From relative obscurity, Gustavo Kuerten burst onto the tennis scene in 1997 by winning the French Open and then went onto become one of the sport’s most popular champions. As we enter into this year’s clay court season, let’s take a look back at the remarkable achievements of the man known around the world as “Guga”.
Growing up in Florianopolis, Brazil, Kuerten learned the game at a young age from his father who was himself a talented player. Tragically, Kuerten’s father died of a heart attack when Kuerten was only eight years old. Kuerten would become a top junior under the tutelage of his long time coach Lari Passos. Kuerten turned pro in 1995.
In 1997, Kuerten entered Roland Garros ranked No. 66 in the world and wasn’t even considered a dark horse for the event. Having won only eight tour level matches in his career so far, Kuerten also had a losing record on clay during the season and had never won an ATP title before. Despite all of that, the French Open that year was considered wide open with no one player picked as a definitive favorite.
With a blistering first serve backed up by an ability to chase down every ball while even many feet behind the baseline, Kuerten made his move in Paris. Kuerten shocked the world by beating three former champions in Thomas Muster, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and then in the finals Sergi Bruguera to claim his first Grand Slam title.
Instant fame brought increased expectations on the affable Kuerten. The pressure to live up to his remarkable 1997 season resulted in mixed results for him in the late 90’s that included a second round exit at the French Open in 1998. Kuerten did reach the top 10 by 1998 and became the first Brazilian to qualify for the year-end championships.
But it was in 2000 that Kuerten would find his greatest success. He claimed five titles that season including winning a second French Open title over Magnus Norman. Kuerten also helped Brazil reach the semis of Davis Cup in the same year.
At the end of the season, Kuerten found himself in a tight race for the World No. 1 ranking at the start of the year-end Tennis Masters Cup championships. Kuerten, along with Andre Agassi and current race leader Marat Safin, all had an opportunity to finish on top based on their results in the exclusive event.
When Safin lost in the round robin to Pete Sampras and then lost in the semis to Agassi, that set up for the first time in ATP history a winner take all final between Agassi and Kuerten with the victor claiming the No. 1 ranking. Kuerten beat Agassi 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to become No. 1 for the year and thus end an eight year reign of having an American finish the season as the best in the world.
As the defending champion of Roland Garros in 2001, Kuerten survived a massive scare in the fourth round of the event. Kuerten dropped the first two sets and found himself down match point in the third set to American Michael Russell. But Kuerten rallied to win the match in a dramatic five set finish.
Kuerten soon went on to beat Alex Corretja of Spain in the finals and thus earn his third French Open title. That put him in a rare league of champions to win three times or more in Paris that included Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl.
The end of 2001 would be the pinnacle of Kuerten’s storied career. Injuries and subsequent surgeries beginning in 2002 would soon dominate his life though it didn’t prevent him from earning several more important victories. Though losing in the fourth round of Roland Garros twice in ’02 and in 2003, Kuerten did win titles in Costa do Sauipe and Auckland.
Though he played sparingly in 2004, Kuerten did win his 20th and final career title once again at the Brazil Open in Costa do Sauipe. That year was also special in that he became the only man to beat then World No. 1 Swiss Federer at the Grand Slams. Kuerten defeated Federer in the third round of Roland Garros that year. It was the last time Federer was beaten prior to the quarterfinals at any of the Majors.
Kuerten withdrew from tennis in 2004 to have his problematic hip reexamined again and he did not compete for the rest of the season.
Injuries continued to plague Kuerten at the end of his career that saw him play limited times from 2005 to 2008. Personal tragedy stuck again in 2007 when Kuerten’s younger brother, who had cerebral palsy, passed away. Kuerten gave all of his many trophies throughout the years to his brother including the replicas of the Roland Garros trophy.
Kuerten announced in 2008 that it would be his last year on tour. He played his final match fittingly at Roland Garros and wore his trademark blue and yellow kit that he wore en route to winning the title in 1997. Though he saved a match point, he lost in three sets to France’s Paul Henri-Mathieu 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. Afterwards, Kuerten was honored with an on-court ceremony for all his accomplishments at the tournament.
Kuerten finished his career with a 358-195 win loss record and earned nearly $15 million in prize money. He now resides in Florianopolis, Brazil where he works with local youth there. In 2012, Kuerten was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.