Viewpoint: Kuerten the game's colorful grinder

by: | July 22, 2009

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It’s quite a time to be a men’s tennis fan. You’ve got a classy No. 1, a ferocious No. 2, and a Djoker at No. 3. Add to that a strong supporting cast of characters such as a petulant Scot, a brash American, an Ali look-alike, and a mental midget from Russian. But there’s been one player sadly missing from this colorful mix, and he’s about to take his final curtain call.

That’s right, it’s curtains for Kuerten. This week, the 31-year-old from Brazil began his last season on tour in front of his home fans in Costa do Sauipe, getting off to an inauspicious start by losing his first-round matches in both singles and doubles. “It’s sad to see your career come to an end,” he said. “But I can no longer play. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”

Guga, as he’s been affectionately known almost since the time he turned pro in 1995, has been hampered by a chronic hip injury that required surgery in 2002 and 2004. Tennis’ long-forgotten but much beloved surfer is scheduled to play just six tournaments this year, a farewell tour culminating with the major that solidified his place in the record books, Roland Garros.

As the International Tennis Hall of Fame continues to induct one-Slam wonders (not naming names, but suffice to say the latest inductee, who gets his props in July, did not receive my vote), Kuerten is a legitimate all-timer. He won three French Open titles (1997, 2000, and 2001), along with 17 other singles titles, reached No. 1 in 2000, and pocketed over $14 million in prize money. As of the end of last year, he had a 358-191 singles record. While Kuerten failed to get past the quarterfinals of the other three Grand Slams, he proved his hard-court prowess by winning Masters Series titles in Indian Wells and Miami.

It’s a shame that Kuerten’s best years didn’t overlap those of the current crop of stars. Kuerten has a 2-1 record against Roger Federer – their last meeting, the 2004 French Open, Kuerten won in straight sets, and he also beat Federer in 2003 at Indian Wells. Guga never played Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic—and I hope he doesn’t during his last few events, which could get ugly. These farewell tours are always a bit of a farce, if not downright sad, as former greats struggle to beat the Mardy Fishes of the world (no disrespect).

I prefer to remember Kuerten at the peak of his powers. It was a pretty dark time in tennis, when Pete Sampras was on his way out, and guys like Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian were competing for Wimbledon gold. The courts were fast, the rallies boring. Kuerten, his hairdo changing by the season, from military crew to crow’s nest, stood out as a beacon, a compelling figure with a stylish attacking game that demanded your attention.

Back then, Kuerten cultivated the vibe of a laid-back surfer dude. Hardly the look of a world-beater, he had a pencil-thin body. When he walked, his arms and legs swung jerkily back and forth, and his head rocked side to side. He was the embodiment of a bobblehead.

Which made what happened next such a surprise. With his long, roundhouse strokes, Kuerten unleashed powerful shots that belied his almost comedic appearance. Indeed, Kuerten’s relaxed demeanor was more image than reality. Larry Passos, his long-time coach who brought Guga to prominence, once said that while Kuerten brought his surfboard virtually everywhere he went, he rarely surfed. Unlike Brazilian soccer players, including Ronaldo, who are famous for their flair and infamous for their aversion to training and even running on the pitch during a game, Kuerten was a grinder.

Many fans will point to Kuerten’s run to the French Open title in 2001 as his crowning achievement. After defeating Alex Corretja, Kuerten showed his appreciation for his fans by drawing a heart in the clay. The moment perfectly captured Guga’s charisma—his winning smile and playful attitude. But it was another tournament that showed his mettle and sealed his fate as one of the best players of his generation.

In 2000, the year he won five titles, Kuerten qualified for the season-ending Tennis Master Cup in Lisbon. In front of rabidly supportive Portuguese fans, Kuerten, who almost pulled out early in the week with severe thigh spasms and back pain, played three amazing matches in the span of 48 hours. After beating Yevgeny Kafelnikov to advance to the semifinals, Kuerten out-aced No. 1 Pete Sampras, then recovered to defeat Andre Agassi in straight sets. No one had beaten Agassi and Sampras back-to-back in a decade (Stefan Edberg did it in 1990). The win, which came on a hard court, propelled Kuerten past Marat Safin to become the first South American to finish a year at No. 1.

For all that Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have accomplished, each of them is still waiting for their gut-check moment where they are pushed to the brink with lots at stake. (Maybe Federer’s came against Nadal in the Wimbledon final last year, but I suspect we’ll see more from Federer as he chases Sampras’s record.)

So as Kuerten takes his final bow, all smiles and bobbling head, remember that this isn’t just some laid-back goofball. Lisbon proved that. It was the finest act in Kuerten’s stellar 13-year-long career.

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