Kuerten finds form, beats Corretja for title
Updated: Sunday June 10, 2001 7:03 PM
PARIS (AP) -- Colorful clay-court artist Gustavo Kuerten crafted another masterpiece Sunday.
Mixing patience, power and pizzazz, Kuerten claimed his third French Open title by dismantling Alex Corretja 6-7 (3), 7-5, 6-2, 6-0. The result delighted fans at Roland Garros, who have come to love Kuerten and chanted the bony Brazilian's nickname -- Guga -- throughout the match.
In a reprise of his celebration after a harrowing fourth-round win last week, Kuerten used his racket to carve a heart in the red clay. Then he collapsed on his back with arms spread in jubilation, exhaustion and relief.
During the trophy ceremony, he donned a handmade T-shirt that said "I love Roland Garros" in French, with a heart symbol representing the word "love."
"Every single time I come here, it's special," Kuerten said later as a small but noisy group of Brazilian fans celebrated to the sound of samba drums. "Everything that happens here to me is wonderful. It's a place I love to be."
The top-seeded Kuerten, 24, became the sixth man to win three French championships and the first since Mats Wilander earned his third title in 1988. He's the first man to win consecutive French trophies since Sergi Bruguera in 1993-94.
But there will be no back-to-back major titles this year for Kuerten, because he'll skip Wimbledon in two weeks. Kuerten said he wants to rest his sore groin, but he has previously complained about the tournament's seeding system, and his career record there is only 6-4.
Though ranked No. 1, Kuerten has reached a Grand Slam semifinal only in Paris. Some players -- most recently Yevgeny Kafelnikov two days ago -- have said Kuerten needs broader success to be ranked with the sport's all-time elite.
"Winning three titles, even if they are on clay, what's the problem?" the Spaniard said. "I would love to be in his situation. ... He doesn't need to show anything. He has to feel happy with what he achieved already. But, of course, he can go for more because he can play anywhere."
For sure Kuerten's the king of clay, where he has won 44 of his past 47 matches.
He played cautiously at the start of the final, when gusty wind sent clouds of clay into the stands. Conditions were worst during the first-set tiebreaker, when Kuerten missed every first serve and once went to his chair to wipe dirt from his contact lens.
Then the weather improved, and the Rembrandt of Roland Garros began to paint the lines. Corretja stayed close for a while, and at 5-5 in the second set he had a break point but missed a backhand wide.
"That point could have changed the match a lot," Kuerten said. "After that, I played so aggressive that I put him in a tough situation."
Kuerten held serve, then broke to take the second set, and Corretja began to fold. He increasingly found himself pinned behind the baseline chasing shots into both corners, and when he hit a backhand wide to lose the third set, the Spaniard angrily smacked a ball into the stands.
"I wasn't feeling too well because I knew he was playing better," said Corretja, also the runner-up in 1998. "The way he was playing the last two sets, it was pretty difficult to beat him,"
The final set was a rout, with Kuerten winning 23 of the first 25 points. But the final game provided entertainment, if not drama.
Serving for the championship at 40-love, Kuerten blew an easy overhead. Then he hit a backhand wide. Then he took an even easier overhead on the bounce and hit it right at Corretja, who blocked a lob over Kuerten's head. The Brazilian had to retreat to the baseline and eventually smacked a backhand long as the crowd groaned.
That made three match points lost.
"I saw myself winning all of them," a chagrined Kuerten said. "I was feeling so emotional at that time that I wanted to finish it off, so I rushed a little bit."
There would be no miracle comeback by Corretja, however. Four points later, Kuerten closed out the victory with one last sizzling forehand, then began skipping around the court like a kid just released for recess.
Before mounting the podium to accept his trophy, Kuerten carefully knocked the clay from his shoes. He then spoke French to French Open fans for the first time, telling them: "I love playing at Roland Garros. I love playing for you. Thank you for supporting me."
Kuerten's native language is Portuguese, and he speaks halting English. When did he learn French?
"Yesterday," he joked. "I was try to figure out the words I knew, and I put all together."
Kuerten earned $590,000, and he became the first player in 25 years to win the men's title after being down match point in an earlier round. He was one point from a straight-set defeat in the fourth round against American qualifier Michael Russell, and following that escape Kuerten carved a heart in the clay for the first time.
"I never really had in my best dreams winning here three times," he said. "So I see myself as a really blessed guy."