Newport's Newest: An Interview with Gustavo Kuerten

by: Ed McGrogan | March 08, 2012

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Gustavo Kuerten delivered a famed French Open valentine in 2001. After fighting off a match point in a fourth-round win over American Michael Russell, Kuerten carved a huge heart on the red clay to show his appreciation to the fans in a memorable Kuerten call. His heart-felt emotions were on display again today, as Kuerten’s eyes welled with tears during a press conference in Brazil to announce his induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame on July 14.

The three-time French Open champion was the first South American to ever hold the year-end No. 1 rank, and was selected as one of the 40 Greatest Players of the TENNIS era by TENNIS Magazine in 2007.

“It’s amazing to be inducted into the Hall of Fame,” the 35-year-old Brazilian known as 'Guga' said. “Probably one of my greatest accomplishments was being able to get Brazilians excited about tennis, and to elevate the attention for Brazil as a tennis nation.”

Guga's gangly grace made him look like someone about to break into a spontaneous samba. The high-bouncing topspin drives he delivered off his brilliant groundstrokes (Kuerten was one of the first champions to use Luxilon strings, which helped usher in the heavy spin era), the way he bounced around the court as if playing to the beat of music, and his trademark headband that kept his unruly halo of hair somewhat in place made him one of the most distinctive stylists of his era. It also won him a legion of devoted fans, many of whom, clad in Brazilian colors, would bang on drums, blow horns, and dance in the aisles during his matches.

Kuerten was one of the few players capable of turning a singles match into the feel of a group festival. Perhaps that’s because tennis is truly a family affair for Kuerten. His father, Aldo, a former amateur player, introduced him to tennis but died of a heart attack while umpiring a junior match when Guga was just eight years old. Guga gave every trophy he ever won to his biggest fan, younger brother Guilherme, who suffered from cerebral palsy and severe physical disability, and served as an inspiration to his big brother. Guilherme Kuerten died in 2007. Mother Alice Kuerten raised three sons (Guga’s older brother Rafael was his business manager) and is president of the Gustavo Kuerten Institute, which the family founded in 2000 to benefit the disabled.

Kuerten, who lives in his native Florianopolis, is the proud father of a one-month old daughter, Maria, and spends much of his time pursuing his charitable causes, including a school he’s opened as well as promoting tennis in Brazil. He spoke with us today, after the big announcement.

Gustavo Guga, what does induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame mean to you?

Gustavo Kuerten: It’s a great honor—perhaps the highest honor in tennis. Watching the video of my career they showed today brings me back to my first memories of being on the court. It brings me back to my father who took me to the tennis court when I was six years old. He taught me to have big dreams, but I did not have any idea of what a career in tennis could be until I was 16 or 17 years old. I don’t consider it the end of the line. I am very involved in tennis and I will find a way to give back to tennis. Your father and younger brother both passed away. Your mother raised the family as a single parent after your father's death. How did your family inspire you?

Gustavo Kuerten: If you look at my history, I really had a very small chance [of succeeding as a pro player]. When I start to play the game, tennis was very rare in Brazil. In Florianopolis, we did not have more than five tennis courts in the 1980s. So if not for the support and push of my father, I never would have made it. My father was and still is the biggest inspiration of my life even losing him at an early age. My mother is also my greatest inspiration. My mother took on this incredible responsibility of raising a family by herself. Everyone in my family was an example to me: The bravery of my mother, the will of my handicapped brother to always try to overcome limitations and to truly appreciate the simple things in life, the sense of calm my older brother provided me, and my coach, Larri [Passos], who taught me how to be competitive and never give up. I got massive inspiration from a lot of people, who gave me the spirit to face everything that faced me. Even though some experiences were very sad, such as losing my father on the tennis court, I believe every experience helps us to build something greater in us. For me, this love of tennis became like an obsession, and my family inspired me and gave me qualities to achieve things. What do you think were key qualities that made you a a champion?

Gustavo Kuerten: I think I have technically a mix of weapons that I could use in different situations. I could use my serve very well to be aggressive when I needed. I don’t believe I ever got to play my best tennis because of my hip surgeries. I think my best weapon was probably my mental part; the way that I approached the game. I was never too upset or too stressed when I lost. If I did not have a solution on court, I would practice to find one. It may sound strange, but the thing that matters to me more than the power or spin was the way I faced the game, the relation I created to tennis and to people. I loved taking tennis more close to people, not just as a No. 1 player but as a human being. The connection to the people was very important to me. I was lucky that people all over the world received me so well. I needed that support and I appreciate it. What were your most meaningful moments in tennis?

Gustavo Kuerten: There are many. If I had to choose two, one is the 2000 Tennis Masters Cup. I had maybe a five percent chance of becoming No. 1 when it started, and after losing the first match, I had problems with my back and did not know if I could finish. I was able to turn it all around and win on a surface that was not my best to become No. 1, and for the first time to be able to speak to people in Portuguese after the final was really the best thing I could ever do in my career. [Editor's Note: The tournament was held in Lisbon.] The other was 2001 Roland Garros, the day I draw the heart on court against Michael Russell. It wasn’t the final, but emotionally it was the happiest day of my career. The connection between the public and myself touched me very much. A simple act to show my appreciation for the people, for tennis and for that emotional moment will stay with me forever. Which rival did you most enjoy playing and who was your toughest opponent?

Gustavo Kuerten: The ones I enjoyed playing most were Marat [Safin], [Yevgeny] Kafelnikov and Andre [Agassi]. I played each of them more than five times and normally winning and losing depended on the situation. Perhaps Agassi was the one I played more and it was very challenging and exciting to play Andre. For most of my biggest titles, I had to face Kafelnikov on the way and he could be like a lucky charm or an obstacle in the tournament that I had to pass through. I have to say the toughest and scariest opponent was Pete [Sampras]. When I played him the first time I forgot to volley. And then when I faced him in Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon, I really didn't know how I could find any way to beat a player as great as Pete, but facing great players can make you a better player. Do you watch tennis now and does any current player remind you of yourself?

Gustavo Kuerten: I love to watch tennis and I am very enthusiastic to see the level of tennis played now. I believe [Novak] Djokovic has the game that is perhaps most close to mine among these players. The tennis he is showing is taking the game to another level, and I like that he is showing his emotion and showing how physically you have to be strong and be a complete player and do everything on court. I think tennis is really in a fantastic place right now and I enjoy watching it very much.

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