There were only a handful of tennis courts in Gustavo Kuerten's hometown of Florianopolis when he was growing up, but rising from those modest beginnings, Kuerten carved out a lasting legacy and helped put Brazilian tennis back on the map.
One of Brazil's most beloved athletes was back in the spotlight last week as the International Tennis Hall of Fame announced the 35-year-old Kuerten its latest inductee on July 14. The induction of the man known by tennis fans around the world as "Guga" is the culmination of a career in which he won three French Open championships and became the first South American to ever hold the year-end No. 1 rank.
"It's a great honor -- perhaps the highest honor in tennis," Kuerten said in a phone interview a few hours after the announcement. "Probably one of my greatest accomplishments was being able to get Brazilians excited about tennis and to elevate the attention for Brazil as a tennis nation."
Kuerten combined the charisma of a rock star with the affable accessibility of your favorite camp counselor. He was ranked No. 66 when he burst onto the scene with a flourish, beating three former French Open champions to capture his first career title at the 1997 Roland Garros. He gave his Roland Garros trophy -- and every other trophy he ever won -- to his biggest fan, younger brother Guilherme, who suffered from cerebral palsy and severe physical disability and who served as an inspiration to his big brother. Guilherme Kuerten died in 2007. The Kuerten family founded the Gustavo Kuerten Institute in 2000 to benefit the disabled.
Guga's gangly grace made him look like someone about to break into a spontaneous samba. The high-bouncing topspin drives he delivered off his brilliant groundstrokes, the way he bounced around the court as if playing to the beat of music and his trademark headband that kept his unruly halo of hair somewhat in place made him one of the most distinctive stylists of his era. It also won him a legion of devoted fans, many of whom, clad in Brazilian colors, would bang on drums, blow horns and dance in the aisles during his matches.
Given the fact 14 of his 20 career titles came on clay and all three of his major final appearances came in Paris, there's a tendency to cast Kuerten as a slow-surface specialist. Anyone who tells you Kuerten was a clay-court specialist should YouTube his performance at the 2000 Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon, Portugal, where he beat three former World No. 1 Grand Slam champions -- Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi -- in succession in a stirring effort on an indoor hard court to surpass friendly rival Marat Safin and conclude the year ranked No. 1.
"I had maybe a 5 percent chance of becoming No. 1 when it started, and after losing the first match, I had problems with my back and did not know if I could finish," Kuerten said. "I was able to turn it all around and win on a surface that was not my best to become No. 1, and for the first time to be able to speak to people in Portuguese after the final was really the best thing I could ever do in my career."
Equally balanced off both forehand and backhand wings, Kuerten could play the court straight up, and his serve was a weapon. In 2001, he was second in the ATP in aces (683) and third in service games won (87 percent) as he won a career-best six titles in eight finals that season.
Guga wasn't the best player of his generation, but you can make a case he was the coolest. And Guga was a game-changer. He was one of the first champions to use Luxilon strings, ushering the era of heavy topspin into the sport.
"If you watch his Tennis Masters Cup match against Sampras on replay, notice how Guga is hitting forehands that dip tremendously at Pete's feet," says Nate Ferguson, Sampras' stringer, who now customizes rackets for Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. "What we're looking at when we watch that match is the earliest evolution of the game changing right before our eyes, because of the strings. Though at the time, no one realized what was happening."
A series of arthroscopic hip surgeries curtailed Kuerten's career, but even after his first hip surgery, on Feb. 26, 2002, he still showed flashes of the familiar magic in Paris, when he swept world No. 1 Roger Federer en route to the 2004 French Open quarterfinals.
These days, Kuerten spends much of his time playing with his 1-month-old daughter, Maria, but still retains his passion for tennis.
"I love to watch tennis and I am very enthusiastic to see the level of tennis played now," Kuerten said. "I think tennis is really in a fantastic place right now, and I enjoy watching it very much."