Gustavo Kuerten Helped Launch the South American Renaissance
Gustavo Kuerten was recently recognized by the ATP’s Latinos in Miami. It is unfortunate that Guga’s career is ending in a protracted injury induced decline. One of my favorite memories in tennis was watching Guga practice and play live in the Indianapolis’ semifinals on what was to be championship Sunday due to poor weather. Guga was ranked #1 and had just dominated the field in Cincinnati. He was looking like one of the favorites headed into the U.S. Open. Guga was awesome on the practice court and cast off Goran Ivanisevic to reach the final. He looked solid headed into a rematch of his one-sided victory over Patrick Rafter in Cincinnati from the previous week.
All of the excitement of seeing a #1 player in the world exuding confidence and playing awesome tennis was dampened by an injury induced retirement as he trailed Rafter 2-4 in the first set. I figured Guga was simply being cautious and that the talented, powerful player I watched that day would be a major factor in men’s tennis for years to come. Instead Guga literally limped to a quarterfinal loss at the 2001 U.S. Open to Yevgeny Kafelnikov and never really regained the form that had propelled him to #1 in 2000. Guga has had his share of highlights since 2001 including a 2002 U.S. Open victory over Marat Safin, winning the 2002 Brazilian Open over Guillermo Coria and defeating Roger Federer in straight sets at the 2004 French Open en route to the quarterfinals. Consistency never did return to Guga’s game as chronic hip injuries undermined the tennis that had produced 3 French Open titles between 1997 and 2001.
Guga’s Role in the South American Renaissance
Guillermo Vilas of Argentina was a peer of Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg in every sense of the word. Vilas won the 1977 French and U.S. Open titles. He won a total of 16 titles in 1977 and likely should have finished the year ranked number 1. Vilas also won the Australian Open in 1978 and 1979. Vilas was runner-up at the Australian Open in 1977 and at the French Open in 1975, 1978 and 1982. Of course, Borg did not play the 1977 French Open, but Grand Slam titles on red clay, green clay and grass give Vilas a distinguished career that was also marked by great longevity.
Ecuador’s Andres Gomez won the 1990 French Open in impressive fashion. He defeated Thomas Muster in straight sets the semifinal round and Andre Agassi in four sets in the championship match. Gomez defeating Muster and Agassi back to back on clay while dropping only one set was no easy task. Such a victory was the crowning of a solid career for Gomez. As a contemporary of Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and Mats Wilander, Andres was often frozen out of important tournament victories. Certainly, Argentina’s Jose Luis Clerc, Alberto Mancini, and Guillermo Perez-Roldan and Peru’s Jaime Yzaga made some marks, but Vilas and Gomez were the top performers from South America from 1970-1996.
Suddenly but not surprisingly, Chile’s Marcelo Rios became a factor in men’s tennis. Rios reached the 1997 Australian and U.S. Open quarterfinals and nearly beat Michael Chang in New York. Still, Guga’s surprise victory at the 1997 French Open was an even bigger splash for tennis in South America. Rios reached the Australian Open final, won 3 masters series/super 9 titles and held the #1 ranking for part of 1998, but it was Guga who won the first Grand Slam title for South America since Gomez in 1990. Kuerten became the first South American to win multiple Grand Slam titles since Vilas when he took home the 2000 French Open title. Guga’s indoor court victories over Sampras and Agassi in Lisbon meant he would finish 2000 as the number one player in the world. His 2001 French Open title placed Guga into a rare pantheon of clay court champions. Few can doubt that Guga and Rios, but especially Kuerten, helped pave the way for the success experienced by Fernando Gonzalez, David Nalbandian, Guillermo Coria, Gaston Gaudio, Nicolas Massu and others. Prior to Guga and Rios, South America was good for placing the odd player in the top 20, but now the continent boasts 13 of the top 100 players in the world.
Where Does Guga Rank Among the best South Americans Ever?
David Nalbandian may have the most variegated success of any South American player since Vilas. Nalbandian has reached the semifinals or further at all four Grand Slam events, broke Federer’s tournament final winning streak in winning the 2005 Masters Cup, posted dominant victories over Rafael Nadal and Federer at the indoor Masters Series events of 2007, and participated in some sort of music video. Gaston Gaudio may have achieved the most inspiring Grand Slam victory of any South American player in my lifetime. Fernando Gonzalez hits the biggest forehand of the South Americans and hit the zone hard during the 2007 Australian Open.
Still, none of these players have posted career numbers in Guga’s stratosphere. Ranking the top South American of all time is a two man race. On one side, Vilas won 4 majors and was able to win outside of clay with his two Australian Open titles. On the other side, Kuerten’s victories over Sampras and Agassi on an indoor court to win the 2000 Masters Cup give Guga a victory over the top players of his time in a big venue. Guga’s biggest wins generally involved beating great players. In 1997, Kuerten defeated 1995 champion Thomas Muster, 1996 champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov and 1993 and 1994 champion Sergi Bruguera en route to his first French Open title. Kafelnikov, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Alex Corretja were all beaten by Kuerten in his other two French Open title runs. Guga beat Patrick Rafter to win Cincinnati in 2001. Guga reached the finals of all four of the hard court Masters Series events in North America during his career. Vilas on the other hand beat two unknowns to win his Australian Open titles. His best win was obviously beating Jimmy Connors on green clay to win the U.S. Open in 1977, but Bjorn Borg’s absence at the 1977 French Open does not help Vilas’ case.
I do think Guga played against a deeper tour and owns more top notch victories in big events than Vilas. Still, Vilas launched tennis in South America, won 4 majors, and did so by winning on red clay, green clay and grass. It is not Vilas’ fault that Borg did not play the French Open in 1977. It is hard to rank anyone ahead of a man who launched tennis for an entire continent. Vilas’ muscular left-handed clay court tennis also provided a prototype for Thomas Muster and Rafael Nadal. As a pioneer, Vilas gets the nod as the greatest South American tennis player ever. Even with some questions of what might have been, Guga is at worst the second best South American player of all time. This is not a bad spot for a man whose career has sadly been cut short by injuries.
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