This year marks the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. To commemorate the occasion, we'll look back each Thursday at one of the 50 moments that have defined the last half-century in our sport.
Gustavo Kuerten’s enchanted romp through the 1997 French Open was one of the most surprising and popular breakthroughs in tennis history. An unknown 20-year-old from a country, Brazil, that hadn’t produced a major champion in three decades, the long and lanky Kuerten was ranked just 66th in the world before the tournament began.
He began his climb in obscurity, with wins over Slava Dosedel and Jonas Bjorkman. But the by time he had survived three straight, grueling, five-set tilts with Thomas Muster, Andrei Medvedev, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov—two of them French Open champions and one a runner-up—“Guga” had become a household word in Paris. The French took to Kuerten's laid-back surfer’s style, his colorful and exceptionally co-ordinated blue-and-yellow outfits, and his baseline flair, which was highlighted by a roundhouse one-handed backhand.
Kuerten played with a contagious joy over those two weeks in Paris, and by the time he had reached the final, his run had the feel of destiny. He made good on it by stomping two-time French champ Sergi Bruguera in straight sets. But Guga wasn’t through charming the crowd, or the world. When he was presented with the Coupes des Mousquetaires from six-time champion Bjorn Borg, all Kuerten could think to do was bow.
Kuerten would eventually take his own place alongside Borg among the greats of Roland Garros. He would win the title three times; after the last of them, in 2001, Guga let the crowd know how he felt about the place when he carved a heart in the clay inside Court Philippe Chatrier.
But Kuerten’s Paris story wasn’t just about love; it was also about something much duller, but ultimately more significant to the history of tennis: polyester. Not clothes, but strings. While he slid and smiled his way to victory in 1997, Guga was was wielding a secret weapon inside his Head racquet: Luxilon Original string. This powerful polyester allowed him to swing for pace, and at the same time create the topspin needed to keep the ball in the court. Two decades after the oversize racquet made its debut, tennis’ equipment had, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, taken its next evolutionary step.
By 2000, Kuerten was No. 1 in the world, and some of his fellow players began to whisper that his string should be banned for giving him an unfair advantage. Tour stringer Nate Ferguson has said that as he watched Guga dip passing shots at the feet of Pete Sampras on his way to the title at the Tennis Masters Cup (now called the World Tour Finals) in Lisbon in 2000, he wondered how anyone would ever be able to rush the net again. Ferguson’s thought proved prescient: Fifteen years later, now that polyester is the standard on tour, virtually everyone rips the ball with pace and spin the way Kuerten did back then, and few dare to venture to the net. The feel of natural gut is out; the power of poly is in.
Years later, TENNIS.com asked Kuerten what Luxilon had done for his game. He smiled and started to count with his fingers.
“Three French Open, one Masters Cup,” he said, his face breaking into its familiar grin. He sounded as if he hearted his string as much as he did the red clay of Roland Garros.