Federer: He deserves it

Updated: May 29, 2004, 2:22 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- He bounced up and down, screaming like a kid, pumping his fists, joyous almost to the point of bursting.

Gustavo Kuerten knew his best chance of winning was to be aggressive.

Gustavo Kuerten, channeling his three previous championships here at the French Open, astonished himself on Saturday; No. 1-seeded Roger Federer was merely collateral damage in a searing 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 match.

Since last year's Wimbledon, Federer has played at a higher level than any other man. Yet, Kuerten dominated Federer on Court Philippe Chatrier, Kuerten's home away from his home in Florianopolis, Brazil.

"I can't explain," Kuerten said. "It's something special for sure. I can normally surprise myself the way I play in this tournament. I was in a great level of concentration, my tactics was working very well. I knew I needed all of this to beat him."

Kuerten, who still suffers from the lingering effects of a right hip injury, said he felt a keen sense of urgency to play more aggressively than usual.

"I didn't have the condition to stay there for long," he said. "Maybe four or five sets would be tougher for me. I was feeling a little bit weak by the [end of the] match. I think it was my only chance. Luckily, everything work just perfect."

And so, the Fractured French continues.

After only the third round, the No. 1 seed, No. 2 (Andy Roddick), No. 4 (Juan Carlos Ferrero) and No. 6 (Andre Agassi) are all gone. No. 3 Guillermo Coria and No. 5 Carlos Moya, the surviving favorites, are destined to meet in the quarterfinals.

Ferrero, the defending champion, brought a serious rib injury into the tournament. Agassi played one preparatory match on clay. Not much was expected from Roddick on a surface that diffuses his biggest weapons. Federer, though, was supposed to be different.

Before the match, you couldn't find a tennis aficionado walking the lush grounds at Roland Garros who would give the 27-year-old Brazilian a chance of winning even a single set from Federer. Only a sentimental fool would dare to believe that it is was possible.

Kuerten, apparently, is that sentimental fool.

"I put it down on his good performance, really," Federer said. "That's all I can do. I'm definitely not happy with my game today, but I tried.

"He didn't give me too much of a chance. He wasn't missing much."

True, Federer had lost in the first round in his two previous appearances at Roland Garros, but after winning two of the past three Grand Slam tournaments, Federer was ranked No. 1 in the world and came in with the best clay-court record, 11-1. Surely, he was beyond those numbing losses to Luis Horna and Hicham Arazi.

The man they call Guga had won a single title back in February, the Brazilian Open. His surgically repaired right hip gave him so much trouble, he was forced to withdraw from his quarterfinal match in Barcelona and, later, from Rome and Hamburg all together.

Roger Federer said nothing went right for him but little also went wrong for Gustavo Kuerten.

"With my physical condition, I didn't expect to come and play," Kuerten said. "This tournament make[s] me go over my limit."

Kuerten's ranking has fallen to No. 30 -- down from the No. 1 position he occupied at the end of 2000 -- but he has a powerful affinity for the red clay and the spectators in Paris. And vice versa. He won the tournament in 1997 as an unseeded player, beating three defending champions (Thomas Muster, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Sergi Bruguera), and again in 2000 and 2001.

Only five sets into the tournament, Kuerten's decision to play looked like a bad one. Nicolas Almagro, an 18-year-old Spanish qualifier, came back from a two-set deficit and actually held a late lead before Kuerten rallied to advance. His second-round match -- a straight-sets victory against Gilles Elseneer -- was a far better effort.

Saturday's match began with three straight service breaks, with Kuerten winning two. As it turned out, the only two break points he faced all day were in the second game. Kuerten made the early breaks stand up for the first set and the pattern repeated itself in the next two sets.

Federer said the court was slippery, that the balls were flying in the growing heat, that his footwork never felt right. In short, Kuerten looked comfortable the entire time, while Federer didn't.

Maybe it was because the fans were constantly clapping and chanting "Guga! Guga!" Maybe it wasn't.

"He deserves it," Federer said. "He won this tournament many times."

After he defeated Alex Corretja in the 2001 final, Kuerten carved a heart in the clay at Philippe Chatrier and lay in it.

His heart. Their hearts. The relationship, already quite serious, grew stronger.

"It's been a love story since the beginning," Kuerten said. "It's crazy, the connection between me and the public. I think was the main reason I'm here playing this tournament.

"When you go into the second week, I think every time I step out the court I have the feelings to go out and make this heart."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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