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.”

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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.

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Stefan Edberg

By Bill Simons, Inside Tennis, July 2004

From Laver and the good ol’ Aussies to Sampras and Henman, tennis has been blessed with many a fine sporting lad. But none had better timing than Stefan Edberg. In fact, the Swede emerged just as the scowl-and-stare era of men’s tennis was raging. At a mean and macho time when implosions were expected and ferocity was a given, elegant Edberg entered the game with a minimalist, (be joyous within and walk lightly upon this Earth) sensibility.

Never mind that Connors, McEnroe, and Lendl were setting a mean-spirited snipe-and-run tone. Never mind that critics claimed tennis was free-falling out of control and was in danger of becoming a kind of World Wrestling Federation wannabe. As it happened — don’t worry, be happy — Edberg was there to save the day.

After all, no matter how bad his luck, no matter how outrageous the call, the Gentleman Champion never complained. For Stefan, a raised eyebrow was the equivalent of a full-blown Connors convulsion. A simple Edbergian inquiry to the chair umpire — “Are you sure?” — was his version of a McEnroe meltdown. There was no Becker-like gamesmanship, or anything like Lendl’s intimidating, icy stare.

It’s little wonder that Becker once told him, “You’re the greatest tennis ambassador I’ve ever known.”

Commentator Mary Carillo raved, “I’m such a big Eddy fan. He’s been the classiest, most elegant No. 1 that men’s tennis has had. He leads a very balanced life. He understands fame, fortune and celebrity better than just about any superstar I’ve ever met.” In a “narcissists gone wild” world, where a sense of entitlement was a given and it was just presumed that he who had the biggest toys (or private jets) won, Edberg was down to earth and solid — a freak of nature who was so normal he was abnormal.

Not surprisingly, the ATP honored him with its Sportsmanship Award five times and then threw in the towel and just named the award after him.
Edberg’s appeal was the sheer beauty of his strokes and the rhythmic fluidity of his movement. Sure, his pushy forehand was a foible never quite fixed, but his looping backhand was a shot apart, and his easy, balletic grace was a sublime delight. He brilliantly executed tennis’ most important and complex sequence, the serve-and-volley, and was a master of the perfectly timed chip-and-charge. Only McEnroe matched his skills at capturing control of the net. Once there, Edberg prowled with razor-sharp reflexes and merciless instinct, dishing out unforgiving volleys, particularly on the backhand side.

There was always something different about Stefan. He not only was a bizarre kind of throwback: a thrifty, conservative introvert in a self-indulgent, me-first modernist universe, on-court he was a true mutant: a serve-and-volleyer who emerged from Sweden’s homogeneous, stuck-at-the-baseline, gene pool.
Despite his mild appearance, Edberg was a fighter. His coach, Tony Pickard, famously informed us that he had “fire in his belly.” Plus, he was a true triple threat. He won six Grand Slam singles titles (two Wimbledons, two U.S. Opens and two Australians), 41 singles crowns, was ranked No. 1 in ‘90 and ‘91, was a top-five player for nine years in a row, he won 18 doubles titles and, after McEnroe, was the most heroic Davis Cup player of our era, a patriot who willed little Sweden to four Davis Cup titles. He was the only player ever to have won the Junior Grand Slam, won the ‘84 Olympics and played in 53 straight Grand Slam tournaments.

He knew how to come from behind, as he did when he was down 3-1 to Becker in the fifth set of their ‘90 Wimbledon final. He could outlast his foes, like when he beat Michael Chang in five hours, 26 minutes in ‘92 in the longest U.S. Open match ever. Or he could dominate. Just ask Jim Courier, whom he crushed 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 in the most inspired match of his career — the ‘91 U.S. Open final.

It was easy to dismiss Edberg as a too-good-to-be-true, squeaky-clean Eagle Scout who was not exactly the life of the party. When the London tabloids set out to discover his dirty laundry, they found out only that Edberg washed his own clothes. For years, his wife cut his hair. Still, his career has been filled with a mix of sad or bizarre happenings. When he played the U.S. Open Juniors, one of his kick serves smashed a linesman in the groin. The linesman then toppled over, hit his head on the court and suffered a fatal heart attack. In mid-career Edberg courted and, in ‘92, married Mats Wilander’s former girlfriend, Annette Olson. Throughout his years his Nordic appeal didn’t go unnoticed. “What a body,” said one Wimbledon observer, “he’s so cute, and those legs…”

Early in his career, when things got rough, he would drop his shoulders and mope, projecting “woe-is-me” body language. And, of course, even the mighty Edberg had his share of setbacks. He failed miserably on clay at the French Open, just once reaching beyond the fourth round. And he failed to convert his golden opportunity when he was up, two sets to one, to Michael Chang in the ‘89 final. (Later he would wryly quip that Michael won because he “had God on his side.”) Then there was the highly forgettable, mercifully brief “Norwegian Joke” phase of his career when, with a series of insufferable quips, Edberg tried to convince journalists that he was some kind of wild and crazy guy. Not!

Still, he was the co-ringleader of the Great Potty Protest of ‘87, when two of the game’s most mild-mannered, compliant soldiers — Edberg and Wilander — stepped way out of character and hid in the U.S. Open locker room for 15 minutes before their semi to protest that they were being forced to play at 11 a.m. in a virtually vacant stadium.

The incident was so remarkable because, as McEnroe said,

“He was seemingly immune to getting upset. I never heard anyone say anything bad about him and he never said anything bad about anyone.”

Sampras suggested, “When parents are looking for a role model, Stefan is the player to look to.”

A man of grace, blessed with quick stutter steps, deep-angled volleys and flowing backhand — now has seamlessly embraced all-court domesticity with a vengeance. Happily married and living in rural Sweden near his seaside birthplace, Vastervik, he now rises early to make sure his two kids get to school. He manages his investments and oversees his tennis foundation, which helps Swedish teens excel.

Of course, all this white picket fence/Ozzie and Harriet normalcy is hardly a shock. After all, never has there been a more balanced, “aw-shucks,” tennis champion, and a No.1 who so easily dismissed the siren song of fame and indulgent consumerism than this policeman’s son who played with the blissful ease of a dancer lost in an unending moment.

Photo: Tennis Buzz, Lagardere Trophy 2010

By Alan Trengove, World of Tennis, 1984

The evolution of Mats Wilander as a formidable grass-court player was undoubtedly the most significant feature of the tournament. After an unimpressive opening match, in which he was taken to five sets by Ben Testerman, the Swede beat Roscoe Tanner, Paul McNamee, defending champion Johan Kriek, John McEnroe, and, in the final, Ivan Lendl. His greatest asset was his return of service, particularly off the backhand, but it was his volleying, improving with every match, that was the eye-opener. By the end of the fortnight he was moving confidently to, and at, the net. And though his volleys weren’t as decisive as they might have been, he kept opponents under pressure with good, deep first volleys.

McEnroe gave no early warning of his semi-final débacle. He began strongly against Wilander, who had beaten him on the only two other occasions they met in 1983 – in the French Open and at Cincinnati – but after going to a 5-2 lead in the first set was lucky to scrape out of it, 6-4. Wilander realised that McEnroe’s service held no terrors for him, and either because of the Swede’s accuracy, or the wind and glare, to which McEnroe was unaccustomed after two months of indoor tennis, or, of course, the pressure, the New Yorker’s touch steadily deserted him. He hit many backhands out of court, misjudged volleys, and finally allowed Wilander to dictate strategy. “Shocking” was how he described his performance, but he was gracious enough to say Wilander was a great player…

Lendl was playing a pretty fair brand of serve-and-volley tennis with his usual overpowering serve and groundstrokes. But once again in a final he did not do justice to his ability. It was the first ever Australian final between two players from Europe, and Wilander was to become the first non-British European to capture the title since Jean Borotra did so in 1928. The first four games resembled a match at Roland Garros, with one rally extending to 29 shots and lasting 95 seconds. From the outset, though, Wilander showed the most willingness to go to the net, and when he broke for 3-1, Lendl’s game fell away. Lendl led 4-2 in the second set, only to double-fault twice in the next game and drop his service. Once more, he lost his grasp, and what had seemed likely to become a titanic, all-court battle faded into a rout. Lendl became completely intimidated by Wilander’s double-handed backhand, and either over-hit in desperation or played tentatively.

By Alan Trengove, World of Tennis, 1985

Wilander is a much underestimated grass court player. When he won his first Australian crown in 1983 it was only incidental to his major objective – preparing on grass for the Davis Cup final a few weeks later – and right up to the time he beat first McEnroe and then Lendl he was still doubting whether he could play on the surface. Seeded no. 2 in 1984, he beat [Kevin] Curren, the no. 9 seed, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2 in a very good final that nevertheless did not quite reach the height it sometimes promised to do. The lanky and angular Curren had eliminated a slightly injured Lendl, the top seed, in the fourth round. He followed that success with impressive wins over Scott Davis and Ben Testerman, and posed a distinct threat to Wilander when he served for the third set of the final at 5-3 with new balls. But the cool Swede steadied in the crisis, broke back and later dominated the tie-break.

Curren certainly possessed the armoury to capture the crown – a blistering service, a blanketing net attack and aggressive returns of serve – but the big guns misfired too often for him to sustain his assault. His main problem was the steely resolve of his opponent, who again showed his ability to accept reverses philosophically and move up into a higher gear when the situation demands. In the first set, though Wilander‘s returns were sometimes astray, he had a set-point in the 11th game and led by 4 points to 0 in the tie-break. It must have been galling for him to lose that set, but he immediately lifted his game and took the second. Then despite losing control of the third set, in which there were six breaks of service, his passing shots gave him the edge at the finish.

By then Curren was tiring because of the energy he puts into his service and because he was having to dive for so many dipping returns. Wilander was in full command in the fourth set, finishing Curren off with a typically penetrating forehand return. Mats may not be a classical grass-court champion in the mould of a Hoad or a Newcombe, but he is certainly a worthy one. Ask Curren and Kriek.

[Johan] Kriek also left Melbourne with a deepened respect for Wilander, having been given the biggest hiding of his career in a 6-1, 6-0, 6-2 humiliation that lasted only 63 minutes. Just as he did in 1983, Wilander laboured to find form in the early rounds. David Mustard, the New Zealand left-hander, took the first set against him and Dale Houston, a Queenslander playing his first Grand Prix tournament, held two set points against him for a two sets to one lead. Then in the fourth round, his fellow Swede and practice partner, Stefan Simonsson, who can play a strong serve and volley game, thoroughly tested Wilander. He led by two sets to one and Wilander had to work hard to survive. That effort, and the doubles he was playing with Joakim Nystrom, appeared to put him firmly on track for a successful defence of his title. In the quarter-finals he was a little too consistent for his Davis Cup team-mate, Stefan Edberg, winning 7-5, 6-3, 1-6, 6-4. Then came the morale-boosting rout of Kriek.

Chris Evert

By Steve Fink, World Tennis magazine, December 1989:

I met Chris Evert on the day she reached her first Grand Slam final in Paris 16 years ago, when I interviewed her for this magazine. We became good friends, and I found myself immersed in her career.
She soon realized that I was regarded by the sport’s inner circle as her Boswell, as the primary source of information about her record, and she knew that my recollection of her matches was invariably sharper than her own. Throughout her career she would defer to me at press conferences from Palm Beach to Wimbledon whenever she could not answer a question about herself.

But my involvement with her went much deeper than that. I attended both of her weddings, sat with her family at many of her critical contests in the major championships, and spoke with her frequently before, during and after tournaments to offer council.
Given those circumstances, and the highly unusual of our alliance, I made it a practice, with few exceptions, not to write about he. The conflict would be clear-cut, and I saw no reason to abuse proximity of my position. But this is the time to relax journalistic binds a bit and offer my intimate assessment. Hers was a unique journey through the seventies and across the eighties, and to understand how Evert impacted her era, there is only one place to begin.

In September 1970, at the age of 15, Evert planted the first true seed of her greatness by toppling the world’s No.1 player Margaret Court 7-6 7-6 in the semifinals at Charlotte, North Carolina. Only weeks earlier, Court had completed the Grand Slam by winning the US Open at Forest Hills on grass, but on the clay of Charlotte the Fort Lauderdale prodigy erased the rangy Australian. It was unmistakably a sign of what was to come.
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