Catching the Tape: Two Kings of Clay
The Brasil Open has had some good news and some bad news so far this week. On the plus side, King of Clay Rafael Nadal is in town, and as this clip shows, the fans have responded. On the minus side, the courts are in bad shape, and the players aren’t happy about it. That wouldn’t make the patron saint of this event, Brazil’s Gustavo Kuerten, very happy. This is where the former King of Clay won the 20th, and final, tournament of his Hall of Fame career in 2004.
Nadal and Kuerten never played each other. You might say that the Guga era of clay began in 1997, with his sensational surprise run to the Roland Garros title as a 20-year-old—Chris Clarey of the New York Times rates that year's French Open as his favorite in two decades of covering the event—and ended in 2004, with Kuerten's early-round, last-hurrah upset of Roger Federer in Paris. The Rafa era started the following year, with his own sensational run to the title as a teenager, and has yet to draw to its conclusion.
Over the years, Nadal has usually had his accomplishments on dirt compared with Bjorn Borg’s, not Guga’s. That makes sense—Borg won Roland Garros six times, Kuerten “only” three. At the same time, while the two never played, Kuerten was much closer to Nadal’s era; he crossed into it, in fact, finally retiring in 2008 after many surgeries and comebacks.
At their peaks, how might a match between Rafa and Guga, in the Roland Garros final, have played out? Let’s go to a videotape of Kuerten at the top of his game in Paris.
—First, the music. I don’t know what it is, or what style you might call it. The first time through, I muted the sound in annoyance after about 45 seconds. The second time, I let it play all the way through. It grew, ever so slightly, on me, until by the end, when Kuerten was on the victory stand, it seemed to make the memory of Guga a little more poignant. Maybe try muting it for the first half and listening for the second.
—In the way he plays and looks here, this is the Guga we like to remember. The hair was at its wildest, the Diadora clothing kit has become iconic, and he was at the peak of his powers. On this day he beats Magnus Norman for his second French Open title, and he would finish the season by beating Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in succession in Lisbon to claim his only year-end No. 1 ranking. It was while watching the Kuerten-Sampras match that a well-known stringer on tour presciently wondered whether anyone would be able to come to the net in the future against a player using polyester strings. Kuerten was a pioneer in using poly, the string that has helped make topspin, and the modern game, what it is today.
—Maybe it was the open-stance strokes, or his lean frame, or just bad luck, but a year and a half later Kuerten’s career would be severely curtailed by a hip injury. He had surgery in early 2002 and never won another major. You might say he had the game, but not the build, for today’s brand of tennis.
—It doesn’t take long to see how different Kuerten’s approach to tennis was from Nadal’s. Or at least how different his approach to the drop shot was. Rafa can disguise his, but he typically makes sure his body is turned and he’s attacking the ball; that’s one reason he misses so few of them. Here Kuerten lets the ball come right up to his hip and then slides under it seemingly with no premeditation at all. In contrast to Rafa’s muscularity, Kuerten was all limbs. But while you don’t hear it here, Guga also came with a grunt.
—One thing is a definite: The Parisian crowd would be pulling for Guga over Rafa. Kuerten drew a heart inside Chatrier after the 2001 final, and the audience there loved him in return. Some of it goes back to their styles of play, or the perceptions of those styles. While Nadal is the Bull, Kuerten was a bohemian’s dream of a tennis player, a surfer from the southland who played with joy and flair. Not all perceptions are perfect, of course: Nadal plays with plenty of flair, and Kuerten could get as worked up and angry as anyone. You don’t see it in this clip, but he was a Grumpy Gus through much of the fourth set against Norman.
—If these two had ever faced each other, you would have seen a lot of that old staple of the Fedal matchup: Rafa’s forehand hit crosscourt and high to Guga’s one-handed backhand. Kuerten had a beauty of a one-hander, no doubt about it. Check out the late sequence in this video where he takes one crosscourt and the next one down the line for a winner. But could it have withstood a Nadal topspin barrage for three or four or five sets? I don’t think so.
Not that Guga couldn’t have held his own. He had a better serve than Rafa’s; he rode that shot to his win over Federer in Paris in ’04. And you can see here that Kuerten knew how to move forward, how to play at the net, and how to hit a passing shot from either side. But I think Rafa would have worn him down with the relentlessness of his forehand and his attitude. The Spaniard was the next step from Guga in the evolution of the clay-court game.
—But Guga was a wonderful step along the way, a player still missed by tennis fans everywhere, from Paris to Indian Wells to São Paulo. I sat near him at this year’s U.S. Open final, and there weren’t many people who passed by without a shout-out or a handshake or a photo with the legend.
Probably the best tribute I’ve seen, though, came from today’s No. 1 player, Novak Djokovic. Here he is doing a Guga impersonation during the off-season in Brazil. This is one of Nole’s finest, in my opinion. How can you go wrong, with Guga as your model?