Trophy watch: Three-time French Open champion (and TSF fave) Guga Kuerten bid adieu to the red clay of Roland Garros for the final time, accepting a wild card that his body couldn’t back up. He lost to Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. And when it was all over, they awarded Guga with a cross-section of the court that propelled him to the upper echelons of tennis.
As a good luck charm, Guga wore the same Diadora kit as when he won his first French Open title in 1997. That title was the first of 20 that he would eventually rack up in his 13-year career.
Take that, Roger Federer!
Here are a few more pictures, plus a link to Chris Clarey‘s NYT write-up of the match — all after the cut…
By Christopher Clarey
New York Times
May 26, 2008
PARIS — Those searching for a last glimpse of vintage Gustavo Kuerten did not leave entirely unsatisfied on the first day of the French Open.
When he shuffled onto center court Sunday with his familiar, disjointed amble, Kuerten was wearing the same canary yellow and blue colors he wore when he emerged from just about nowhere in 1997 to win his first tour title of any sort at Roland Garros. This time, he was beginning his farewell tournament with a match against Paul-Henri Mathieu.
Once he and Mathieu took to the clay in earnest, there was the low moan that Kuerten has always emitted as he swings through serves and ground strokes. There was the same bobble-headed fashion of patrolling the baseline between points, and 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. It has been a cruel twist for someone who made his name and fan base by providing a surplus of good vibrations to his public.
He still had some stirring moments in his 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 loss to Mathieu. Kuerten, who finished the 2000 season as the top-ranked player in the world and spent most of 2001 at No. 1, is now ranked 1,141st. But he hardly embarrassed himself against Mathieu, playing much better than he had in the earlier stops on his farewell tour in Miami and Monte Carlo.
But this encounter, which Kuerten 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,” Mathieu, the 18th seed, said. “You start imagining the end. But I think he played a few beautiful points, so I hope he was happy.”
Kuerten, a Brazilian, won the French Open in 1997, 2000 and 2001. But he has not been a threat to win since 2004, when he knocked off Roger Federer before reaching the quarterfinals. His only reason for requesting a wild card at age 31, he said, was that he wanted the luxury of “one more little pleasure.”
Did he get what he came for, despite the tears that he shed 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.”
In Kuerten’s glory years, the French Open did not start on Sundays. In this year’s edition, 32 matches were played Sunday, with only the occasional upset. The qualifier Eduardo Schwank defeated Carlos Moyà, the No. 16 seed who won the 1998 French Open, 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-7 (1), 4-6, 6-3.
In the women’s draw, second-seeded Ana Ivanovic and No. 5 Serena Williams advanced in straight sets. Williams defeated Ashley Harkleroad, 6-2, 6-1, but tennis has not been Harkleroad’s primary concern of late. During the Sony Ericcson Open in Miami in March, she was rushed to the hospital after losing her third-round match. A cyst on her right ovary had ruptured, causing internal bleeding; the ovary was removed, and she was hospitalized for four days.
“I was pretty depressed for like three weeks,” she said. “I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to have kids and this and that. But I’m going to be able to, so it’s going to be all good.”
The men’s No. 3 seed, Novak Djokovic, lost his opening set against Denis Gremelmayr before taking control in a 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-2 victory. No. 7 James Blake defeated Rainer Schüttler, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (3). Blake, ranked eighth in the world, is the top men’s player from the United States at this tournament after Andy Roddick withdrew last week because of an injured right shoulder.
That already makes this a better French Open than last year for the American men, who failed to win a singles match.
“We set the bar low enough that we’re over the bar by 3 on Sunday afternoon,” Blake said. “We all feel like last year was an aberration that should never happen again.”
Kuerten no longer needs to strive for tennis improvement. But he had pushed himself particularly hard in the weeks leading to Roland Garros, training with his longtime coach Larri Passos. On Sunday, he served convincingly and hit a world-class backhand. But winning a set proved too much. His lateral movement was not what it used to be, and neither was his consistency.
But Kuerten said that he would not remember the errors, but he would remember the atmosphere — the standing ovation he received as he walked on the court, the Brazilian flags being waved, the frequent chants of his nickname, Guga, that greeted his winners and even his struggles.
“This particular tournament is really like home for me,” he said.
Afterward, it was time for the tears, time to receive a final trophy, in the form of a cross section of a clay court.
Not many first-round losers receive a prize, but then not many players burst into the light by winning their first Grand Slam title when they are ranked 66th in the world, then make the precipitous climb to the top.
“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.”
(photos by Getty Images)