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Kuerten Routs Bruguera, Wins French Open

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 1997; Page C1

PARIS, June 8 — Gustavo Kuerten politely wiped his feet on the first red-carpeted step of the victory platform here at Stade Roland Garros before he climbed up the podium in his clay-stained blue shoes. There was a jaunt to his walk, an ebullience in his spirit, yet when Kuerten reached the top he still paused to bow to Bjorn Borg — the most decorated champion in French Open history — before accepting his own trophy this afternoon.

Like a serf suddenly invited to live in the castle, Kuerten had no idea how to act after he captured the French Open title with a shockingly decisive 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory over two-time champion Sergi Bruguera of Spain this afternoon. At No. 66, Kuerten is the lowest-ranked player to win the French Open men's singles title and the first Brazilian man to win any Grand Slam singles title.

"I didn't expect this trophy — that's why I didn't believe that it could happen," said Kuerten, 20, whose rise to tennis prominence has captured the imagination of the French people — not to mention Brazilians — these past two weeks. "When I received the trophy from Borg, he was one of my big idols in tennis. ... It was the first time I really believed that I won."

With his mother, his brother, and his grandmother Olga, the tennis expert, on hand to watch him, Kuerten dedicated this victory to his late father. Aldo Kuerten suffered a heart attack while umpiring a boys tennis match when Gustavo was only 8 and died the next day. The reference to his father's death brought a quaver to Kuerten's voice this afternoon, and it marked a solemn moment in what was otherwise the most exuberant day of Kuerten's frequently exuberant life.

Giddy fans started an impromptu conga line through Roland Garros in the aftermath of Kuerten's triumph on Center Court, their merry band led by five samba musicians and a group of revelers wildly waving a Brazilian flag. When Kuerten heard their calls of "Guga! Guga!" (his nickname), the longhaired, unshaven new national hero leaned out a balcony with a bottle of champagne, but had trouble uncorking it. As during his charmingly awkward acceptance of the winner's chalice — and his charmingly awkward acceptance speech — Kuerten once again was operating on new turf.

But what would you expect from a kid who had never before played in a semifinal match in any tour event, much less a Grand Slam final; a kid who caused a ruckus over his bright yellow-and-blue attire; a kid who had played a mere 40 career matches before he arrived here?

"I've never won a title," Kuerten said. "That's why I don't know how to open champagne."

Kuerten is the first player to win the first title of his career in a Grand Slam tournament since Mats Wilander did so here as an unseeded player in 1982. And Kuerten's victory already is considered by many tennis experts to be the most unexpected, and impressive, breakthrough for a male player since John McEnroe stormed to the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1977, when he was 18 years old and only a qualifier.

McEnroe went on to become one of the greatest men's players ever. What Kuerten's future holds is what everyone now wants to know. McEnroe, an NBC commentator for today's match, said on the air that he thinks Kuerten will be a player of the future, not a one-tournament wonder.

As wide open as the draw became, no one can question the difficulty of Kuerten's path to the final: He beat three former champions, a feat never previously accomplished on this red clay. In addition to No. 16 Bruguera, who won titles here in 1993 and 1994, Kuerten ousted 1995 champion Thomas Muster in the third round and beat defending champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarterfinals.

Kuerten totally outplayed Bruguera, winning in a mere 1 hour 51 minutes, his service broken just once and his nerves seemingly unaffected by the high drama of the day. In a swirling wind that affected more than a few points, Kuerten lost just three service points in the first set and played his best when the match got tight in the second set.

Serving at 4-4, Kuerten fended off three break points before sealing the game with a forehand winner, then he broke Bruguera in the next game with a huge forehand (Kuerten's biggest weapon today) that Bruguera could barely reach, let alone hit.

"It was not surprising too much, because I have been seeing him play all the tournament," Bruguera said. "The players that he beat — he played at the same level today, or even better. He didn't have ups and downs in the match."

Kuerten will jump about 50 spots in the world rankings — straight into the top 20 — because of his win, and he takes home slightly more than $695,000 in prize money from this tournament. That seems like a princely sum for a player who had previous career earnings of less than $200,000, but Kuerten seemed not to have thought about that aspect at all.

"Money?" he said. "I think I put mine in an account. I just have all that I need right now. My life is perfect, even before this tournament. I have everything I need. I have a good house, and I have my mom's car that I use a little bit."

The house and the car — along with his surfboard — are back in Florianopolis, Brazil, where Kuerten's victory set off a celebration involving thousands who waved tennis rackets and flags in the city streets. He will return there briefly before playing another clay-court tournament in Bologna, Italy. Then he's off to Wimbledon, for his professional debut on grass. Asked today what he would wear to suit Wimbledon's predominantly white dress code, the festive Brazilian winked.

"I think for Wimbledon, I have to change my clothes, maybe," Kuerten said. "But that will not be the biggest problem. It will be much different than this tournament. But I go there to learn, and, maybe if I'm lucky, win some rounds."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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