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By Winning, Kuerten Plants Seed of Purity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Watching Gustavo Kuerten play in Sunday’s French Open final, with his fearlessness, joy and sense of wonderment, it was possible to imagine a time when professional tennis players were happy in their work.

For two weeks, the focus of this tournament has been on the 15 seeded players who were upset and the dampening effect of their absence. Kuerten, who defeated two-time champion Sergi Bruguera to win the title Sunday, will now focus attention on the young players who are grateful just to be on the court and not yet cynical about their profession.

The 20-year-old Brazilian demolished the 16th-seeded Bruguera, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, in 1 hour 50 minutes to win his first professional tournament. To say that Kuerten’s victory is a surprise is an understatement: Ranked No. 66, Kuerten is the lowest-ranked player to win the French Open and the second-lowest to win a Grand Slam title in the Open Era.

Kuerten is the first Brazilian man to win a Grand Slam tournament title, a fact sent throngs of flag-draped Brazilian fans snaking through the grounds of Roland Garros, dancing and beating drums, chanting his nickname, “Guga.”

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Kuerten’s victory, together with 19-year-old Iva Majoli’s defeat of 16-year-old Martina Hingis in the women’s final Saturday, brings a freshness to the upper levels of tennis that the sport sorely needs.

Kuerten, a part-time surfer from the south of Brazil, has smiled, laughed and even skipped on court during matches, explaining that he’s happy to be here. Through his surprising play during the two-week tournament, Kuerten has gained a humble self-confidence.

“It had to happen,” he said of his win. “Was destiny. Fate.”

Analyzing Kuerten’s draw, it appeared he had little chance because he had to get past three former French Open champions. But he did it. In addition to Bruguera, Kuerten defeated Thomas Muster and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. He is the only man to have beaten three former champions to win a title here.

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It was easy to overlook Kuerten. He came into the tournament with a 9-11 record and had never advanced beyond the quarterfinals of any tour event. So new is Kuerten that Sunday’s final was only his 49th professional match.

He will not be taken lightly again. On the strength of defeating so many higher-ranked players, Kuerten’s ranking could move as high as No. 16. If that happens, he would be seeded at Wimbledon, although he has never played a match on grass.

His game is suited for grass. Kuerten has a clay-court player’s beautiful ground strokes and a hardcourt player’s solid serve and crisp volleys. At 6-foot-3, he has net coverage and is difficult to lob over.

Matched against Bruguera’s hard forehands in Sunday’s windy conditions, Kuerten’s flatter strokes stayed in the court more than the Spaniard’s spinning shots.

Bruguera won the French Open in 1993 and 1994 but has not won a tournament in three years. He’s still dealing with the effects of ankle and hip injuries and has done well to rise to No. 19 after starting the season at No. 81.

He was the last of six seeded Spaniards--there were 18 Spanish players in the draw--and beat former champion Michael Chang to get to the final.

Bruguera showed a glimmer of fight at 4-4 in the second set with Kuerten serving at 15-40. Bruguera squandered three break points to let that opportunity pass.

“In truth, the only chance I have in the match was that chance,” Bruguera said.

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Bruguera had a tough time responding to Kuerten’s serve. The Brazilian had only three points against his serve in the first set.

His assurance on clay is surprising. Kuerten won the boys’ doubles title here in 1994, but his first professional match here was as a qualifier who lost in the first round last year.

He joins a hallowed list as French Open champion. Kuerten may be the most humble.

Amid the hubbub that attends the aftermath of a Grand Slam tournament final, Kuerten sheepishly prepared for a ceremony he had never taken part in as a professional. He tucked his curly blond hair up into his baseball cap and set it on his head backward. He smoothed his electric blue and yellow tennis outfit.

With photographers calling his name, officials ushered Kuerten toward the celebrity-enriched victory platform erected on center court. Before mounting the steps, Kuerten wiped his feet on the red carpet. When he was faced with the presenter of his trophy, six-time French Open champion Bjorn Borg, an awe-struck Kuerten bowed.

Handed the bottle of champagne that traditionally goes to the winner, Kuerten had no idea how to open it.

In his heartfelt speech to the crowd, Kuerten spoke of his late father, Aldo, who died while umpiring a tennis match when Kuerten was 8.

“I miss his so much,” Kuerten said, his hand resting over his heart, and the French crowd cheered a young man’s genuine words.

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The lack of guile displayed by Kuerten is usually driven out of a player in the commercial scramble that follows a Grand Slam title. For now, at least, he’s unfazed. Kuerten has earned less than $140,000 in his career and won about $660,000 for the title. Asked what he would do with the prize money, Kuerten looked puzzled.

“Money? I think I put it in my account because I don’t want to buy anything,” he said. “I have all that I need right now. I have my mom’s car that I use a little bit. I am happy.”


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