What was someone so happy-go-lucky doing at the most demanding tournament in tennis? Why, at first glance, 20-year-old Gustavo Kuerten seemed like he’d be more comfortable toting around a surfboard than a tennis racquet. But though the Brazilian with a body like a Slinky arrived at the 1997 French Open ranked a mere 66th in the world, in short order he revealed exceptional skill. Kuerten’s signature stroke was his one-handed backhand, a loose-limbed slingshot he struck with a full shoulder turn, a free swing and the joy of a man on one excellent adventure. Whether down-the-line or crosscourt, that backhand, along with a fine forehand and a flair for the occasional drop shot, helped “Guga” earn his way to the finals that year in Paris, a run highlighted by five-set wins over recent Roland Garros champions Thomas Muster (’95) and Yevgeny Kafelnikov (’96).
To earn the prize he’d have to get past super-steady Sergi Bruguera. Having won the title twice (’93-’94), Bruguera surely must have felt he’d be the one more comfortable on such a high-stakes occasion. But Kuerten was riding a wave (surfer pun intended) and played a consummately carefree match, dispatching Bruguera 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
“I was just trying to hit the ball harder and harder and harder, and everything was doing well, so I didn't think, 'Wow, this is a final,' '' said Kuerten. ''Before the match, I really think that I could have won, but I didn't think I could win like that.'”
Kuerten’s win also signaled a changing of the guard at Roland Garros. For nearly a quarter century, since the dawn of Bjorn Borg, attrition had been the watchword of those who’d conquered the clay. But Kuerten – among the first players to use a new string known as Luxilon – ushered in a far more dynamic, offensive-oriented approach to striking the ball and building points. He would go on to win the title two more times (’00-’01) and leave a legacy as one of tennis’ happiest warriors.
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