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Guga returns to Roland-Garros

By Matt Trollope   on   Saturday 30 May 2015
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One of the most enduring images in French Open history is that of Gustavo Kuerten, after beating Michael Russell in the fourth round in 2001, drawing a heart in the clay with his racquet and from within it blowing kisses to his adoring fans on Philippe-Chatrier.

Kuerten had saved a match point against the qualifier in that unexpectedly-tough encounter, and a few days later would go on to win his third Roland-Garros title in five years.

It was a gesture emblematic of his love for the prestigious claycourt tournament as well as his fans there. And this love was something he today fondly recalled when returning to the site of his greatest career triumphs.

It was in 1997 - the year of his first triumph in Paris, as an unheralded player ranked 66th - that he first began to feel it.

"At the third round on the Court No. 1 against Thomas Muster; I was losing 3-0 in the fifth set ... Muster was killing me. One side to the other, I was like this already, No, I'm done, I'm done," he reflected.

"Then I try to play more relaxed, and people start to cheer me on for the first time. 'Allez, Guga; Allez, Guga.' And this change. I still very emotional. I remember, because I connect to another level that I didn't know exist. I start to play in another dimension.

"This was a part of Roland-Garros that a new Guga would come up and try to investigate. This was the way I feel powerful and where I could find my strength."

That power and strength would guide him to subsequent titles in 2000 and 2001, elevating him into a select group of the greatest men's champions in Roland-Garros history; only Rafael Nadal and Bjorn Borg have lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires on more occasions.

Kuerten's other accomplishments included reaching the No.1 ranking in 2000, winning five ATP Masters titles and the prestigious eight-player Tennis Masters Cup in 2000.

His path to greatness has been detailed in his book, Guga: French Passion, which he launched for the first time outside Brazil at Roland-Garros on Saturday. The autobiography, available in Portuguese and French, was a project that began around five years ago when the Brazilian tennis star attempted "to understand a little bit better my history".

He discussed the sacrifices his family members made to help further his tennis career, such as his brother stepping away from his own tennis ambitions because the family could only afford for one child to play, and how his mother, who raised three children - including his handicapped brother - in the absence of his father.

And, of course, many tennis anecdotes, such as the dissonance between the approaches of coach Larri Passos - who advocated "kill the guy. You have to win the match" - and his mother, who told him "no, you have to be nice for people". Perhaps it was this "confusing" mixture of attitudes which crafted the mindset of a steely champion with a warm, friendly persona.

"That was fascinating about going deep on the small details ... What I really would like to show, it was my feelings during all this way as improving and changing and going up and down and happiness and sad," he explained.

"(I'm) a common human being, but (had) a very unusual life."

Naturally, when a player of Kuerten's stature returns to the site of a Grand Slam tournament, questions invariably turn to the current state of the game.

And Kuerten, who will present the men's singles trophy to the champion on the final Sunday of the tournament, was well placed to give his thoughts on what is shaping up to be an enthralling men's event.

"He was already a very talented player," he said of Kei Nishikori, when asked by a Japanese journalist on the prospects of their nation's No.1 player.

"I'm sure he has the potential of winning here in Roland Garros. The only problem is Nadal. He doesn't let anyone win. (Smiling.) Every year he's doing the same. All the other players, even Novak Djokovic that I believe is the top favourite, has this big circumstance - how to beat Nadal.

"And I will think about the trophy, but I will be there handing the trophy. I'm not sure about him, but I will make sure I will be there. I hope he will have a chance, because it's nice to have these new characters in tennis."

Guga was one of those new characters when he arrived at the tournament for the first time as a teenager in the juniors. Convinced by Passos "to put a lot of sand in the socks" so the gate attendant would believe they were a legitimate player and coach pairing, the Brazilian felt a connection with the tournament from that very moment.

"The first time I put my feet on this place I knew I want to be part of this story, of this chemistry and this ambience. Was so magical from the beginning. Then every year we try to get a little bit closer. I didn't imagine I could one day rise the trophy. The idea was just to live the experience on Roland Garros," he said.

"This was the day I would decide I would be a professional tennis player."

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