Born 10 September 1976 in Florianopolis (Brazil)
When he burst onto the scene in 1997, it was even more of a surprise than with Mats Wilander in 1982. In his first round match against Slava Dosedel, he was an unknown, ranked No.66 in the world after reaching two quarter-finals at minor tournaments. He stayed in a modest hotel at the Porte de Versailles. And yet this was the year that he would go all the way, knocking out three former winners en route to the title – Thomas Muster in the third round, Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarters and Sergi Bruguera in the final (6-3, 6-4, 6-3). A style was born. His agility on the (one-handed) backhand and his clothing (yellow and blue and very bright) made him an overnight star. Gustavo the unknown became "Guga", with the emotional back-story of the sadness he had known as a youngster when his father died in 1985 while umpiring a tennis match.
His totally unexpected victory was not a one or even a two-off. He won again in 2000, the year he rose to No.1 in the world, and in 2001. That third victory was the most logical, but it also represented the end of an era. With a litany of aches and pains weighing him down, Kuerten was no longer a serious contender by the time 2002 came around – though his troublesome hip did still allow him the odd day in the sun, such as in 2004 when he bettered the newly minted bright young thing Roger Federer in the third round (6-4, 6-4, 6-4). Kuerten then donned the yellow and blue one last time in 2008, for a farewell against Paul-Henri Mathieu and a chance to bid the circuit adieu in what was little more than an exhibition match (but an enjoyable one at that).
A three-time winner (putting him level with Wilander and Ivan Lendl), he was another champion who managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat each time he managed to go all the way. In 1997, he was a point away from finding himself 3-0 down in the fifth set against Muster. In 2000, he was twice two sets to one adrift and a break down in the fourth: first in the quarter-final against Kafelnikov (whom he beat in the last eight en route to each of his victories) and then in the semis against Juan Carlos Ferrero. The finalist, Magnus Norman, also gave him a run for his money, and it took Kuerten 11 match points to finish him off! The Brazilian arguably saved the best ‘til last, however. In 2001, he saved a match point in the Round of 16 against Michael Russell, at 6-3, 6-4, 5-3. Of the 11 five-set matches that Gustavo Kuerten played at Roland-Garros, he won no fewer than ten.
These heroic combats were as often as not accompanied by heart-felt, off-the-cuff gestures. In 2000, he doused himself with champagne at the trophy ceremony, while a year later, overcome with joy, he drew a heart on the court with his racquet (2001). He remained true to the image of the down-to-earth guy-next-door from 1997, staying in the same hotel on the outskirts of Paris. And the Italian restaurant in Boulogne-Billancourt by the name of A Tavola is still ringing to the sounds of the incredible party he held there in 2008 after his final match at Roland-Garros.
Gustavo Kuerten’s record at Roland-Garros:
• 36 wins, eight defeats
• Three titles (1997, 2000 and 2001). Gustavo Kuerten also made the quarter- finals at the US Open (in 1999 and 2001) and at Wimbledon (in 1999).
• 11 participations (the first in 1996, the last in 2008).
• 24 matches played on Centre Court (the first against Yevgeny Kafelnikov in 1997).
• Notable wins over Thomas Muster (third round in 1997), Sergi Bruguera (1997 final), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (quarter-finals in 1997, 2000 and 2001), Juan Carlos Ferrero (semi-finals in 2000 and 2001), Roger Federer (third round in 2004).