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In his first match since his loss to Novak Djokovic in the semifinal of the Australian Open, Roger Federer dispatched Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 6-3 6-4 to reach the third round of the Monte Carlo Masters. His next opponent is another Spaniard: Roberto Bautista Agut.
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Interview by LANCE!, December 2015, translation by Tennis Buzz:
In his private life, Gustavo Kuerten has plenty of reasons to smile. Less than a month ago, the 3-time Roland Garros champion he started surfing and playing beach tennis again. His disposition for sports is something he cultivates.
In addition to celebrating the 15-year anniversary of his victory of the Masters Cup in Lisbon, on December 4th, a title that propelled a Brazilian to the top of world singles ranking for the first time, the former tennis player celebrates another important victory.
Pain, the cruel sequel of being one of the most successful Brazilian athletes, has decreased considerably in recent months. And it has allowed him to remain closer to the form that led him to be the best in the world for 43 weeks.
At 39, Guga focuses on tennis promotion projects and laments the waste of talent in Brazil, as well as the current political scenario in the country. Yet he asks for optimism.
He talked to LANCE! reporter during the inauguration of a Lacoste store, a brand of which he is an ambassador, in Rio de Janeiro. He talked about his recent projects, recalled his career and kept the characteristic critical spirit of his post-tennis life.
Q: Who is Guga today? What is your routine and your goals?
Tennis is still the foundation of my challenges, but in a different way. Today, my contribution is more than 15 years ago, when I was the best in the world. We have several initiation projects, academies, tournaments and full contact with the development of the sport. That moves me, because there is still much wasted talent in Brazil. The idea is to gather athletes across the country. The number of potential players who can play with a racquet is even less than 5%. It’s difficult to have professionals and amateurs tennis players. This is what most moves me on a daily basis. I enjoy being involved with sports and education. I was raised this way and managed a successful career in this world.
Q: What about your personal life?
In parallel to the projects and partnerships, I spend time with my children and family. My life is much more controlled now than when I was an athlete (laughs). Before, we surfed that wave that was carried by the intensity of the circuit. Today, I can plan the series at sea and surf in accordance with the tide. So I think that my contribution is even higher in order to generate a return with more quality and depth, to be at the right time at the right place and thus promote tennis in an interesting way. It is what has been happening in the last ten years.
Q: What do you not miss at all from your tennis career?
Ah, hotels … packing my suitcase and go to the airport! Yeah, that was the worst part (laughs). Each week, I had it twice. Usually, it was on Sunday evening after a final. I came on the same day and on Monday, had to undo everything in another hotel room. I used to wake up and be confused, thinking that the door was on one side, but was on the other, because I had already changed my room and not remembered. I also went to the wrong floor because I had been on that floor the week before (laughs). This is part of an athlete’s life and for South American tennis player, in particular, it’s very hard. You go out for two or three months, not just a week or two. It’s difficult…
Q: How is your body, particularly the hip, and what hurts the most: the pains of a former athlete today, or the pains from you life as an athlete?
Thank God I got back to surfing three weeks ago. For the first time in a long time I also played beach tennis again. I can hit some balls, but but the dialogue with the court is still complicated. It is somewhat frustrating, because my physical capacity is limited. But, in relation to pain, things are much better. Hopefully, my ability to exercise will gradually expand, because it is what I like to do. I love playing with my kids, running after them. I went from two, three steps to 15. It was a victory! This year, I had a brutal effort. I spent two or three hours doing exercises and physiotherapy to achieve this condition.
Q: Do you still do physical therapy?
Yes, I do constantly. It is a sequel of my career. Recently, I spoke with Andre Agassi and he even asked me about the hip. It’s the price we pay for investing so much and so deeply to reach our limits. The matches are sometimes the easiest part. Practices are very hard. In 1997, when people saw me for the first time, I had already spent thousands of hours on the court making absurd demands on my body. It is also part of understanding this process. The advantage I have today is taking time for things to happen with more tranquility. If every year I improve ten meters in my performance, it’s ok. I will soon be back on court (laughs).
Q: Do you watch Federer these days? What do you remember of the times you faced him?
Federer is an example in all aspects. His tennis skills are absurd. If I had to choose the top ten tennis greats, he would be among them. Among the five, three, two, also. He must be. It is difficult to define who is the best of all time, because it is unfair to compare. But he is the guy who will always be considered one of the greatest. He is a spectacular person, with a special charism for tennis, a unique kindness, decency and exemplary conduct. And this guy was my contemporary! When I see today him, I get the feeling that the circuit is not so far from my path.
Q: You said you used to cling to a greater challenge to overcome something smaller that was in front of you on the courts and have even given this tip to Bellucci. Does it apply to your life, on a daily basis?
A common parameter between my professional life and now is having a positive outlook on all aspects. In tennis, it helped me a lot. We already live through so many complicated situations that if I try to see the bad scenario, an avalanche of pessimism comes over me. It works to always look at things very positively. Even my injury. Looking enthusiastically, with hope, facilitates and reduces the negative impact of situations. There are few cases where we really suffer. Sometimes we mourn for bullshit. The difficult thing is to practice it in everyday life, but it’s what I’ve been trying to do (laughs).
Q: What political unrest the country currently faces makes you reflect?
I am increasingly convinced that the only way for Brazil to reach a transformation is through education. People tend to think that the poorer classes need it, but our main political figures show that the largest fortunes often give the worst examples. Education must rinse the country, with decency and respect. People should understand their responsibilities, not just from the legal aspect. Brazil is increasingly trying to compress society with laws and obligations to escape crime, diversion, corruption, but does not promote good conduct or decent ways of living. For those who believe that you need to deviate from the straight line and create shortcuts to grow, there will be no law in the world that can stop them. And there’s no money in the world that can build projects with all this going on. So, we need to invest in people and think long-term educational projects to have larger ranges of answers.
Q: And the Olympics? It is an answer?
We have a postive time and an interesting results’ prediction. I believe that Brazil will break the record for medals at the Olympics. But it’s always little. Our achievements are small compared to the opportunities that appear. We are limited by a very drastic and dramatic national scene. You can not require that the Olympics work well if the country is not doing well in education, health, infrastructure, security. The basic requirements have to be major changes. The sport, the culture and the arts will suffer the same positive interference, but as long as we stay in this mantra to invent laws, do by force and compel people to follow certain rules, things will not work.
Q: What to do in the current scenario?
You have to guide, teach people how to conduct themselves, to know their rights, obligations and responsibilities. And thus get a more collective benefit. I venture to say that Brazil today is more individualistic than ever before. Previously, the country had no money, but thought more collectively. Today, I see the country is in more favorable economic conditions, but everybody wants it all for himself. We are infected by a serious lack of public services and the examples that come from governments. People see the differences around them and it reflects on their actions. It is sad to see our country suffering all these difficulties and know all the potential that exists in this nation.
Q: After eight years of retirement, you still attract the interests of brands and media. How do explain you are still a target?
It is still an opportunity to convey values and concepts with which I work, such as sports and education. I don’t seek a shortcut, a misconduct that leads me to achieve results without merit. I got where I am with effort and discipline. This is an asset and a fundamental background that I need to share. Brands give me that possibility. Because it’s hard! We paddle, row, row and go nowhere. Receiving a hug is good (laughs). It’s a big challenge. You can not make a transformation alone, it is a privilege to count on big brands and deliver a key message to the country today to cultivate persistence in people. We’ve all tend to get tired with the day to day and want to throw in the towel. But we must persist and endure the almost unbearable situation in which our country is, and move on.
Photo credit: Paulo Sergio/LANCE!Press
Extract from 25 Years of the Tennis Europe Junior Tour:
Amidst the frenetic bustle of the ‘village’ set up every year in the foyer of Tarbes’ Parc des Expositions to accompany Les Petits As, a big screen showing the second week of the Australian Open looms over the central eating area. The two tournaments on opposite sides of the globe thus progress concurrently to their respective climaxes: the superstars battling through Melbourne nights before 15,000 spectators for $40m and one of the four greatest prizes in the sport, the juniors fighting their hearts out in a cold indoor hall in the Pyrénées in front of 2,000 diehard fans and no money, but arguably the most prestigious 14 & Under trophy in the world.
It’s about as neat an encapsulation of the extremes of a tennis career as you could find – but it feels fitting to have it here. The iconic competitors whose every forehand and fist pump is magnified and replayed over us may seem larger than life, but many of them once passed through this hall in a small French town: 2015 Australian Open finalists Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray first played each other here in 2000. Fifteen years on, they serve as inspiration to the awestruck kids who dream of following in their footsteps.
“Everyone who wins here is a star!”
marvels top girls’ seed Anastasia Potapova, of Russia – the eventual champion this year.
Tarbes, a community of 50,000 in the foothills of the Pyrenees, has a proud sporting tradition – indeed, it was voted the third sportiest town in France by L’Équipe in 2010 based on the quantity and variety of sports it offered, and the financial support for them. It made sense, then, that Jean-Claude and Claudine Knaebel – a local couple with a passion for tennis – found it an accommodating site for their brainchild back in 1983.
“We knew that the 12-14 year olds were good players already – but amateurs, while the category above them had already started playing on the professional circuit,” says Claudine. “We wanted to give the youngsters experience in their own tournament.”
The local authorities immediately suggested the cavernous Parc des Expositions as a suitable venue, and – with coaches used as offices, a physio set up in a caravan and Yannick Noah, who went on to win Roland Garros that year, gracing posters – the first edition of Les Petits As welcomed competitors from four countries. By this year, that number had grown exponentially, with 32 countries represented across the singles main draws: traditional European hubs of the sport (France, Spain); recent emergent forces (Russia, Croatia), and overseas contingents travelling from as far as Asia and North America. The globalisation of tennis has been one of its most important narratives over the past two decades, and the quarter-final stage at Les Petits As proved a strong reminder of this. Over the day’s play, the diminutive fleet-footed Maltese Helene Pellicano took on the powerful Polish second seed Iga Swiatek in an absorbing match of stylistic contrasts; the ultra-aggressive strokes of Japan’s poker-faced Himari Sato, at 12 the youngest player left in either draw, thrilled spectators for a set as she pushed Russian 14th seed Kamilla Rakhimova to the brink of exit – but proved her undoing as they began to misfire throughout the deciding set. Meanwhile, though, another member of the Asian competitors, Taiwan’s Chun-Hsin Tseng, the boys’ fifth seed, was ruthlessly ending the surprise run of home favourite Adrien Gobat – and would ultimately go on to win the trophy.
Tseng is the latest example of the tournament’s pro-active approach to global expansion that has been so key to maintaining its prestige. Though he had never played in Europe before, tournament referee Michel Renaux had been impressed by the youngster’s game in an American junior event – and by his father’s devotion to his son’s nascent career, working nights so that he could coach his son during the day. Renaux extended a wild card invitation to Tseng – and it paid off, as Tseng swept to the title without the loss of a set, and indeed without the loss of any more than four games in any set, beating Europe’s top player Timofey Skatov (RUS) in the final.
There were echoes of the first time this policy paid off for the Tarbes organisers, back in its 1986 fourth edition.
“We wanted to enlarge the tournament,” recalls Claudine Knaebel. “We went to America and saw Michael Chang, spoke to his family and invited him to play. He came with his mother – it was his first time in Europe.”
The prodigious Chang also won the title – and, of course, just three years later was to become Roland Garros champion, a result that put Les Petits As on the tennis world’s radar in a huge way.
But if effective scouting is one side of the Tarbes story, the tournament’s success can also be attributed to what greets the players during their Pyrenean sojourn. Elite-level junior tennis can have something of a tough reputation: stories of temperamental, pushy or unsporting players, parents and coaches abound, and were famously the reason cited by Richard Williams for withdrawing his daughters, Venus and Serena, from junior competition. Yet at Les Petits As there is no ill behaviour on display, bar a few minor on-court grizzles.
This is a source of some pride to the organisers, who have gone to great lengths to create a ‘village’ atmosphere at the tournament. Food, clothing and equipment stalls line walkways near the courts; before and after their matches, players and coaches can be seen relaxing and socialising with each other. Indeed, Renaux states that the greatest challenge of his job – after maintaining the uniformity of the regulations – is to maintain this atmosphere.
“The aim for the players, because they are so young, is to find some conviviality in the village,” he says. “After the match, if they unfortunately lose, they are still with other players. At other tournaments, it is often just the coach and the hotel.”
This extends to supporting the children in times of real need, as well: the Knaebels recall 1995 as one of their most emotional years, when a talented 13-year-old Belgian competed the week after her mother had died. It was Justine Henin, a future legend of the game – and despite her personal trauma, she managed to make it all the way to the final that year, losing only to Croatia’s Mirjana Lucic.
It’s no wonder, then, that Tarbes holds long-lasting treasured memories for players who go on to professional careers. Renaux beams with pride as he describes Roger Federer and Kim Clijsters sending good luck text messages from Australia to the Petits As players, and 1994 champion Juan Carlos Ferrero later calling his time here his best memory as a junior. This year, one family is making a particularly special return. Way back in 1985, Canada’s Philippe Le Blanc became the first North American competitor at the tournament – again, scouted by the organisers. Two years later, his brother Sébastien followed. Both boys were coached by their father, Guy. This year, Sébastien and Guy are both back – but this time, from a different perspective, as Sébastien’s own son Alexandre is playing. Sébastien, an Olympic and Davis Cup player for Canada during his professional career, reminisces:
“This was such a boost for me, it was probably the start of everything. It hasn’t changed much – all the people, tournament directors and volunteers, are the same. They want the kids to have a good time, and the families also. The Tennis Europe Junior Tour taught me about hard work: make sure you play hard every time. We got lots of matches, met a lot of kids from all over the world. If you stay in Canada, you always play against the same kids and you never know how good you are.”
It’s to this end that Alexandre, who reaches the final of the consolation event, is now based in Barcelona.
“And in Europe you play on the red clay, which is a lot better than North American hard courts to learn the basics of the game,” notes Guy.
In fact, so impressed were the Leblancs by Les Petits As that it even inspired them to try their hand at setting up their own tournament, a 12 & Under team competition in Canada, which already counts much-touted talents such as Taylor Townsend and Françoise Abanda amongst its former players.
“We remembered how this was for us, and we tried to do the same thing,” says Sébastien.
Evidently, a successful tournament doesn’t just create the stars of tomorrow – but is key to the growth of the sport worldwide.
Interview by l’Equipe, translation by Tennis Buzz:
Q: In 1997, you reached the Australian Open final, even though you had previously only won two matches at Grand Slam level. Do you think we’ll see that again one day?
Yes why not? But perhaps not in the next five years, because of the top guys.
Q: That year you had beaten the defending champion, Boris Becker in the first round…
People tend to forget I was world number 25 at that time. But there were only 16 seeds back then, so this kind of first round was possible. What had really helped me is that I had beaten Becker (then world number 6) two months before in Bercy. And I had just reached the final in Sydney. I was feeling good.
Q: Milos Raonic just captured the Brisbane tournament and has yet to lose a set in Melbourne. Players are a bit scared to face him…
Good.. Having beaten Roger sends a strong signal. Not everybody can do it. Milos is the only player born in the 90’s to have beaten Roger twice (the first time was in Bercy 2014). He has also beaten Rafa at Indian Wells last year, and Murray three times. Only Djokovic misses.
Q: What misses too is to beat them at a Grand Slam tournament. That’s why his match against Wawrinka, who leads their head-to-head 4-0, is so much expected.
Milos is 25. He has to do it step by step. He won’t win a Grand Slam all of a sudden.
Q: So you don’t think he will win this tournament?
I did not say that (smiles). But Milos needs to prove he can beat these players one after an other in a tournament. And that’s a hard task.
Q: Why did you decide to join Raonic’s team?
It was a good proposal to start my job as a coach. Milos’ project inspired me. There’s a clear goal: to be number one. Milos could not reach its maximum potential so far, mainly because of injuries. What I like is that Milos is mature. He knows what he wants.
Q: On how many tournaments will you follow him?
15 weeks including the four Grand Slams. I did notant to be too much away from home. I have three young children. But I know that in my absence things will be done right because he has a solid team around him, in particular Riccardo Piatti (former coach of Ljubicic and Gasquet).
Q: What has impressed you most since you work with Milos?
He’s one of the most professional guy I have ever met. He is fully committed: on court, in the gym, after his training…
Q: When you were playing would you have liked that a former world number one works with you? If so, who would you have chosen?
Of course, I would have enjoyed it. I would have chosen Stefan Edberg, even if our playing styles were completely different.
Q: We often hear that Milos’ game is boring, that he looks like a robot when he plays. Could these remarks affect him?
No no no, I don’t think so. If you watched his game against Troicki, I don’t think it was boring. These comments don’t bother me. We should even use them. That our opponents expect a difficult game, with no rythm, can be a weapon for us.
Q: Before Raonic, how many players asked you to coach them?
A few. But either it was not at the right moment or these players asked me to travel with them for too many weeks.
Q: For the last two years, there has been a constant rumour about a Moya-Nadal collaboration..
It comes from the media and John McEnroe. But we’ve never spoken even once about that possibility. I’m sure Rafa will end his career with Toni and with the same team that’s been with him all these years. I know Rafa well and I think he’d think it unfair to split with Toni because things aren’t going so well. I’ve never looked to be a member of his team. We’re good friends, we often eat together, and we trained together at Christmas. That’s all.
Q: Do you think he’ll win another Slam?
Of course I think so. He’s not 30 yet. He needs to improve in certain areas and he knows that. He works. It’s a normal process: first of all, you try new things at practice, and then you apply them in matches, under pressure, and then you don’t think about them any more. It worked at the end of last season, but not here. You can see he wants to play more inside the baseline. Against Verdasco, he was a metre inside the baseline, but he wasn’t doing any damage. Positioning isn’t everything. Being a metre inside the baseline and pushing the ball, that’s not the answer. Right now, Rafa is a bit confused when he plays under pressure. He should develop this game without thinking. And now, we see him thinking.
Photo credit: Andrew Robertson
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