Kuerten: "Brazil is full of ideas, but..."
With a combined event in Rio de Janeiro and another ATP tournament the following week in Sao Paulo, the tennis world is turning its eyes towards Brazil in the second half of February. Who better to talk to, then, than one of the most legendary names in tennis which the country has ever produced? Three-time Roland-Garros-winner Gustavo Kuerten (1997, 2000 and 2001) spoke to Roland-Garros.com about the state of the sport in Brazil which, despite various obstacles and pitfalls, he believes is on the right track, though not yet where it ought to be.
Guga, how do you judge the state of tennis in general in your country?
Look, I have the impression that tennis in Brazil is undergoing a growth phase that is… logical. Back when I won Roland-Garros for the first time, in 1997, it was expanding at a rate that was out of control. It’s more measured now, but it’s still going forwards. We’re developing in a less disorganised way and that is how you get better results in the long term.
Are you pleased with the results at the top level?
They’re acceptable. Marcelo Melo is world No.1 in doubles and won at Roland-Garros last year, while Bruno Soares has just won two Grand Slams (the men’s and mixed doubles at the Australian Open). What is a shame is that these results fly under the radar to a certain extent, since people are waiting for the next Guga or the next Maria Ester Bueno (who won seven Grand Slam singles titles in the 1950s). But Thomaz Bellucci has been in the top 40 for a good five years now. That kind of consistency is difficult to achieve, and yet very few people give that the respect that it is due. Teliana Perreira won two WTA tournaments on clay last year, and coming up, we have youngsters like Thiago Monteiro (who defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Rio and Nicolas Almagro in Sao Paulo). This is all worth something.
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Are you satisfied therefore with the way things have progressed since the end of your career?
We’re doing OK, let’s put it like that. The outlook is positive… The only regret I have is regarding the gaps we have when it comes to coaching. We need quality trainers and coaches with a precise, professional view of things – that’s what we’re lacking. In an enormous country like ours, it takes time to sow the seeds that will allow us to reap young talent. But when it comes off, it can all happen so quickly.
How is tennis being developed in Brazil?
Via the CBT – the Brazilian Tennis Confederation – and also thanks to independent initiatives like the Guga Kuerten Institute, for example, which is helping to generate results (Thiago Monteiro is a product of the Institute). But Brazil is still held back by certain things – politics, for example. When tennis becomes part of the public and political domain, it gets more difficult to get results…
Does Brazil have its own particular method?
No, and that’s our main problem. We have never managed to set up a decent training programme to develop our tennis. It’s the best way though – investing in building your own unique platform. There are plenty of individual projects, but that’s not enough – you need one common basis. And therefore what we are short of is qualified coaches. Who are the top 20 Brazilian coaches today? We need to get them all round the table and have a dialogue, and hold meetings every month to implement a development strategy. As things stand, Brazil is full of ideas but the various projects are too isolated and fragmented.
Will the forthcoming Olympic Games give you the coherence you need?
Top-level tennis is benefiting from the Olympic Games, let’s put it like that. There has been an enormous amount of investment over the past five years. The day-to-day existence of our young players is significantly better than it was in the past, and that is a genuine, tangible success. After that, the challenge will be to manage the post-Olympics period. We need to handle to lack of investment. It’s a logical step, and we need to be prepared for it. The country has never had such an ideal time in terms of investment in sport, so we need to plan for what comes after and hope that the foundation is solid enough to hold.
"It’s easier to face up to difficulties when you’ve got a roadmap and you know where you’re going"
You say that it’s an ideal time, but young Brazilian players today seem to be having real difficulty getting onto the pro circuit and making a name for themselves…
It’s not like in France, that’s for sure. With you, everything’s set out and well known. You all grow up with tennis, it’s in your DNA. In France, it’s as if everything is already established, organised and in place. With us, it’s still a work in progress. We need to develop almost every single stage – training 4-10-year-olds, then 10-14-year-olds... The CBT has departments which try to help young talents to flourish, but there’s plenty of losses and wastage on the way. And that’s before you even consider all the potential talents who never even pick up a racquet. We have got into a bad habit in Brazil of losing talented young players between the ages of 18 and 25. It’s a real shame.
Why is that?
Because it’s difficult to see what you can achieve once you finally make it along the road. They don’t know what they’re going to find, so they have their doubts, they get scared and they give up… It’s the most critical age for tennis, and in Brazil, we don’t handle them very well. In France it’s easier because you have solid foundations that can’t be shaken. Youngsters know what to expect, and that over half of all talented youngsters will make it and that those who don’t will still have other possibilities. In Brazil, it’s different. Look at Tiago Fernandes who was world junior No.1 – he gave up playing at the age of 20! So did Bruno Rosa. It’s easier to face up to difficulties and learn how to take hardship when you’ve got a roadmap and you know where you’re going. But even if you’re walking blind, you need to stride out and go right ahead – and sometimes you find that success is just around the corner.
What is it that’s missing in Brazil?
It’s the basis, and that’s the national training centres. In Rio, we have Tennis Route which gets CBT support. Joao Zwetsch, who is Davis Cup captain, is there, and so are Bellucci, Monteiro and Guilherme Clezar… It’s a little like the Larri Passos academy (run by Kuerten’s long-time coach). Youngsters need someone to emulate if they are going to make progress, they need milestones set out by those who are already on the pro circuit. It’s a bit like football, where the best players either go to Flamengo or Fluminense. And it’s not just in Brazil. Argentineans have the same difficulties but they’re more resilient and a little more courageous when it comes to handling the pressure when the going gets tough.
Is that why Brazilians are reticent when it comes to playing on the European circuit?
Yes, they prefer to stay in South America where the standard isn’t as high. You can win more matches, it’s easier and more comfortable. But the best players mainly play in Europe. I actually encourage young Brazilians to face up to the realities of European tennis – that’s where it’s at.
How important are tournaments like the Rio Open and the Brazil Open?
They are essential. The Rio Open is like a mini Roland-Garros! I think it’s wonderful for us to have something like that. I can see the benefits of a tournament of this scale, I can see that it’s a fundamental aspect in the development of Brazilian tennis. We’re managing to get young people interested in tennis while remembering stars from the past, inspiring our own players and also bringing in a public that never used to be interested in tennis. It’s an absolute must, especially in a city as wonderful as Rio. This year, we had eight top 30 players come which is quite an achievement. The organisers do a good job, they’re really professional, despite the fact that it’s still quite an amateur sport in this country.
With an ATP 500, an ATP 250 and a WTA International tournament, Brazil is quite a hotbed of top-level clay-court tennis. Why is the surface so popular in the country?
There are historical reasons and also economic ones. And it might be my fault as well. The public only ever saw me win at Roland-Garros, so for them, there is only one surface for tennis – clay (laughs)!