Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Goodbye Sweet Guga

I remember the first time I saw Guga. I remember it clearly because I promptly fell in love. He wore rasta colors on a gangly frame, and had a goofy smile and a herky jerky bobbleheaded manner of walking that all combined to make him sweetly endearing.

But the moment I actually fell in love was when I heard him moaning as he made contact with some sweet sweet forehands as he spanked Sergi Bruguera to snatch his first Roland Garros trophy. He sounded like he was about come any minute. He had me at first moan.

Guga has won three French Open titles (1997, 2000, and 2001), 17 other singles titles, and closed 2007 with a 358-191 singles record. He has earned over $14 million in prize money alone. He could play on hard courts as well as clay, and proved this by winning Masters tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. He earned fans’ respect by showing up to Wimbledon and taking his beating on grass like a man.

In 2000, he became the first South American to become the Number 1 tennis player in the world, beating Sampras and Agassi back to back to achieve this accomplishment in Lisbon, Portugal. Guga dominated the Clay Season in 2001, culminating in a win at Roland Garros. After beating Alex Corretja in the finals, Guga used his racket to draw a huge heart in the clay – and then lay down inside it. The French crowd went wild with appreciation. It seemed like a hokey moment, sure, but it was also consistent with Guga’s charismatic, expressive surfer-dude style.

And then in 2002, he revealed that he had to undergo hip surgery. Plagued with back problems that required frequent on-court massages, Guga’s doctors apparently discovered that the problem actually stemmed from his hips. Something to do with torque, rotation, and displacement.

I remember well his comeback matches later that year. They seemed to occur inordinately soon. I remember how angry I was with Guga’s coach and father-substitute, Larry Passos, whom I then blamed for the haste with which Guga had returned to tennis. I can still recall the painful spectacle of watching Guga playing against Radek Stepanek in Paris, late 2002. All Stepanek had to do was play drop shot after drop shot. The sight of Guga waddling forward on hips not yet ready for such punishment is one that I will not soon forget. It brought me to tears.

2003 was a forgettable year for Guga. In 2004, he made his home crowds proud by winning the Brazil Open for the second time. And he punished Federer in straight sets at Roland Garros in the one year that Federer was heavily favored to win. On September 1, 2004, Guga announced that he was going to have to undergo a second hip surgery. I was not surprised. I had always felt that he had come back too soon, that in his haste to ride his moment of glory, he had lost sight of his rehabilitation needs. Of course I would give anything to be wrong.

Guga’s life story has been filled with as many blessings as tragedies. His beloved younger brother, Guilherme Kuerten, suffered oxygen deprivation at birth that resulted in mental retardation and physical disability. Guga dedicated much of his earnings to establishing the Gustavo Kuerten Institute in his hometown of Florianopolis, Brazil, to assist individuals with similar disabilities. Guilherme died on November 9, 2007, of respiratory failure. Guga was at his side. In 1985, Guga’s father, Aldo Kuerten, died suddenly while umpiring a junior tennis match. And then there are Guga’s own struggles with hip surgery.

Earlier this year, Guga officially announced his retirement. It was a foregone conclusion really. He plans to play six tournaments this year as part of his goodbye tour. I am not planning to attend any of these matches. I want to remember Guga as he was, the dominant and fearless player with talent that left one agape, the renaissance man who played with his hair and adored Bob Marley, the generous surfer-dude who loved his family and never lost appreciation of his fans. I will miss him.

UPDATED: Guga played his final match at Roland Garros, on May 25, 2008. The tears flowed, and I am not just referring to mine.

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