Kuerten: “Roland-Garros 2001 was my best ‘Guga moment’"
"My first day at Roland-Garros had a huge impact on my life. After that, I knew what to dream of." Three-time French Open champ (1997, 2000, 2001) Gustavo Kuerten took the time to tell us about his best memories at Roland-Garros.
Sixteen years ago, after playing an incredible fourth-round match against Michael Russell, you drew a heart on the court. You saved one match point and made it into the final, where you won your third French Open title...
It was the most intense match I ever played in my life. Of course, it was far from being the biggest or the most important. But if I had to choose a single match, that would be it. There was a connection that you only feel rarely. The crowd was with me all the way. I was in the hearts of 12 or 14,000 people cheering me on. I played terribly at the start of the match, and he was playing really well. For about two hours, nothing worked for me. And then, suddenly, a single point, a match point against me, turned everything around. At the end, I felt like I’d beaten the best player in the world. It was so intense. I felt like a superhero.
That match point, you really worked for it. You hit a forehand from from the middle of the court after the bounce, at the end of a very long point. You took an incredible risk.
That’s why tennis is so incredible. That moment is a perfect reflection of what you sometimes feel on big courts. Back then, I’d already won the French Open twice. People were thinking, “Great, he has his chances, he does well when it counts.” But I wanted more – more passion. And those moments are amazing because you can’t plan them. You can’t put in place a strategy that involves beating your opponent that way, a strategy that would be impossible most days. It’s all about making the most of the atmosphere and the drama. I wouldn’t try to do the same thing again today. I wouldn’t take that risk (smiles). Go that far for a point and lose the opportunity to win the title, despite being one of the favourites… But that was my best experience on a tennis court, the best 'Guga moment.
"My first day at Roland-Garros had a huge impact on my life. After that, I knew what to dream of"
Do you remember the first time you felt something special for the French Open?
The first time I set foot here! I was 15. It feels like it was yesterday. I can still see myself at the gate on the other side of the stadium (on the Avenue de la Porte d’Auteuil). We’d trained for an hour and half outside the stadium with Larri (Passos, his coach). Our shoes were full of clay. They didn’t want to let us in because we didn’t have any tickets. We were like, “But we’re players, look at our racquets, please let us in!” (smiles). After about an hour, the guy let us in and we went to see some matches. It was the first professional tournament I’d ever been to. And it wasn’t bad for a first, I must admit. I said to myself, “This is paradise!”
My first day at Roland-Garros had a huge impact on my life. After that, the universe had meaning. I knew what to dream of. And I never stopped dreaming, more and more, day after day, year after year. After that, whenever I came back to Roland-Garros – even though I didn’t do well in the juniors, even when I was frustrated about not making it into the qualifiers – I knew that one day… Although I never imagined that I would be so successful and that one day I’d be lifting up the trophy on central court (smiles). But I felt strongly about this tournament right from the start. And I felt even more strongly about it after 1997 (when he won his first title). After that I could have come back here every single day to kiss the clay (smiles). My life played out here. I had my biggest successes here. The way the crowd respects the tournament, that really means something to me. For me, Roland-Garros is sacred. Sagrado. That’s why I play so well here. When I’m here, I feel like I play better.
Which players or rivalries stand out the most for you?
On clay, Juan Carlos Ferrero is the strongest opponent I've ever come across. We played some great matches against each other, in particular our first semi-final at Roland Garros, in 2000, where I was two games away from being beaten in the fourth set. After that, there was a great sense of expectation every time we played each other. Everyone thought that a great rivalry had been born… (Looks wistful) It just proves that you should savour every victory as if it's the last.
Otherwise, I'd say that Pete (Sampras) was the strongest player of my time: on a fast surface, he was both the greatest challenge and also the most frustrating because you could never get near the ball on his serve. He demanded a unique type of sang-froid. Andre (Agassi) was different: he engaged you in a power struggle. I loved that. He was the ideal player to measure yourself up against. After playing him, you really knew what you were worth! Marat (Safin) stands out for me too. He was so talented… And then Evgueni (Kafelnikov), of course: every time I played him at Roland Garros, I went on to win the tournament. He was my good-luck charm!
Then, I could talk about Federer, who I watched go from promising young talent to the greatest player of his time, or Nadal, who I'd have loved to play at Roland Garros at my peak… But I wouldn't have anything new to bring to the table. Ah yes, I was impressed by Nicolas Almagro: I played him at Roland Garros in 2004, the year I beat Roger… He had a great arm and a huge physical presence. I thought he would become a pretender for the title.