Guga refuses to give up

Updated: May 21, 2005, 3:08 PM ET
By Matthew Cronin | Special to ESPN.com

Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten might look the part of a laid-back surfer when he's riding the cool waves at home in Florianopolis, Brazil, but the 28-year-old has put his board away as he attempts to rediscover the colorful, high-flying game that once brought him to the world's top ranking.

A three-time French Open champion, Kuerten still feels the need to streak down the pipeline in pursuit of further glory.

"That's the blood keeps you living," Kuerten told ESPN.com last week. "That's what makes you wake up and be enthusiastic and give your best. That's the way I like to live. I could have easily retired, went home and enjoyed life in Brazil. But I love to play tennis. My personal challenge is to feel better, enjoy the game and play like I did before."

Last year, Kuerten underwent his second hip surgery. No one has come back to a top level after one hip surgery, let alone two. But Kuerten was dissatisfied with his level after his first surgery in early 2002 and doctors told him he had an outside chance of regaining his once sterling form if he had a second one. Without it, elite play was out of the question. Despite his bubbly, seemingly carefree personality, the Brazilian can't bear being a second-tier player.

"I took my chances," he said. "It was my only chance to play like before. I'm not 100 percent sure if it will work out, but it gave me hope. I didn't want to keep playing with my ranking in the 20s or 30s. I'm not saying I need to get back to No. 1, but I want to be able to play free, enjoy it and not just be thinking about my hip.

"There are two ways of thinking. One is that I could still expect to get more from my career and to be satisfied and not having goals is not going to help me. The second is to be proud and appreciate everything I got so far.

"Before I arrived on tour, if anyone would have told me that I would have won three Grand Slams and be No. 1, I wouldn't have believed them. I have to keep that idea in my mind, but it's not easy to maintain that. I must have more goals to push myself farther."

Since he stunned the planet by entering the 1997 French Open as the No. 66-ranked player and whipping two-time champ Sergi Bruguera for the title, Guga has been the clay-court major's most dominant and beloved player. He repeated in 2000 by pummeling upstart Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semis and tough Magnus Norman in the final.

The next year, he completed his hat trick and forever etched himself into Parisian memory. In the fourth round, he came back from two sets and a match point down against qualifier Michael Russell. Afterward, he drew a large heart in the clay and collapsed in the middle of it. He was simply heroic, and the fans loved it.

No one could withstand the magician after that. Kuerten spellbound the other contenders: former champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Ferrero and, in the final, war-horse Alex Corretja. Guga joined legends and Hall of Famers Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander as the only men to win three singles French titles in the Open era. Guga was as good as gold.

But after failing to defend his top seed at the 2001 U.S. Open by losing in the quarterfinals, Kuerten began to feel serious pain in his right hip. Five months later, he underwent hip surgery. Though he has shown flashes of brilliance, his still sometimes painful hip kept him from soaring sideline to sideline, pasting winners down the line.

In April 2004, he reinjured his hip and rested until the French Open. There, he briefly displayed the level that once made him the Prince of Paris. He served huge, flew high and overwhelmed No. 1 Roger Federer in a third-round upset. With Guga's sudden return to domination, the thought of him winning his fourth title seemed possible. But in his next match, against David Nalbandian, Guga – suffering a power and speed outage – was sent reeling out of the tournament.

"I was having these type of problems for three and half years," Kuerten said. "I could play my best, like I did against Federer, but in the next match, it didn't matter who I was playing, I didn't have my conditioning and I would basically lose to myself. I couldn't maintain my enthusiasm for two weeks because physically I couldn't maintain. If I had 20 to 30 percent more in my conditioning, I could have won my fourth title. But I didn't."

After falling in the first round of the 2004 U.S. Open, Kuerten went in for his second hip surgery.

He didn't return to competition until this April. He played four difficult tournaments on his beloved red dirt and won only two matches. He says it will take the rest of 2005 before he's able to sustain an intense exercise program, be match tough and find his rhythm again. He can still smoke the ball off both wings when he gets one into his wheelhouse. Yet, he's not moving quickly, which leaves him vulnerable in end-to-end rallies.

"I need to run, to slide, to adjust my body," Kuerten said. "I know I'm not physically ready yet, but my mind has been dropping more than conditioning. My mind is playing with me a lot. It's like playing chess against myself. I have to be mentally tougher. But I'm improving week by week and that's keeping my motivation going."

Next week, when he arrives at the French Open, the now 97th-ranked Guga is hoping to catch a whiff of Roland Garros magic again. He doesn't expect to win the tournament, but he doesn't expect to leave his favorite locale without imposing himself on a few players. He's not done believing he can make big waves, his hip be dammed.

"There are many tournaments where I still believe I can be successful, like at the French and the U.S. Open," he said. "The dreams I used to have are still in my head. They are still clear."

Matthew Cronin, the managing editor of Inside Tennis magazine, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.