Two-time French Open champion Sergi Bruguera met the unseeded Gustavo Kuerten in the championship match.
In the first round of the Davis Cup in 1997, 20-year-old Kuerten of Brazil lost both of his singles rubbers to Americans Jim Courier and MaliVai Washington on clay at home in Florianopolis.
Over the course of the next few months and through the bulk of the clay-court season, Kuerten struggled with consistency on hard and clay courts, until things clicked at the Challenger tournament in Curitiba, Brazil, where he won the title with the loss of only one set.
His next tournament was the biggest clay-court event of them all, the French Open. Playing in only his third career Grand Slam, Kuerten advanced to the round of 32, where he met 1995 champion Thomas Muster—arguably the best clay-courter on tour. Kuerten beat the Austrian in five sets to set up a fourth-round clash with Andrei Medvedev in another match that went the distance and in the Brazilian’s favor. Defending champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov was next in the quarterfinals and Kuerten posted his third five-set win a row. After a rather straightforward semifinal, the world No. 66 was in his first career singles final.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, 1993 and '94 champion Sergi Bruguera battled through to the final with wins over Michael Chang and Patrick Rafter, among others. Having put behind his injury problems which caused his ranking to plummet, the Spaniard solidified his rise back up the rankings with a run to the championship round.
Playing for a first ATP title—on the Grand Slam stage, no less—against a former world No. 3 would present a stern challenge for many a veteran. However, Kuerten continued with the strategy that got him to this point: hitting heavy groundstrokes that pinned his opponents to the baseline. One stroke that made an even greater difference, though, in the first set was his serve as Bruguera was unable to make any headway with his return game, eventually dropping the opener 6-3.
Late in the second set, Bruguera had three opportunities to finally break Kuerten’s serve, but the Brazilian fought them off to take a 5-4 lead. Serving to stay in the second set, Bruguera couldn’t hold on and went down two sets to love.
The Brazilian, up two sets to none, quickly dispelled the notion of going through another marathon match and raced through the third 6-2, giving him his first career singles title and making him the second-lowest-ranked male player to take home a Grand Slam.
Bruguera was the only male European to make three Grand Slam finals from the 1993 Australian Open to the ’97 French Open. The other men to reach at least that many over that time were all American: Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang.
The lowest-ranked French Open champion of the 1990s prior to this was the 1993 winner, Bruguera, who was No. 11 in the standings and seeded No. 10.
Between them, Kuerten’s opponents in Paris won 67 titles on clay, four of them French Opens.
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