The fact that Gustavo Kuerten, the 24-year old Brazilian sensation and undoubtedly that country’s most popular athlete since the days of Pele, earned the top seeding at this year’s U.S. Open, shouldn’t surprise anyone. The fact that he won the Tennis Masters Series -- Cincinnati event this year, played from August 6 -- 12, 2001, should. No South American had even reached the finals at TMS-Cincinnati since 1980. To find a South American winner, you have to go back to the closing chapters of the Eisenhower administration, when in 1960, Miguel Olvera of Ecuador defeated Crawford Henry 4-6, 9-7, 6-4.
The long period of time between South American finalists here is primarily because of the surface and the quality of the players involved. The TMS-Cincinnati is played on DecoTurf, the same surface that the US Open uses. For that reason (as well as the fact that the beginning of the event here is a mere three weeks away from the start of the Open), this event has perpetually had some of the strongest draws of any men’s professional tennis tournament in the world. In 1996, TMS-Cincinnati featured the best quarterfinal matches of any tournament, including the Grand Slams, in 11 years as seven of the eight players were ranked in the Top 10.
In 1999, Pete Sampras remarked after winning the title that in some ways, winning here was harder than winning a Slam: "From Krajicek to Andre (Agassi) to Pat (Rafter), back-to-back-to-back is -- you don't find that at a Grand Slam. So in some ways, you can have an easy match at a Slam with a fluke of the draw. And in some ways, this is -- I don't want to say tougher to win, but certainly you don't have many breaks. You don't have a day off..." This was especially true this year as Mother Nature intervened in a big way in the evening semifinals between Kuerten and Great Britain’s Tim Henman. Henman managed to serve the first two points of the match when play was halted due to rain.
Shortly after the players left the court, torrents of rain cascaded down from the heavens, along with strong winds, thunder and lightning. The poor electronic scoreboard didn’t stand a chance: it absorbed a direct hit by a bolt of lightning, which fried its circuitry and completely shut it down. The downpour was so intense that up to six inches of standing water was on center court! Amazingly, the delay only lasted a bit under two and a half hours, and play resumed. Kuerten won the first set 6-2 and Henman was up 5-1 in the second before rain interrupted play again. Finally, the match was suspended just after midnight and scheduled for 11:30 am the following day. Because of national television arrangements, the final was going to be played as scheduled at 1 pm, regardless of how much rest the semi-final winner had.
Henman won the second set 6-1 but lost the third set in a tiebreaker to Kuerten 6-7 (4). A reporter asked Tim if the rain delay stole whatever chance he had of beating Kuerten. Henman admitted that "When you have the delay overnight and then coming out just to play one set, I think you lose a little bit of the energy that is created. (However) you’ve got to do the best you can." The point was obviously made: the weather affected both players equally and the fact that it went to a third-set tiebreaker negated any advantage or disadvantage to the other player. Kuerten benefited from breaking Henman’s serve twice in the breaker to go up 5-2, and then held on for a 7-4 final margin. Twenty minutes later, it was showtime against the solidly pro-Rafter crowd.
Instead of a disadvantage, Kuerten used the final set against Henman as a warm-up for the title match. "I started with a great rhythm and played the first set, maybe the best I’ve played all week long. I kept him guessing as to what I was planning to do, whether I was coming in for the next shot." Rafter won his first service game of the match, then Guga held his own serve and broke Patrick three times for the 6-1 score. Time for a new game plan, Patrick? "I just tried to go back to the basics after the first set: first serve, serve and volley and first volley, but my strengths weren’t strong enough today," Rafter concluded.
Kuerten went on to beat Rafter 6-3 in the final set and Rafter kept looking at the clock, as if not believing he was going to get bounced from the final in under one hour. "Today was a little bit confusing. The match went very quickly," Rafter said. "I was trying to work my way back into it, but you run out of time very quickly in those situations."
Kuerten’s change from being a mere "clay-court specialist" to a threat on hard courts really began in 1997, his first full year on Tour. That year he broke through and won the French Open for the first time. On the hard courts, he lost to Chris Woodruff in the finals at TMS-Montreal, 5-7, 6-4, 3-6. He finished 1997 on outdoor hard courts with a 16-7 record (.696 winning percentage), which is a fairly respectable number for a player’s non-native surface. The following year, he posted his best results at Key Biscayne, getting to the quarterfinals and losing to Tim Henman, 2-6, 4-6. That year, he went 10-8 (.556) but played one more outdoor hardcourt event than he did the previous year. In each of the last two years, he has averaged 10 outdoor hard court events each year and went 18-10 (.643) in 1999 and 23-10 last year (.697).
Along the way, he lost in the finals at the Ericsson to Pete Sampras in a very hard-fought, Davis Cup-like atmosphere, 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (5), 6-7 (10) and he won the finals at Indianapolis over Marat Safin, for his first-ever hard court title. In fact, over the last four years, Kuerten has played more matches (and tournaments) each year, on outdoor hard courts, than either Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi have played on clay, taken individually or together. And that statistic includes Agassi’s surprising 1999 French Open crown. Memo to Mr. Sampras: it would seem that the best way to improve one’s performance on a weak surface is to play a lot of tournaments on it. It’s a pretty radical idea, but it seems to work for most players. But I digress...
At the TMS-Cincinnati, Kuerten played a "revenge" match against Andy Roddick, who had beaten him in the Round of 16 the previous week at TMS-Montreal. The first set went to a tiebreak, which Guga won 7-3. Part of that lopsided tiebreak score was due to the fact that Roddick re-injured his ankle (the one he broke at the French Open this year during his 3rd round match with Lleyton Hewitt) and eventually lost the match 6-1 in the second. "At first, I didn’t think it was that bad," Roddick said. "But then the next point I played, I had to move to my forehand side and I was like oh, this is going to be a long day."
After the match with Roddick, Guga next faced Germany’s Tommy Haas, who was having a fairly good year at 32-15. After winning the season-opening tournament at Adelaide, Australia, Haas’ best showing has been two semi-final appearances in Memphis and in the previous week’s TMS-Montreal. Kuerten owned Haas in head-to-heads, going 4-1 in their previous five meetings. This match, however, was perhaps the toughest of the week for Kuerten to get through (an eventual 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8) win). With the exception of the first tiebreak, neither player lost a game on their serve. Haas had his chances to break Kuerten on four occasions throughout the match but was unable to do so; his first serve percentage of 60% was better than Kuerten’s (49%) but he could not hold on to a 4-0 lead in the 2nd set tiebreak.
Kuerten’s night match against the mercurial Goran Ivanisevic was over almost as soon as it began. Evidently, the "bad Goran" took over and lost the match in a near-record 42 minutes by a score of 6-2, 6-1. The match was not as close as the score indicated. Goran attributed his poor performance to the lighting. "I’d rather play during the day, I have better vision," Ivanisevic said. "But unfortunately, you can’t say you don’t want to play at night (because) you have to... I don’t remember the last time I played at night, because I was playing on the courts nobody could watch, out in the parking lot... Today was the worst match I’ve played for the last couple of years. I just couldn’t adjust with the change of lights... When I toss the ball in the light, I don’t know if I toss it high or low; I don’t have a clue. And then my serve went into the net and everywhere... When I serve bad, I start to panic sometimes (and) have a lot of unforced errors."
Yvgeny Kafelnikov was Kuerten’s next victim (6-4, 3-6, 6-4). This match was another close one for Kuerten and Guga thought the reason for that was because they play similar styles of tennis. "He can come with all different shots and pace. Normally, I can play different speeds, balls cross-court or down the line. It’s like a chess game: moving each other here and there, and one move can be it." The third set was pivotal as Kuerten greatly improved his first serve percentage from 48% to 60% while Kafelnikov’s dropped from 50% in the 2nd to 30% in the final set.
Kuerten showed flashes of brilliance throughout the week. He played six feet behind the baseline in order to give him more reaction time against some of the players he faced. He returned some fantastic volleys with sniper-like focus, laying some shots down the line with scientific precision. He also threw in a couple of beautiful drop shots from the baseline, which is, needless to say, highly unusual for any player.
Kuerten went on from Cincinnati to play at Indianapolis, where he faced a similar situation due to weather and had to play two matches in one day (the semifinals against Ivanisevic and finals against Rafter). Kuerten had to retire at 1-4 in the first set against Rafter due to an upper rib cage muscle strain. If that injury has healed before play begins at Flushing Meadow, Guga might well be hoisting the trophy in two weeks.