PARIS -- What fun this French Open is for the free-spirited kid from Brazil, who hits the ball with a release of air that comes out like a gentle breeze, "Ou-ay", instead of like some animal grunt.
With every point, Gustavo Kuerten, 20, radiates joy. A double-decker smile. A clinched fist. A "Skip-to-My-Lou" on his way back for another serve.
Yesterday, his happiness spread through the Court Central crowd as he played -- in the true sense of someone having fun -- his way into the French Open final with a 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7-5) win over Belgian Filip Dewulf.
"It is a dream for me," said the 66th-ranked men's player in the world, known to his friends as "Guga." "It really is a dream for me.
"I think every player when was a kid, dreams of playing a final -- a big Grand Slam final," he added, his brown eyes still dancing. "I am no different. I just feel this is my best moment. My happiness is so great, I have no words -- I hope I can win."
Kuerten's victory, combined with No. 16 Sergi Bruguera's 6-7 (6-8), 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (7-1) decision over Patrick Rafter, sets up tomorrow's final. Bruguera, the only seeded player left in the tournament, will be trying to become only the seventh three-time French Open champion, while Kuerten will be trying for his first singles title of any kind.
"It is very important to be [in] Grand Slam final," said Bruguera, 26. "It is more important to win it. I am here now. I will try to win it."
For a while, it didn't look as if any seeds would be around for the men's finals. Against Rafter, who stayed with his serve-and-volley game, Bruguera was down 7-6 (8-6), 1-6, 5-3 with Rafter serving for a 2-1 lead in sets.
But Rafter lost his next service game and could not win another point on his serve in the set. He lost 7-5, clearing the way for Bruguera's victory at the end of the three-hour confrontation.
"It was a great two weeks," Rafter said. "And it was a bitter disappointment today. I had my chances, but he was too good. Still, I had a ball out there."
Before the men decide their champion tomorrow, the women will decide their's today.
No. 9 Iva Majoli, 19 and the first Croatian in a Grand Slam final, will challenge Switzerland's Martina Hingis, 16, the world's top-ranked woman.
In the past 10 years, only Steffi Graf, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Monica Seles have lifted the trophy here. But today the French Open will have a new champion and its fifth teen-age winner. And either Majoli will have her first Grand Slam title, or Hingis, who won her first in Australia in January, will have two.
Since arriving with his five-set upset of No. 5 Thomas Muster last week, Kuerten has become the darling of the French.
He comes from an island town called Florianopolis, where he likes to surf and play soccer. He is definitely not Parisian, and yet, he suits the Parisians somehow, with his joie de vivre, with his long, curly blond hair, his neon wardrobe -- the electric blue shorts and shoes, the yellow socks, the blue and yellow shirt.
They love his supporters in the player's friends' box, too. When his brother, mother and grandmother and their friends break into lively Brazilian rally songs, the crowd joins in their rhythmic clapping.
"When you're playing against him, you block it all out," said Dewulf, who produced the best result by a qualifier in 20 years here while being the first Belgian man in the Open Era to reach this deep into a Grand Slam. "But you are aware of the enthusiasm he brings, of the singing. I think it's great to have such fans, to get some fresh air into the tennis court."
But on the whole, Dewulf did not enjoy yesterday's pressure.
"Once I went on the court, the desire was not there, really," he said. "He let me back in the match in the second set. Then, in the fourth, I had my chance at 4-3 in the tie-break. But the desire to fight to the end was not really there and my forehand, which in every other match has gone in, did not. That's tennis, I guess.
"He deserves to be in the final. He played very stable tennis."
Kuerten has been doing everything possible to assure his own success. He is letting his face hair grow. "For luck, maybe I start to look like American soccer player, Alexi Lalas," Kuerten said.
He also has decided that he hopes the French Open official who approached him at the beginning of the week asking him to tone down his clothes does not come back. "By now," he said. "I think maybe these clothes are lucky, too."
After each point, he looks to his friends' box. Yesterday, even his German grandmother, Olga Schlosser, was there.
"After I started to play tennis, she knew all," Kuerten said. "She studied every player. She know Becker, Sampras, Kafelnikov. If I talk to her, she start to say, 'Come on, this guy you have to play, plays like this.' Today, my coach almost lost his job."
Kuerten laughed. "No, no," he said. "My coach is doing pretty good here. I will stick with him, stay away from my grandmother. If I lose final, maybe I listen more to my grandmother."
Pub Date: 6/07/97