'Guga' loves Paris in the springtime

PTI | ByAllan Kelly (AFP), Paris
May 30, 2004 01:03 PM IST

For Sampras it was the centre-court at Wimbledon, for Connors hustle-and-bustle of Flushing Meadow, but for Kuerten it's at Roland Garros.

For Pete Sampras it was the leafy centre-court at Wimbledon, for Jimmy Connors the hustle-and-bustle of Flushing Meadow, but for Gustavo Kuerten it's Roland Garros in the spring that brings out the magic.

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A three-times winner here in 1997, 2000 and 2001 the Brazilian reigned supreme as "King of Clay" for five years until his whiplash style of play caused his hip joints to buckle.

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Surgery followed in 2002 and "Guga" has been the shadow of his former self ever since, although his popularity here remains undiminished.

He struggled through a tough five-setter against a Spanish youngster in the first round and admitted that despite all the medical treatment the pain was still there.

A fourth French title looked a distant prospect but that was before Kuerten found himself back on his beloved Philippe Chatrier centre-court before a packed crowd and going up against the best player in the world Roger Federer.

The transformation was stunning as the 27-year-old Brazilian rolled back the years and gave Federer a clay-court lesson winning 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 a victory that has put him back in the frame.

Kuerten says that the connection between himself and Paris is something special. "It's becoming more and more special for me," he said. "I started pretty strong in '97, coming from nowhere and winning the tournament. Then to be able to win a couple of more times.

"Even the years when I'm not winning, but I have good runs or some good memories, strong memories.

"It's amazing how the connection is growing, you know, between me and the public, going out there."

Kuerten now has the chance to become only the third man to win four French Open titles in the 113-year long history of the tournament after 1920s Frenchman Henri Cochet and Swedish legend Bjorn Borg.

Borg went on to accumulate a record six French titles from 1974-1981.

It's unlikely that Kuerten will get near that mark as his body is showing the signs of strain that his style of tennis provokes and he knows it.

"I have a problem that's going to take me a long time to go away," he said after admitting that had it not been the French Open he would have taken the fortnight off and sought more treatment.

"Right now I'm playing much better than in the beginning of the tournament. So hopefully I can run less. I can dominate the points a little bit more and Like this I can play longer," he said.

"But if I had to face a five-set match, I'm sure it's going to be very tough for me."

Next up for Kuerten is another young Spaniard, Feliciano Lopez with a potential quarter-final looming against tough Argentinian David Nalbandian.

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