Wimbledon 1997: Kuerten raises samba profile

Ian Stafford meets the Brazilian with a mission to excite the crowds
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The Independent Online
Gustavo Kuerten is tucking into a huge bowl of strawberries inside a marquee during the rain-sodden Club Med Cup at Roehampton. "The strawberries are good for my forehand," he explains, in between mouthfuls. "The cream's good for my backhands. And the sugar's good for my serves."

He keeps a straight face for a split-second, and then starts to giggle, which pretty much sums up the gleeful mood this young Brazilian from the mythical-sounding island of Florianapolis has been in ever since he stunned the whole tennis world by appearing, seemingly from nowhere, to win the French Open title.

For while the 20-year-old has been catapulted into world fame, and domestic hysteria, Kuerten has reacted to every new experience since Roland Garros like a child opening his presents on Christmas Day. "Do you know, the day after I won in Paris I went to meet the whole of the Brazilian soccer team, who were playing in the Tournoi," he told me, with obvious pride. "Ronaldo, Romario, I met them all. And they congratulated me."

This, for someone who worshipped Zico, really was something. Yet Kuerten hopes that his rise to prominence might prove to be the watershed in Brazilian tennis. "Maybe we will see some kids with racquets on Copacabana beach now," he said. "There's no chance of it taking over from soccer, of course, but it might make some kids think. All you need in sport in Brazil is one idol, one man who can win. Nobody from Brazil's ever won a Grand Slam tournament before, so everyone thought tennis was for American kids. But it's happened to me, so it can happen to them too."

Quite how it happened still remains a bit of mystery. Kuerten beat off the challenge from Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Thomas Muster and Sergi Bruguera, three former French Open winners, to take the title and receive the Coupe des Mousquetaires from Bjorn Borg. Did he ever wonder what was happening to him during this sensational run of victories? "At first, yes, but once I had beaten Muster I reckoned that I could beat anyone. I had nothing to lose, and I was really enjoying myself. Anyway, I have always dreamed of being a top ten player, and to become one you have to beat these guys."

It wasn't always this way. As a teenager he was like any other sports- mad Brazilian. He loved his football, and also followed first Nelson Piquet, and then Ayrton Senna. At school he played every sport. "Basketball, volleyball, soccer and tennis were the main sports, and they taught me to use my hands and my eyes. A tennis coach asked me to practise with his team, I started to travel all over Brazil and they paid all my expenses. I made a lot of friends, saw my country and really enjoyed myself. It was only then that I started seriously thinking about tennis as a career."

Five years later Kuerten was claiming his first Grand Slam title, indeed his first professional tennis title. It showed when he tried, unsuccessfully, to open the celebratory bottle of champagne, before needing assistance. "Now, at least, I know what to do with champagne," he said. A tournament in Bologna the following week, and then desperately needed practice on grass at Nottingham and Roehampton meant that he has been unable to return home to Florianapolis yet, something which he has mixed feelings about.

"I love Florianapolis," he explained. "It's a beautiful place, and all the people are nice. It would have been a special party, but maybe a little too much for me.

"People like Senna became like gods back home. I just hope I'll be ready for all the attention when I return. I think it will also be good for me, because I will have many people following me now in tennis and wanting me to win, as long as they don't expect me to win all the time."

Despite his elevation into the seedings for Wimbledon, few expect the likeable Brazilian to venture too far at the All England Club, least of all the man himself. When asked if his parents were coming over to watch him, he replied, with a big grin: "No, they know I'll only be playing for a few matches." Judging by his display against Greg Rusedski last week in Nottingham, he may well have a point. But he also sees it as a valuable exercise.

"Last year I qualified for the French Open and lost in the first round," he explained. "But I learnt a lot from it. This year I won the title. I will also learn a lot from playing on grass at Wimbledon. Maybe next year I will come back as a much better player. Some people may expect me to reach at least the semi-finals because of the French Open, but the players understand."

Whether his grandmother will remains to be seen. Olga Schlosser came over to Paris and, according to Kuerten, all but replaced his coach with a torrent of advice and tips. This time she will struggle to do so. "She likes to stay at home, watch me on TV, and then phone up, but I haven't given her my telephone number this time," he said, still smiling. "I might phone her, but she's not phoning me."

You may as well enjoy Kuerten whilst you can over the next few days. He may not be allowed to wear his favoured yellow shirt and blue shorts at the more traditional Wimbledon championships, but he is guaranteed to excite the crowds and enjoy himself, whatever the result may be.

"It's important to excite and entertain," he agreed. "It is just the same with the Brazilian soccer team. Even when they won the World Cup in 1994 they were criticised because they kept on winning 1-0, and were too boring. It is much better to win 5-3. I just play my natural game, but if people enjoy it then I'm happy."

He starts asking me about the Brazilian footballers based in England, and about this town he has heard of called Middlesbrough, when a kindly Californian interrupts to wish him well, and to congratulate him on his French Open title.

A beaming Gustavo Kuerten shakes his head to himself, jabs his fork into the last remaining strawberry on his plate, and says, to nobody in particular: "My first title!" It may well be getting on for a month now since Paris, but his smile still makes the Cheshire Cat look like a manic depressive, and neither the rain nor a short-lived Wimbledon campaign will dent his joy.