A great champ takes a Kuerten call
PARIS -- Gustavo Kuerten, one of the great champions of the last decade and a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, played his last match Sunday, retiring following his first-round French Open loss to Paul-Henri Mathieu.
The three-time French Open champion battled severe injuries in the latter stages of his career, including severe degeneration in his hip, but the former world No. 1 leaves behind a legacy which far exceeds his on-court success.
Known affectionately as "Guga," Kuerten ignited tennis in South America while becoming a cult hero in his native Brazil. Guga was that rare champion who reached the pinnacle of his career while also maintaining a relaxed lifestyle and approachable personality off the court. He will be remembered for his curly locks and smiles almost as much as for his wins at Roland Garros in 1997, 2000 and '01.
The timeline of my junior and professional career mirrored Guga's and I can attest he's one of the humblest and kindest people I have ever met. One of my fondest memories came after I upset him in the first round of Wimbledon in '97, just two weeks after his French Open win. Amidst all the excitement and fanfare surrounding him, Kuerten still sought me out for a few kind words, wishing me luck in the rest of the event.
Guga will also be remembered as the first elite player to find success with the now-ubiquitous Luxilon synthetic string, which afforded him the ability to hit with heavy topspin a few years prior to his peers. His success with Luxilon prompted more players to switch to the string. He ushered in this era in which ground strokes dominate and serve-and-volley tennis has become virtually extinct.
Guga was his usual upbeat and optimistic self following Sunday's 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 loss: "I felt good on the court. I was able to hit all the shots I used to, but not with the same frequency because of my physical liabilities. Overall, I was happy with my play, I got a chance to play on my favorite court one more time and I am very thankful for everything that happened to me in my career. The last few years have been difficult with my injuries and my desire to get back on the court, but it enabled me to learn so much and grow as a person. It forced me to get a life outside of tennis and that will make it easier for me to adapt now that I am retiring."
When pressed on his favorite memory over the years at Roland Garros, Guga was unable to pinpoint just one: "I was so lucky. I had so many. The first time I drew the heart in the court was my most intense memory and today will stick with me forever. This tournament is home for me and I always had a great connection with the crowd."
When asked what he will miss most about his life in tennis, Guga pointed to the thrill and intensity of competition. "I will miss the matches, the joy of playing big points, these are feelings you can only get in sports. But I am looking forward to my next life. I am a big icon in Brazil and will devote a lot of time to my foundation and helping others through my notoriety."
Guga always had his priorities right. He loves surfing, spending time with his friends and helping others. He is a champion in every sense of the word.
Former ATP pro Justin Gimelstob will write periodically for SI.com from Roland Garros during the French Open.