Wimbledon `99: Kuerten's Brazilian curtain-raiser

Click to follow
THERE WERE so many players at Wimbledon yesterday who could claim a special relationship with the place that there was not much room for anyone else to get a look-in. Boris Becker was at home in his back garden; Steffi Graf took to the court in the mixed doubles with just as much right to feel proprietorial; her partner John McEnroe, once an outcast, is now treated like a treasured possession, and the feeling is mutual.

What was left of the show was very much up for grabs, and with the unlikely progress of the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten to the last 16, not to mention the presence in the Royal Box of his compatriot Maria Bueno - one of the great names of women's tennis - you could argue the case for at least a small corner of the All England Club being decorated in yellow and green. If that was not enough there was even a Rio on the Royal Box guestlist - Mr Ferdinand, no less, of West Ham United and England.

The chapter on Brazil in any history of Wimbledon would begin and end with the legendary Miss Bueno, who was champion in 1959, 1960 and 1964, and runner-up in 1965 and 1966. The possibility of Kuerten adding to it this year remains a slim one, but at a championships where there has been a surprising tendency towards baseline play, he is as good an exponent as any.

Kuerten, a stringy 22-year-old who may be the most relaxed-looking player ever to step on to a tennis court, came from nowhere to win the French Open two years ago when he was ranked 66 in the world. Even then people wondered whether he was the real thing, knowing so little about him, and with Brazil having no tradition to speak of in the men's game. Kuerten did not get further than the third round in seven subsequent Grand Slam events until he hit form again on the clay-court circuit earlier this year. Having won in Monte Carlo and Rome, he reached the quarter-finals of the French Open, losing to the runner-up, Andrei Medvedev.

Still Wimbledon did not seem to hold out much hope for him, although two first-round defeats in his only previous visits were slightly misleading: they had both been over five sets. And, after the French, Kuerten went home to Florianopolis, on the island of Santa Catarina about 450 miles south of Rio de Janeiro, and practised on an indoor carpet court that he says was comparable to grass. He worked in the gym and on his serve. "I came here in pretty good shape," he says. Kuerten beat Britain's Chris Wilkinson in the first round, David Prinosil of Germany in the second, and on No 2 Court yesterday he ended the challenge of the Yugoslavian qualifier Nenad Zimonjic 6-4 6-4 6-2 to set up a meeting with the Swiss qualifier Lorenzo Manta and the real prospect of a place in the quarter-finals.

Kuerten attributes his change in fortunes on grass to lowered ambitions. "I came here without any expectation, just to really enjoy and try to have fun in a big tournament," he said. "It's a surprise to be in the fourth round - I'm taking out the doubts I had before and believe much more in my game. That's why I have these great results."

Kuerten plays a free-flowing game that is lovely to watch. His best shot is a rippling backhand which he hits with remarkable accuracy, but what makes him more than just a clay-courter with a decent serve who is happy just to have fun on grass while it lasts is his return of serve.

When Andre Agassi won Wimbledon from the back of the court in 1992 it was how he dealt with the the big servers that was the key to his success. Kuerten is similarly blessed with speed of eye and foot and as the match with Zimonjic went on he was increasingly able to pick off his opponent as he moved in behind the serve.

Kuerten is the sort of unassuming, gifted player that one likes to see do well. When you learn that his father died while umpiring a match and that he has a mentally handicapped brother to whom he gives his trophies, his personality takes on a more sympathetic profile still. Wimbledon needs its larger-than-life heroes, but a player like Kuerten is a special addition to the riches.