Kuerten sees parallels in Cecchinato run

 - Ian Chadband

Three-time Roland-Garros champion "Guga" loves his underdog story being rewritten by Marco Cecchinato.

If Marco Cecchinato needed any more inspiration on the eve of his fairytale maiden Grand Slam semi-final against Dominic Thiem, he found it on Thursday with a positive message from the hero who, just like him, rocketed from nowhere into Roland-Garros folklore a generation ago.

Brazil’s ever-popular three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten couldn’t help but smile at the comparisons between his own run back in 1997, bursting from the obscurity of being the world’s 66th-ranked player to becoming a Grand Slam champion, and the remarkable progress here of Italy’s world No.72 Cecchinato, who had never won a Slam match before this tournament.

There was only one real difference, reckoned the old frizzy-haired maestro. “Nicer hair, him!” laughed Kuerten.

Now 41 and newly unveiled by the French Tennis Federation as an ambassador for Roland-Garros, the perfect inspirational personality to promote the Parisian Grand Slam all over the world, Kuerten enjoyed reflecting on how he became the lowest-ranked winner in the tournament’s history 21 years ago, a victory so staggering that even now it seems inconceivable that he could have won a Challenger tournament and a Grand Slam back-to-back.

Yet Guga sees shades of his amazing run - he beat former champions Thomas Muster, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Sergi Bruguera en route - in the free-swinging manner of Sicilian Cecchinato, who has already kayoed one top-10 player David Goffin and 2016 Roland-Garros champion Novak Djokovic to get to the last four.

Roland-Garros 2018, 8e de finale, Marco Cecchinato, ©Julien Crosnier / FFT

“It's kind of the same run,” enthused Guga. “The advantage, of course, is you play with nothing to lose. You know, you have a lot in your favour.

“The lack of experience and knowledge of being in these last rounds, that's always the risk. But I think he's very enthusiastic. He's not satisfied, as we could watch in the last game against Djokovic in the quarter-final. He wants to go further, and that's what he did.”

And Guga is not even ruling out the prospect that Cecchinato could emulate him by going the whole way. “Every round will be a tougher challenge. In order to go all the way, you need to pass over the champions, one after the other. And this will be the challenge he will face,” he warned.

“Lucky me that I did not have Nadal back in '97. Marco still needs to handle Thiem, Nadal or Del Potro but it's the way it is.

“But I think it's already the two weeks of his life, and it can go to the end. It happened to me. It's not exclusive. Other people can do it.”

Guga has certainly enjoyed watching Cecchinato’s attractive game. “He is feeling, for sure, like a new player, best tennis ever," Kuerten said. "He’s finding out shots perhaps he’s never discovered before, that he was able to do such amazing shots. I watch him playing the backhand down the line, and it's curious. One-hand backhand, that's very rare these days.”

Perhaps, Kuerten wonders, Roland-Garros could be the making of the rapidly-rising Cecchinato. Guga, the surfer boy from Florianopolis, of course, turned out to be no one-Slam wonder. He considers the 1997 victory as “the best and the most amazing act of my career” and swears it was actually harder than later becoming the world No.1.

He went on to win two more Roland-Garros titles, too, in 2000 and 2001, as his passion for Porte d’Auteuil and its fans blossomed. After his last win, he famously thanked them all for their unwavering support by drawing a huge heart in the clay.

Cecchinato said after his win over Djokovic that this tournament has changed his life. That’s exactly how Kuerten felt in 1997 and a generation on, he reckons his new ambassadorial role is only reheating the love story.

“My life completely changed not just in 1997, but in 1992 too when I came in for the first time, 15 years old, and I looked around. I decided that day that this was what I needed to realise my dreams," he recalled.

“And still today I think a new page of my dreams coming true. It's a great opportunity to keep inspiring people, involving them with hopes, especially in Brazil.”