There may never be another player like the three-time French Open champion who sambaed his way to titles in 1997, 2000 and 2001 behind long, colourful and devastating strokes. He stunned the world back in 1997 when he came into the tournament as a virtual unknown ranked No.66, flew past Austrian strongman and 1995 champion Tomas Muster, 1996 Roland Garros winner Yevgeny Kafelnikov and two-time winner Sergi Bruguera. He was a true artist, owning one of the best one-handed crosscourt backhands ever seen and a gorgeous, hard-to-read backhand down the line. He had a whippy forehand, a hard, flat serve and vicious kicker to the deuce court, as well as a deft touch at the net and the ability to caress an impossible drop shot at a moment's notice.
He trusted his money shots at key moments and always seemed to be brimming with joy. His matches were long celebration of his love of the sport.
Kuerten certainly had his ups-and-downs during his prime, but at Roland Garros, he was a player apart. When asked what tennis meant to him, Guga went deep. “I guess big knowledge,” he said. “All these years I've been learning a lot, and especially these last three or four years that I have to deal with difficult situations. So I had to grow as a person, too. I guess my world started to get larger because of tennis and the success I had. My life just became something much larger than normal people’s. I think I was able to adapt myself pretty well. I was happy being successful, so basically tennis, it was running into my veins, into my blood. I love to be out there and playing. For me, this tournament especially was probably the motivation for myself, probably my heart that keeps the blood flowing.”
On Philippe Chatrier, Guga did a sprite better than Andy Warhol and with his, happy colorful play on the red clay, was no Pablo Picasso during his blue period. It seemed like anytime that he was down, Guga either willed his opponent into an error or came up with a leaping winner. "There is always doubt," he once said. "It can be a temple, but it can be a hole, too. You see yourself in the best and the worst situations."
Kuerten repeated in 2000 by pummeling upstart Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semis and the tough Magnus Norman in the final and became the first South American to end the year at No.1.
In 2001, Kuerten came back from the jaws of defeat when he saved a match point against the ambitious qualifier Michael Russell. Then Kafelnikov predicted he would push him, but the Russian went down 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4. "It's difficult playing from behind against Gustavo," said a dejected Kafelnikov. "You give him freedom, he's like Picasso....Every time I run into Kuerten, it seems like that hurdle is unmakeable."
Before his masterpiece final round defeat of Spaniard Alex Corretja, Guga said that if he won, he would not just buy Russell of poster of Vincent van Gogh's "Night Stars" – he would approach the Louvre for the painting itself. "I think Russell deserves a real Van Gogh from me as a present," Kuerten said with a twinkle in his eye.
At the time, that crown meant that Guga joined legends Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander (Hall of Famers all) as the only players to win three singles French titles in the Open era. He danced with Brazilian fans after the win.
Until three-time champion Rafael Nadal came along, it seemed that no player had a better understanding of the confines at Avenue Gordon Bennett than the Kuerten. "When I'm playing my best, I know I can beat these guys. When I'm feeling the ball real well, it's really tough for the guy to come up with the right shots.”
Sadly, Kuerten never raised the trophy again as he was hit by one significant injury after another, most specifically to his hip, for which he underwent surgery twice, His many comeback attempts were mostly aborted and this year, he announced that 2008 Roland Garros would be his last Grand Slam appearance. Even though it might have been a more reasonable idea for him to retire a couple of years ago, he truly loved his sport. "It's what I like," he said. "It's enthusiasm. It's danger. It's the nerves of out there. It's everything I want it to be when I am on court."
Kuerten tried as hard as he could against Mathieu, but his best is no longer good enough to score wins. His hip prevents him from running hard to his right and if it were not for an outstanding serving day and some memorable backhands, he would have been out of the match more quickly as his forehand let him down time and time again.
But there was still a bit of the old magic for fans to get a taste of, like when he hit a forehand passing shot out of nowhere when facing his first match point. But on Mathieu's second match point, a Kuerten drop shot fell sadly into the net. Guga beamed to the adoring crowd for a few moments, but then sat down a cried hard.
He lit up again when French Tennis Federation president Christian Bimes presented with a special gift, the multiple layers of the “Court Central” encased in glass.
“Basically I'm lucky,” said Kuerten. “One stage of my career was very successful, and I was able to get all the goals that I could. Then the second part was really tough. But in the same way, for me it was important to live these years, to grow as a person, to understand what it is to have other things to deal with. There's no regrets at all.” Au revoir Guga…