Each week, Baseline will take a look at a player who has thrived at one of the stops on the ATP and WTA tours during their career. (Photos: Getty Images)
Having decided to retire from professional tennis, it was only fitting that Gustavo Kuerten’s last tournament would be the French Open in 2008. After all, Roland Garros was the place where the Brazilian established himself as a Grand Slam champion and eventual member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a place reserved for the legends of the sport.
Kuerten experienced success there at a young age, winning the boys’ doubles title with Nicolas Lapentti in 1994 as a 17-year-old. However, when he made his Grand Slam debut at the senior event two years later, he promptly went down in straight sets to the 11th-seeded veteran Wayne Ferreira.
Starting off 1997 ranked in the top 100, Kuerten posted an early-season win against former world No. 1 Andre Agassi indoors in Memphis, Tenn. Shortly afterward, though, two other Americans—Jim Courier and MaliVai Washington—both beat the 20-year-old in front of his home crowd in a Davis Cup tie on clay. The rest of the spring didn’t go well for Kuerten on the surface until he returned to play a Challenger, again in Brazil, right before the French Open. He ended up taking the title there for the perfect boost of confidence before Roland Garros. Up to No. 66 in the world and playing the third major of his young career, Kuerten won his first two matches to set up a third-round encounter against one of the greatest clay-court players of the Open Era.
Thomas Muster, the 1995 French Open champion, entered the tournament as one of the favorites for the title, despite not playing up to his standards on the clay beforehand. After losing the first set to the veteran, Kuerten edged out Muster in five to reach the round of 16 against former world No. 4 Andrei Medvedev. After another five-set win, the Brazilian faced the defending champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarterfinals. Going down two sets to one, it appeared as if Kuerten’s surprise run was about to come to an end, but he showed he still had plenty of fight left, taking the fourth 6-0 and the fifth, 6-4. Overcoming another surprise semifinalist, Filip Dewulf, in the semis, Kuerten took on his third former French Open champ, Sergi Bruguera, in the finals. For the first time since the opening round, Kuerten didn’t lose a set, completing his dream run for his first career title.
Ranked eighth in 1998, the defending champion won his first match comfortably. But with expectations weighing heavily upon him, Kuerten fell to the Russian teenager Marat Safin in the second round. A year later, though, the 22-year-old—having settled into his place as one of the game’s bright young stars—entered Paris with titles in Monte Carlo and Rome under his belt. He then reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal in two years before Medvedev exacted revenge from their ’97 encounter.
Kuerten started off the new millennium strong, and during the spring clay-court stretch, reached the final in Rome before completing his Masters title collection on the surface in Hamburg. When it was time for the French Open, the world No. 5 showed he was ready to contend right away, only dropping one set through his first four matches. Kuerten would need fresh legs under him as he beat Kafelnikov and the up-and-coming Spaniard, Juan Carlos Ferrero, in five sets in each of his next two matches. In the final, he’d take on Magnus Norman, whom he had just lost to in Rome. Kuerten picked the perfect time to turn the tables, proving he was no one-Slam wonder by beating the Swede in four sets.
Seeded first at Roland Garros in 2001, Kuerten looked nearly unbeatable through his first three matches, then came close to seeing his winning streak come to an abrupt end in the fourth round. American Michael Russell, ranked No. 122, had gone up two sets to love against the world No. 1 on his best surface. Showing why he was on top, Kuerten won the third in a tiebreak then raced through the next two to advance to the quarterfinals. Facing Kafelnikov and Ferrero in back-to-back matches for the second year in a row, Kuerten defeated the both of them once again, then beat Alex Corretja in four sets in the final for his third career title at Roland Garros, celebrating with the fans whom appeared to adopt him as one of their own.
Fourth-round finishes followed the next two years, as injuries began to creep in, affecting his ranking and results. At the 2004 French Open, he was seeded 28th and drawn to face the new world No. 1 Roger Federer in the third round. Showing that he wasn’t done yet, the three-time champion beat Federer in four sets, then won another round before losing in the quarterfinals to David Nalbandian.
Barely hanging onto a spot in the top 100, Kuerten lost in the first round in 2005, then missed the tournament the next two years. Battling his body more than any on-court opponent, Kuerten decided that the 2008 French Open would be the last of his career. Wearing the colors of the Brazilian flag like he did back during that miracle run of 1997, Kuerten played the Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu in the first round. Ranked well outside of the top 1000 at this point, Kuerten lost to the world No. 19 in straight sets, ending his career.
“Guga” won 20 singles titles around the world and reached the pinnacle of the men’s game, retiring as one of tennis’ most beloved champions as he flourished on the terre battue of Roland Garros.