati is just one of the handful of tennage pros whose gifts have launched them on a shuttle-ride to success: Michael Chang, French Open at 17 … Boris Becker, Wimbledon winner at 17 … Andre Agassi, Nike’s multi-millionnaire celebrity at 18 … Steffi Graf, at 19 only the fifth person to win the Grand Slam … Pete Sampras, handed a $2 million winner’s check at 19 … Gabriela Sabatini, a 15-year-old French Open semifinalist … and Monica Seles, the youngest world No.1 at 17.

Read More

Monica Seles and Anke Huber, Australian Open 1996

By Claude England, Maryland Match Point

At first I thought it must have been the strong capuccino I had enjoyed after ou last dinner in Melbourne that was keeping me so wide awake, but as the minutes continued to tick by, I came to realize it as the sheer excitement of the past five days at the Australian Open that was still tingling through my body.
So many talented players, great matches, and the magnificent state-of-the-art Australian Open facility. Where to begin?

Mark Philippoussis opened up the center court action with a straight victory over Nicolas Kiefer, who would have, at that time, thought he would go on to upset Pete Sampras in straight sets, only to be thrashed in the following round by fellow Australian Mark Woodforde.
Next it was defending champion Andre Agassi who basically limped onto center court after having the misfortune of hurting a tendon in his knee during a fall on his apartment steps. Andre, wearing a pathetic bandage, somehow won this match against Argentine qualifier Gaston Etlis, who at one point was serving for the match, and at another time was within two points of perhaps the upset of the decade. It was a sad sight from both ends of the court. Etlis played brilliant tennis, showing no mercy for Andre’s inability to move around the court, hitting precision drop shots that the defending champion, instead of racing towards, could only stand and watch. But when it came to winning those final points, Etlis became even more creative in finding ways not to win, and Andre hobbled to a 6-3 in the fifth victory.
Read More