Kuerten keeps his cool, collects 2nd French title

Norman finally falls on 11th match point

June 12, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS - Roughly 40 minutes had gone by since Gustavo Kuerten had begun walking merrily toward the net to celebrate his second French Open title yesterday, roughly 40 minutes since a cross-court backhand struck by Magnus Norman had been called out, only to be overruled by the chair umpire, Francois Pareau, to Kuerten's stupefaction.

"It was like I was watching white and he was watching black," Kuerten said.

Roughly 40 minutes, and the fifth-seeded Brazilian was still on Center Court, still in the fourth set chasing down Norman's heavy forehands and trying his best to forget all the match points that had gone by. He had squandered three in the 10th game, four in a marathon 12th game and three in the ensuing tiebreaker.

Ten match points lost in all; 10 opportunities to raise his skinny arms overhead and hug his coach and confidante, Larri Passos. There was no precedent for this kind of frustration in a Grand Slam final. Lesser men would have been an emotional wreck, screaming at the sky and heaping insults on the umpire.

But Kuerten, a lesser man once, stayed calm. At 6-6 in the tie-breaker, he fired a first serve at Norman's body that the Swede could not quite handle to earn his 11th match point.

By now, the crowd was shellshocked: worn out, like the players, from anticipation and lack of a resolution. There was not much buzz as Norman prepared to serve, little emotion from Kuerten as he stood 12 feet behind the baseline. But when the next rally ended with Norman hitting a forehand wide, this 3-hour-44-minute match - as much an ordeal as it was a spectacle - was over. Kuerten, no longer a one-Slam wonder, was the winner, 6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (8-6).

"Of course, you start to think, especially because the first match point I thought the ball was out, so for me it was over," said Kuerten. "Every time I missed another chance, I was still thinking about that. It was really strange: the points keep passing and you don't realize if it's going to be OK or not."

Just as in 1997, it would turn out beautifully for the man the Brazilians call "Guga." Just as in 1997, he won with his octogenarian grandmother, Olga Schlosser, in the stands after she flew in from Brazil, and with his nation's green and yellow flag fluttering in the stands and a band waiting in the wings.

Just as in 1997, he won by generating remarkable pace and depth from the baseline and demonstrating slightly surreal endurance.

But this title, like any second Grand Slam title, was a different psychological challenge. In 1997, Kuerten was ranked 66th, had a room in a two-star hotel and was only a household name in his beachside Brazilian hometown of Florianopolis.

A year later, he was upset early in singles and ended up being disqualified from the doubles after throwing his racket in frustration and narrowly missing the umpire's head. A tearful Kuerten later issued a written apology.

But this year, there would be no such melodrama, and he was on the very short list of favorites from the beginning. He has improved his serve considerably since 1997 and has indisputably been the most consistent clay-court player over the last two seasons. Last month, he lost to Norman in the final in Rome and then beat him en route to winning the title in Hamburg a week later.

"I think this shows that I'm really one of the top players - a guy who will stay around," Kuerten said in his pleasantly fractured English. "People maybe thought I'd win one time and be finished. So I think right now with my name again here in the history, I think I put myself as one of the players who can stay for a long time in the tennis."

Kuerten has also reached the quarterfinals in the U.S. Open and, more surprisingly because of his grip changes and long backswings, Wimbledon. He also reached the final in Key Biscayne earlier this year, losing in a tight match to Pete Sampras. But clay is the surface on which he remains most dangerous.

In 1997, Kuerten won three five-set matches on his way to the trophy. This time, despite a suspect back that bothered him earlier in the clay-courts season, he stared down defeat against Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarterfinals and Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semifinals, rallying from two-set-to-one deficits in both instances.

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