By Sandra Harwitt
It was like a great deja vu moment at the French Open when the always delightful Gustavo Kuerten returned to Roland Garros to do a press conference on Saturday.
At 38, the three-time French Open champion and former No. 1, was announcing his autobiography “GUGA” has been translated from Portuguese to French. It is the first foreign release of the book and it makes sense it would be in French as this is the place where the nimble Brazilian enjoyed the biggest impact of his career, winning the 1997, 2000 and 2001 titles.
As a virtual unknown ranked No. 66 in the world, I remember back to the 1997 French Open as my colleagues and I sat in the Roland Garros media room for two weeks straight watching as this guy we didn’t know, with a massive head of curls and an infectious smile, kept ticking off matches. Who was he? How dare he mow down the big names? Will our editors ever send us back to the French again after this no named guy won the title?
Gone were the days when tennis could be considered bigger than the game, and trying to convince media outlets that a new name, a new face, a new introduction was good news and not bad news was a challenge. Of course, when the new kid on the block turned out to be the “real deal” – a leader among men on the tour – that opinion changed. But at first meeting, Kuerten wasn’t the guy some media were looking to write about no matter how great the story. And Kuerten’s story that year was indeed fantastic.
Nevertheless, whether there was an initial like or not, this unseeded 66th-ranked Brazilian knocked off three former French Open champions – Thomas Muster in the third round, Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarterfinals and Sergi Bruguera in the final — to win the first of his 20 career titles. Not too many people win their first career title at a Grand Slam, that’s for sure.
Kuerten came from the small lakeside town of Florionapolis, Brazil, where his father, Aldo, was an enthusiastic amateur player and would often umpire matches. His father died unexpectedly when Kuerten was eight-years-old, having a heart attack while umpiring a match. His mother, Alice, was left to raise Guga, his older brother Raphael, and his younger brother, Guilherme, who had cerebral palsy and passed away in his 20s in 2007. His partnership with coach, Larri Passos, started when he was 15 and endured for 15 years.
These days, Kuerten is unable to play tennis after a hip replacement two years ago – the injury ended his career in 2008. He is hopeful that continual rehabilitation will one day return him to the court, obviously not in a professional capacity, but for the love and fun of the game. He is married with two children, a son and daughter under the age of three. He is very active in his foundation, which is helping 700 kids and is building a tennis school in Brazil. He is also active on the Olympic Committee working towards the 2016 Rio Games.
“I’m working a lot still,” Kuerten said. “Sometimes I read it, Gustavo Kuerten retired. I said, ‘Not really.’ This is how I fulfill a little bit the gap of not being at the court.”
Enshrined into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012, Kuerten offered some great insight into his career in tennis and life as it is now on Saturday. Following the formal interview he spent well over an hour talking individually with media and then spent time signing autographs and letting fans take selfie pictures with him. Down in the player lounge he was greeted with continued great enthusiasm and defnitely worked the crowd. He will remain in town and is set to bestow the winner’s trophy for the new male champion in just over a week.
Here is some of what Gustavo Kuerten had to say on a Saturday morning in Paris. (For clarification purposes some words in the quotes were edited to the word intended to assist in the fluid reading in English.
Question: What insight did you learn about yourself in the process of working on your book?
Kuerten: Well, I believe it’s a really interesting and intense understanding of my own life. The crucial things I think I believe was that Larri, my mother, and brother, and even my father that I spend only eight years with him, the way they commit themself for my own goals. My brother stopped playing tennis 15 to 16 years old to let me try, because we did not have money for both of us. So he stepped out for me to have a better chance. Another stage, we had to sell the car, piano. My mother had some jewelry. It’s really a measure of this commitment of many people. I think this made myself stronger during the way. I could understand I got this strength…. I had this amazing power inside because (of) the experience — the Guga that arrive from kid and was watching this brave mother raising three sons without a husband and one handicapped child. And also the example of my handicapped brother, being happy to just being able to handle a spoon or a fork, you know, simple things. That’s how I think I understand better how I become, because of these amazing examples. Certainly if we relate it to tennis, a little bit what was how I built my reputation as a tennis player.
I had a lot of struggle in the beginning to win matches. My mother, she’s social assistant. From the beginning, because of my brother at home, it’s normal to help other people and then try to all the time look for the people. Then suddenly I have to play and I have to beat another person. It was very hard for me at the beginning to watch someone going out of the court crying when 12, 13 years old. I say, ‘Oh, my friend. Oh, so sad.’ And then I lose the match and then he was laughing; I was crying. (Laughter.) I said, ‘No, that’s not fun, too.’ So how I have to improve and what I have to learn to be efficient as a tennis player and to become a champion?
And then Larri was crucial for incentivate (to have) this soul of a big champion. In a certain stage, around 17, 18 years old….I look to Larri and he say, “Hey, kill the guy. You have to win the match.’ I look my mother, ‘No, you have to be nice for people.’ Once I talk to them, (I) say, ‘Oh, you better talk to each other and decide, because I’m confused what I need to do.’ So this was a little bit I try to explain how was the experience in doing the book. To understand better, the chance for me to write this page was 0.0000001% or even less. Just the chance to have tennis racquet 10 years old in Brazil at that time was already 0.001. So there’s many decisions that was made in my life that — it wasn’t made myself. Was already other people that somehow got it going and helped me to make it happen. It’s really strange what we are able to create. What I really (wanted) to show, it was my feelings during all this way as improving and changing and going up and down, and happiness and sad. Basically (I’m) a common human being, but a very unusual life. This make a little bit interesting about this story, too. Because can be in the title, it’s like a Brazilian guy. It’s one in 180 million when I born, but somehow it’s a unique story. Intriguing.