“Nadal and Federer are anticipating the future of humanity“

Fancy a little conversation on life and tennis with Guga? Here we go.

Gustavo Kuerten at Roland-Garros 20&!©Amélie Laurin/FFT
 - Sebastian Fest

It's still the same smiling machine. And a laughing machine. The same inexhaustible grimace generator. But Gustavo Kuerten, "king" of Roland-Garros before Rafael Nadal became a galactic super-emperor on Parisian soil, would have every reason not to smile, not to laugh.

People remember his three titles in Paris, the luminous moments of a dazzling career. But in Guga's life there was also drama, too much drama. And darkness.

He was seven years old when his father died in a tennis tournament. A few years ago Guilherme, one of his brothers, died. He suffered from cerebral palsy, as did Leonardo and Gabriel, sons of Rafael and Leticia, brothers of the former tennis player. Now teenagers, the two nephews are moving on with their lives, they had better fortunes than their uncle Guilherme.

In this context, the three hip operations that Kuerten had to undergo, which ended up closing his career, are a minor detail. Today he has grey hair, but his eyes are still as bright as they were when he won his first Roland-Garros title in 1997.

"Many things have happened to me, but happiness is not in the extraordinary, happiness is in the ordinary," said Kuerten, 44, during a conversation in Rio de Janeiro. The world's number one player in the 2000 season is the reference in the Rio Open, the largest tennis tournament in the region


The central court of the most important tennis tournament in your country bears your name, what does that make you?

Gustavo Kuerten: It makes me want not to play! It's a tribute that makes me very excited. When you were a kid you started with aspirations but you seemed very far from reaching something like this. It's special for someone who, like me, is still very involved in tennis. It gives me the oxygen to continue working hard and transforming Brazilian tennis. Those years on the court were a divine, special moment. Now we have to keep working. I want today's players to have an easier path than the one I had.

You won the same Grand Slam three times. Today almost nobody does that. Why?

G.K.: It's just that today has changed a lot. Tennis is different, and the players also helped, because today they are better prepared than we were in our time. The small differences no longer exist, they only exist, for example, in a Nadal-Federer, where those small differences wreak havoc, they decide. The physical condition of the players today guarantees that the courts are adapted to the player. In our time it was the other way round: it was up to us to adapt to the different surfaces, to change the game patterns. They don't have the problems we did.

The scheme of 15, 20 years ago did not benefit us much: the balls were more "alive", everything was heavier or faster. Everything was much more messy. Today everything is more homogeneous, the surfaces are much more similar. Look at Wimbledon, which is at times a slow court tournament. The balls were what made the most difference, because fast was too fast and slow was too slow. Today the ball is bigger than it was then and heavier. Today it can be played in the background, not before. Everything was set up so that the best could be the protagonists. If you look at it, today the best always make it to the finals. It wasn't like that before.

Rafael Nadal, Gustavo Kuerten and Roger Federer at Roland-Garros 2007©Christophe Saidi/FFT

How is it possible that Nadal and Federer, that anomaly that they are still so strong at this age?

G.K.: The fact is that life is going to change a lot over the next 50 years, and this is a reflection of what is to come. The human being is different, one is born to live 150 years. Sport, and tennis, are on the crest of that wave. Nadal and Federer have five or eight years of extra tennis life compared to previous generations. They are taking advantage of the evolution of the human being, of training, of medicine, of food. And since they are two great players, they are taking advantage of those advantages even better than others.

Are you saying that Federer and Nadal are anticipating the future of humanity?

G.K.: Of course they do! They are from a generation that has science at its disposal, they have the physical capacity to do things much better for much longer. And there time is decisive. If you think about a 15-year career, it's 50 percent more than a ten-year career. They started before us and will finish later. Tennis players will play for 20 years and will still be competitive at 40. And that's when they have to try to play well at 35, at 38. You live to be 80 and play until you're 30, you devote 40 percent of your life to tennis. If you live to be 130, it is logical that you play until you are 40. And you are a better tennis player until later. The coming players will last longer than us. It's already happening in basketball.

A columnist from O Globo wrote once that "Brazil is tiring". Does your country tire you?

G.K.: Well, but it inspires. South America is something that hasn't happened yet. We live working too much, having hopes, believing in the future. Nothing was ever good for too long. Our periods of prosperity last three, four years. We have not had a great period of stability in South America. But we are a young region, we have time. In Brazil we need initiative, private initiative. Everyone sees only opportunity and profit, but fails in the rest. Social change has to reach the poorest, to see if we have learned anything from the last 20 years and are more generous in terms of social gains.

You enjoy surfing a lot in your home in Florianópolis. You have two children, Maria Augusta and Luis Felipe. Do they surf?

G.K.: I took them, yes, sometimes they surf with me. I also make them play tennis, basketball and football. But I'm not so keen on making them compete in sports, I've had enough of that. 

How is your surfing going?

G.K.: As good as ever, as bad as ever.

Gustavo Kuerten talking and smiling during a ceremony at Roland-Garros 2017©Jean-Charles Castlot/FFT

Why did you always look so happy on the circuit, why did you smile and laugh so much?

G.K.: It's just that happiness often doesn't go beyond the limits imposed by money and power. You have to be simpler, more spiritual, more human. Life has always guided me a lot in that direction. I no longer travel like a madman, and even when I was one of the world I tried to lead a simple, closer life. Today, with social networks, we are further away than before. It is difficult to manage the expectations of millions of people. For me, the simpler everything is, the happier it is. I have financial peace of mind, yes, which not everyone has. And things have happened to me with my brother, with my nephews, who have difficulties. But happiness lies in the ordinary, not in the extraordinary.