Kuerten bids an aching au revoir to Paris
Those searching for a last glimpse of vintage Gustavo Kuerten did not stroll away entirely unsatisfied on the first day of the French Open.
When he shuffled onto center court in his familiar, disjointed amble to begin his farewell tournament with a first-round match against Paul-Henri Mathieu on Sunday, Kuerten was sporting the same upbeat canary yellow and blue colors he did when he emerged from very close to nowhere in 1997 to win his first tour title of any sort at Roland Garros.
Once he and Mathieu took to the clay in earnest, there was the low moan that Kuerten has always emitted as he swings through his serve and groundstrokes. There was the same bobble-headed fashion to patrol the baseline between points, even the occasional elastic one-handed backhand that soared down the line like an improbably guided missile for a winner.
But the bittersweet truth was that the essential was still missing, just as it has been for the nearly five seasons since Kuerten's fragile hip began making tennis more pain than pleasure: a cruel twist for someone who made his name and fan base by providing a surplus of good vibrations to his public, particularly his French and Brazilian publics.
There were some stirring moments in this 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 loss to Mathieu. Kuerten hardly embarrassed himself and played much better than he had in the earlier stops on his farewell tour in Miami and Monte Carlo. But this encounter, which he insisted was the last of his career in singles, never quite turned the corner from feeling like an exhibition to feeling like a Grand Slam match.
"Of course it wasn't easy, because I sensed that I was going to win, so it was tough to stay concentrated," said Mathieu, an 18th-seeded Frenchman. "You start imagining the end. But I think he played a few beautiful points so I hope he was happy."
Kuerten, who won the French Open in 1997, 2000 and 2001 , has not been a threat to win again since 2004, when he knocked off Roger Federer on his way to the quarterfinals.
And the only reason for this final appearance at age 31 was that he wanted, in his own words, the luxury of "one more little pleasure": a chance to commune with the overstuffed tennis stadium and dusty rectangle that made a skinny Brazilian kid from Florianopolis into an icon.
Did he get what he came for, despite the tears that he shed into his towel after his last backhand, a drop shot, had hit the net?
"I think I'm very satisfied, especially with the memories that are going to stick with me from this match," Kuerten said. "I thought I played much better than I expected, and there wasn't a single shot I didn't make. I played forehand, backhands, serve, drop shots, volley. I did everything I think I was able to do in the past, just not with the same frequency. But at least I had the feeling to do it once more."
Kuerten no longer needs to keep searching for improvement on the world's tennis courts. But he had pushed himself particularly hard in the weeks leading up to his last Roland Garros, training with longtime coach Larri Passos.
He could still serve convincingly, still hit a world-class backhand if the opportunity did not come too early in a rally. But he still could not manage to win a set. His lateral movement was not what it used to be and neither was his consistency, particularly off the forehand wing.
But Kuerten said that he wouldn't remember the errors from Sunday. He will remember the atmosphere: the standing ovation he received as he walked on, the Brazilian flags that were being waved, the chants of his nickname "Guga" that sometimes greeted his winners and even his struggles.
This particular tournament is really like home for me," he said.
Trailing 2-5 in the final set with the end hardly in doubt, the crowd started a wave on the changeover, and Kuerten, grinning, got in the spirit and walked over to Mathieu in his chair and jokingly put the throat of his racket in front of the Frenchman's neck as if to strangle him.
It was not quite as transcendent a gesture as the heart he drew in the clay after saving two match points and winning his fourth-round match against Michael Russell here in 2001. But Mathieu and the crowd took it in the lighthearted spirit in which it was intended.
And it was soon, very soon, time to say farewell in earnest: time for the tears, time for Christian Bimes, the president of the French Tennis Federation who once criticized Kuerten's sartorial selections, to warmly award him a final prize in the form of a cross-section of a clay court and point him in the direction of the photographers.
Not many first-round losers get a trophy in tennis, but then not many players win a Grand Slam title when they are unknown and ranked just 66 in the world and eventually rise all the way to number one.
"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," Kuerten said. "But in the same way, it was important to live these years, to grow as a person, to understand what it is to have other things to deal with. So I guess, like that, for me there's no regrets at all, just big knowledge."
Source: International Herald Tribune http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/05/...NIS.php?page=1