Kuerten sambas to Paris triumph

An astonishing French Open drew to a close here in Paris last evening with Bjorn Borg handing the Coupe des Mousquetaires to the unseeded Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten, a player barely known outside the Brazilian resort of Florianopolis a fortnight ago.

But it was certainly not a case of Who's Who and Who Cares. The 20-year- old Kuerten, whose brilliance frustrated the No 16 seed Sergi Bruguera, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, in an hour and 50 minutes, captured the imagination as well as the majority of the points.

Rarely has a fresh new personality risen to so spectacularly in a sport which craves characters. Tall, lithe and downright scruffy in terms of sartorial tennis tradition, Kuerten overcame the past three champions, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Thomas Muster and Bruguera, en route to the pounds 400,000 winner's cheque and overnight fame.

A small group of supporters began a samba around the grounds here which will be copied throughout Brazil in honour of the first man from the nation to win a Grand Slam singles title.

When Maria Bueno won the first of her three Wimbledon titles in 1959, a stamp was issued in her honour. The aircraft taking her back to Sao Paulo was diverted because of a storm, but when she finally arrived after midnight, all the lights in the city's buildings were switched on to greet her.

Florianopolis will have to wait for Kuerten, who is due to play another clay court tournament in Bologna this week before setting foot on grass courts for the first time as a professional in Nottingham the week prior to Wimbledon.

Kuerten could be in line for a seeding at the All England Club. His ranking is likely to be as high as No 16 today, a mighty leap since his arrival in Paris as the world No 66. Only one man ranked lower has won a Grand Slam singles title, Mark Edmondson, No 212 at the 1976 Australian Open.

Whether Wimbledon sways to the samba remains to be seen. Kuerten will certainly have to dress in a more subdued manner than his yellow and blue (shoes and all) outfits which caused the President of the French Tennis Federation, Christian Bimes, to comment: "We don't want these guys dressing like soccer players".

For yesterday's presentation, Bimes was accompanied by Borg and the great Argentinian Guillermo Vilas, who handed the runner-up trophy to Bruguera. As Kuerten lifted the cup, he could have been one of those lanky midfielders from the Copacobana, or the Mansfield Town captain on a very good day.

Kuerten enjoyed every moment and thoroughly deserved the acclaim. A first- round loser last year, his reputation grew and grew from the moment he recovered from 0-3 in the fifth set to defeat Muster in the third round.

That was followed by consecutive five-setters against the Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev and Kafelnikov, the Russian defending champion. A four-set victory against Filip Dewulf, a Belgian qualifier, elevated Kuerten to yesterday's confrontation with Bruguera, the champion in 1993 and 1994.

The Spaniard has proved himself capable of rallying all day with anyone unwise enough to take him on at his own heavy topspin game, and Kuerten endeavoured to shorten the points with the accuracy of his serve and by winning groundstrokes delivered at precise angles to the corners or down the lines.

He broke Bruguera twice in the opening set, which flashed by in 28 minutes, and had conceded a total of only four points on his own serve in stretching his lead to a set and 3-1.

It was then that Bruguera's relentless pounding began to make an impression. Although Kuerten saved the first break point against his name with a smash, his touch failed him for once on a drop shot, and he was broken to 3-2.

The battling Bruguera survived four break points in the sixth game of the set and created three further opportunites in the 10th, only for Kuerten to hold on and then break for a two-set lead.

Kuerten had to do most of the defending early in the third set, fending off four break points before Bruguera began to look shaky again after double-faulting on a game point in the sixth game. The Brazilian took advantage, breaking for 4-2 and against on his first match point, luring the Spaniard into netting a backhand.

"I never won a title [before]," Kuerten said, apologising for making a bit of a mess of the celebratory bubbly. "That's why I don't know how to open champagne." He seems to be a quick learner.

Few among Kuerten's vociferous supporters enjoyed the occasion here more than his German grandmother, Olga Schlosser, who has studied the form of all the leading players on television since "Guga" started playing and sees herself as his "scout".

Kuerten made special mention of his coach, Larri Passos, whom he regards as a second father. When Kuerten was 10 years old, his father, Aldo, died of a heart attack while umpiring a junior match.

"I will enjoy this night with my family and my coach. I really worked hard with my coach on the mental side of my game. He told me I would win against every player, and I really started to put this in my mind," the champion said.

"I think I can improve a lot in my game. I'm getting pretty solid from the baseline. Maybe I can go a little bit more for the net."

If he is able to translate his skills on the faster courts, the sport will be well blessed.

n Tim Henman and the world's top two men, Pete Sampras and Michael Chang, are among the entrants in a top-class field for the Stella Artois grass court tournament which starts today at Queen's Club, London. Henman, the No 4 seed, and fellow Briton Greg Rusedski begin their singles campaigns tomorrow.

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