Two weeks ago, most people had never heard of Gustavo Kuerten. Guess what? The 20-year Brazilian nicknamed “Guga” is a Grand Slam champion.
Kuerten routed Sergi Bruguera 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 Sunday to win the French Open and become the lowest ranked player (No. 66) to capture a Grand Slam title.
The victory capped one of the most improbable tournaments in Grand Slam history, with a player coming out of nowhere to beat three former French Open champions en route to his first tour-level victory of any kind.
Kuerten is the first Brazilian man to win a Grand Slam, and only the third unseeded player to win the French Open, following Marcel Bernard in 1946 and Mats Wilander in 1982.
Kuerten had never advanced past a quarterfinal in any tour-level event and was playing only the 49th match of his career. Three weeks ago, he was playing - and winning - a small-time satellite tournament in Curitiba, Brazil.
Yet, Kuerten sailed through a field decimated by upsets, beating former champions Thomas Muster (1995), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (1996) and Bruguera (1993, 1994) along the way.
Kuerten’s victory followed Saturday’s surprise in the women’s final, where No. 9 Iva Majoli stunned Martina Hingis in straight sets to become the lowest seeded Grand Slam champion of the Open era.
Urged on by his grandmother, Olga, and other family and friends, pumped up by chants of “Gu-Ga! Gu-Ga!” Kuerten played a virtually flawless match, seemingly oblivious to the grandeur of the occasion, grinning throughout.
“I did every shot perfectly,” he said. “Today was my best match of the tournament. I didn’t think, ‘Wow, it’s a final and I have to win.’ I just play like I practice. I was pretty relaxed.”
The match lasted 1 hour, 50 minutes, the fastest final since 1980 when Mats Wilander beat Vitas Gerulaitis in 1:46.
Kuerten bowed deeply to six-time French Open champion Bjorn Borg, who presented him with the trophy. He also embraced Guillermo Vilas, winner in 1977, before holding up the cup and kissing it.
“It was the first time I really believed that I had won,” Kuerten said.
He dedicated the victory to his father, who died while umpiring a tennis match when Kuerten was 8 years old.
“He was the person I really loved and I miss him a lot,” Kuerten said. “This trophy and this tournament goes to him, and I’m sure he’s really happy right now.”
An hour after the match, a samba band struck up Brazilian rhythms inside the Roland Garros complex, with fans chanting, “Gu-Ga! GuGa!” Kuerten emerged on a balcony with his coach, Larri Passos. He struggled to pop open a bottle of champagne before spraying the bubbly over his fans.
“I never won a title - that’s why I don’t know how to open champagne,” he said.
Hailing from the seaside town of Florianopolis in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Caterina, Kuerten is a scrawny 6-foot-3 surfing enthusiast who looks as if he could have walked straight off the beach.
Dressed from head to toe in the colors of Brazil, he wore a blue and yellow shirt, blue shorts, yellow socks, blue shoes and a checkered bandana. The only white in his outfit was a small stripe down the side of his shorts.
“I think for Wimbledon, I have to change my clothes, maybe,” he said.
Bruguera, the lowest seed at No. 16, is one of the strongest clay-court players of his generation. But Sunday, he was helpless as Kuerten dictated the points, moving him from side to side, stepping in to knock off winners.
“He played an outstanding match,” Bruguera said. “Maybe I wait for him to give me the match, and he went for the match.”
By the fifth game of the match, when he broke for the first time, Kuerten started skipping between points, pumping his fist and hopping back into position.
The key moment came in with the second set tied at 4-4. With Kuerten serving, he faced three break points and saved all three to win the game.