Commentary

Few shared the love of tennis, competition quite like Guga

A fragment of his formidable years, Gustavo Kuerten, surgically repaired hip and all, bid farewell Sunday. Though synonymous with the French Open, Guga captured the hearts of fans worldwide.

Updated: May 29, 2008, 7:56 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Gustavo KuertenJacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty ImagesGustavo Kuerten was never afraid to show his appreciation to his enduring fans.
PARIS -- It takes a certain lack of inhibition to plan the memorial service for your own career, but Gustavo Kuerten knew where he wanted to play his last point: on the same court where he won three titles and minted an iconic moment by tracing a valentine to the sport and the crowd in the rich red dirt.

Kuerten's exit at age 31, forced by a bum hip that two surgeries failed to fix, closely followed that of another multiple French Open champion, but it couldn't have been more different. Justine Henin yanked the plug out of the wall; Kuerten preferred to let the lights twinkle out one by one. He didn't mind letting his fans see him in pain, with limited mobility and only a fraction of his former shot-making prowess.

So the Brazilian booked his farewell tour like a veteran rocker about to hang up his guitar, hitting a half-dozen of his favorite venues, including Miami, Monte Carlo, and, of course, Paris. He had to cancel a gig in Barcelona when his body refused to cooperate, but he wouldn't have let anything get in the way of this rendezvous, and he was determined to put on a good show.

The draw didn't do him any sentimental favors. Kuerten's opponent was Paul-Henri Mathieu, a steady all-surface player ranked 19th in the world. Kuerten played credibly but lost the first-round match in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.

"I played much better than I expected,'' Kuerten said with quiet satisfaction. "Wasn't a single shot that I didn't make, so I play, you know, forehand, backhand, serve, drop shot, volleys. I did everything that I think I was able to do in the past, too. Not at the same frequency, but at least I had the feeling to do it once more.''

The only thing French audiences love nearly as much as seeing their own players win at Roland Garros is seeing a foreign player who shares their love of the place. That put Mathieu in the understandable but still distracting position of playing an away match in his own country.

"It wasn't an ideal situation,'' said the ever-phlegmatic Mathieu.

Kuerten got a standing ovation when he walked onto the court, more applause at the prematch photo op, and chants of his lyrical nickname during most changeovers. Just before Mathieu served for the match, the crowd indulged in several rounds of the wave, and Kuerten walked over and playfully held his racket against Mathieu's throat.

The Frenchman bore it with equanimity. "If I could have yelled, 'Guga, Guga,' I would have done it, too,'' he said.

Whether it was because of the forgiving surface, the natural high of adrenaline, or the fact that there was truly no tomorrow, Kuerten appeared less hobbled than he did during a first-round loss two months ago in Miami, where he grimaced between points as he pressed one hand on his treasonous, slippery right hip bone. He later ruefully joked that he could have used a helper to hold it in place.

"During the match I almost cried,'' his longtime coach, Larri Passos, said at the time. "I could see his shots, I could see everything was there. He opened the court, but he just has no power to get the next shot. For me it's very tough.''

But Passos, who agreed to go back on the road with Kuerten this season after working with young WTA prospect Tamira Paszek for more than a year, also said he urged Kuerten to end his career on his own terms -- however that might turn out.

"I have a lot of respect for him,'' Passos said. "I say, you need to stop how you want to stop, how you feel you should stop. Last December he decided to stop with one little tour to remember the best times.''

For many, the most memorable of those times was Kuerten's Houdini-like escape from two sets and match point down to American qualifier Michael Russell in the round of 16 at the 2001 French Open. After his five-set miracle, Kuerten drew a heart on the court and knelt inside the curving lines. He repeated the gesture after winning the final -- his last in Paris -- but signaled before Sunday's match that he wouldn't do it again.

[+] EnlargeGustavo Kuerten
Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty ImagesKuerten won 20 tournaments during his career, including the French Open on three occasions.
"I was lucky, too, that day to find a way to express myself so well,'' he told reporters Saturday. "But now I think it's a different story. … I think I should not try the heart again, because like you said, that time was unforgettable. So it's better to [leave] it like that.''

Instead, he made a brief speech in halting French after being presented with a glass-encased cross-section of the court that resembled a big piece of layer cake. It was fitting, since Kuerten truly had his patisserie here, and ate it too.

Kuerten doesn't look all that different from the young unknown who won the first of his French Open championships in 1997 when he was ranked 66th. His head still bobs merrily as he walks, his limbs moving in a loose, syncopated rhythm like a marionette unbound by gravity.

He called for a trainer's assistance late in the second set, then smiled his way through the massage as if he were getting a free spa treatment instead of exposing his physical weakness to a packed stadium.

Kuerten's joyful warrior persona wasn't a marketing act or the product of a Brazilian happy gene, but the reflection of an upbeat attitude born of true hardship -- the kind that makes an aching hip seem minor by comparison. Kuerten wasn't even 10 years old when he lost his father. He doted on a younger brother with cerebral palsy.

"He gave me a very real idea how to be satisfied with my life,'' Kuerten said of his brother Guilherme, who died in November. "You know, I didn't need to be on the best places or all around the world to be happy. … I had enough already to consider myself a lucky person.''

Kuerten hasn't said much about his future plans, although he intends to be involved with Brazilian tennis in some fashion. He has and always will command tremendous admiration from South American players, in part because he remains the only man from that continent to achieve a year-end No. 1 ranking.

"Guga was a role model for us, he followed the same path, starting in the South American challenger tournament, climbing up the rankings, and showing us, the group that came after him, that you could succeed despite having a longer and harder road if you compare it to the North Americans or the Europeans,'' Guillermo Canas of Argentina said earlier this year.

"Above all, he's a great human being, always smiling and thinking in a positive way, despite having to endure bad times in his private life.''

Kuerten was one-dimensional in one sense: He never got beyond the quarterfinals of any other Grand Slam event, and the majority of his 20 career titles were earned on clay. But no one referred to him as a specialist. This jack of hearts was too outgoing, too busy wrapping his long, ropy arms around the sport, to be pigeonholed that way.

He exerted himself one last time when he lifted his heavy trophy Saturday, then spoke to the fans about how proud he was of his connection with them -- prouder of winning them over, he said, than he was about having won big matches.

Then Kuerten walked away without writing any sort of postscript in the clay. He's soulful enough to understand that the artistic, swooping skid marks he left there over the years won't be smoothed over and forgotten by the people who loved to watch him.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.