At first glance, International Tennis Hall of Fame Global Ambassador Gustavo Kuerten appeared to be a low-key surfer dude. But deep inside this Brazilian’s lanky frame and affable manner beat the heart of a passionate warrior. “Guga” would win three Grand Slam titles – taking Roland-Garros in 1997, 2000 and 2001. He’d also finish the year 2000 ranked number one in the world. Kuerten was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012. Shortly before being given his Hall of Fame ring at the 2017 French Open, Kuerten shared his three finest tennis moments with ITHF historian-at-large Joel Drucker.
ONE: Taking Paris By A Storm
Coming into the 1997 French Open, the 20-year-old Kuerten was only nominally on the tennis radar – ranked just 66th in the world. But over the course of a remarkable fortnight, he thoroughly enchanted everyone with his blue and yellow outfit, positive attitude and slingshot-like backhand. According to Kuerten, “I had a love relationship with the tournament from the first time I came over.” In the third round he took out ’95 Roland-Garros champion Thomas Muster, 6-4 in the fifth. Two rounds later, another win by the same score over Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Once Kuerten reached the finals, up against two-time Roland-Garros victor Sergi Bruguera, that match was even easier, Kuerten taking the title 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. Said Kuerten, “Roland-Garros became everything to me. It was where everything happened . . .the tournament, the fans and I, all having this love affair.”
TWO: Top of the World
As 2000 neared its close, Kuerten had that year won his second Roland-Garros singles title. But he’d also begun to prove himself a man for all surfaces, generating quality results beyond the dirt, including a win at Indianapolis. Arriving in Lisbon for the Tennis Masters Cup, Kuerten was in contention to finish the year ranked number one in the world. But he’d have to get past several rough rivals to get there. As he did so often at Roland-Garros, though, Kuerten brought out his best tennis, in the semis and finals taking out Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
THREE: Once More with Feeling
By 2001, Kuerten and Roland-Garros were deep in the thick of what could best be called a tennis romance. But that year, in the round of 16, the 24-year-old Brazilian faced a stern challenge from a tenacious American, Michael Russell. Down two sets to love, Kuerten faced a match point with Russell serving at 5-3 – and after a 26-stroke rally, took that point and the match. Relieved for his escape, Kuerten took his racquet, drew a heart into the clay – and went on to earn his third and final French Open singles title. “After I won that match,” said Kuerten, “I felt like was floating. When I drew the heart on the court, it showed all the love I had for the tournament and the crowd.”