This tall, skinny Brazilian never lost his passion for tennis

BUENOS AIRES -- Is there anyone reading this column who doesn't know one of those people everyone loves?

They are few indeed, but every once in a while we bump into those well-respected and adored characters: Friends, co-workers, family … In the tennis world, there is one name for such a person: Gustavo Kuerten.

Apart from being one of the best Latin American tennis players in history, Guga is a man who charmed us all: teammates, adversaries, journalists and everyone who had the chance to meet him.

Guga's romance with the game started in Florianapolis, where one day he had to choose between his surfboard and his tennis racket. A wise choice he made, since he charmed his whole country and become a national icon.

I first saw Guga when I was 16 years old. We both played in a South American junior tournament in Caracas, Venezuela. Back then, we were just a bunch of kids who shared the dream of someday becoming pro tennis players.

There were no certainties: No one could assure us that we would become important personalities in the tennis world or that we could ever live off the sport. We all had some kind of talent for the game and we all felt we had a future, but at the end of the day we were kids who played tennis.

In that same tournament, among many others, there was a tall, skinny Brazilian whose head moved when he walked. We all called him Periscope. We all liked him for his sympathy and sense of humor. Ever since he was a kid, he was one of the most charismatic players of his generation.

Years went by and the garoto would grow up to become a man and a tennis wonder. He won Roland Garros three times and was No. 1 in the world. What else could I tell you about his career that you don't already know?

But you know what? The best part wasn't his tennis achievements or his unforgettable passing shots. The best part is that Guga never stopped being that teenager who made us laugh so hard and who shared so much love wherever he went.

The WTA and ATP circuits can be very competitive environments, where you get the strange feeling that the person with whom you get to share the table one day will be your rival the next day. Guga probably was the pioneer in the tour to demonstrate that you could live in peace with this apparent contradiction and he never perceived anyone as his enemy.

That allowed him to face the best tennis players in the world in endless tours, while enjoying a parallel life in which he always had time for his hobbies. It wasn't strange to see him, once the action of the day was over, singing with his guitar in his hotel room surrounded by teammates. True, the outcome of the day could have been glorious for some and sad for others. The difference with Guga was that once tennis was over, we were all winners.

In the so-called players' lounge there are people everyone stares at and in general that is because they are the best in the world. Guga was one of them, but he also added the human quality factor. Because of this, I am pretty sure he will be remembered not only as a No. 1 but as one of the most respected and loved characters in the history of the sport.

With his humbleness and sympathy, he was an example for all of us. He never walked past a person without greeting him or her, whether it was the director of the tournament or a club employee. With his eternal smile and a "Bom dia," Gustavo Kuerten made many friends.

Last Sunday in Paris, people had the privilege of seeing him retire from the sport in the same place where he started to write down history. He lost against Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, showing glimpses of his tennis despite playing with a bad hip.

It was at Roland Garros where he became famous in 1997 when he captured his first Grand Slam title and made his Brazilian people proud. It was his last time in the Phillipe Chatrier court, and he said goodbye to a sport that was his life. He also said goodbye to his fans, his colleagues and his glory days.

But that same heart that he one day drew on a clay court with his racket, will live forever in the memory of those of us who love the sport.

Former WTA tennis player Paola Suárez, who retired in September 2007, writes about tennis for ESPNDeportes.