Guga, Guga and more Guga
Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.
A quick stream of consciousness: Jennifer Capriati attributes her recent success in part to her amicable uncoupling with Xavier Malisse (screenplay title: The Absence of Malisse). "It's allowed me to concentrate more on my tennis," she says. Coincidence or not, he's playing better of late, too. Ranked outside the nether regions during 2000, the supremely talented Belgian is on a roll in 2001 that includes reaching the finals in Delray last weekend. The only drawback: His success there caused him to miss the qualies for Indian Wells. ... Props to the evergreen Francisco Clavet for beating Andre Agassi in Scottsdale for the second straight year and then going on to win the tournament, the first hardcourt title of his career. That Clavet is on the north side of 30 makes his accomplishments more impressive still. ... Overheard at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden: "I think [ Elena Bovina ] is from one of those Czech republics." ... Is it me or should the U.S. Professional Tennis Association be alerted about Carmela Soprano's tennis pro? Her form is worse than Annie Hall's. ... A raucous jeer to the University of Kansas for dropping its men's tennis program.
Finally, since it was so successful a few weeks ago, here's another tennis riddle I'm hoping you guys can help me solve: Why -- after repeated warnings from the chair umpire, angry tsk-tsks and boos from others in the crowd, and even pleas from the players -- do fans insist on leaving their cell phones on during matches? If it were one absent-minded schmo in a crowd of 14,000, I could understand. But when dozens of phones chirp during any given match, it strikes me as creepily anti-social and utterly hostile. It's tempting to dismiss this as quintessential ugly Americanism, but players report that it's just as bad in Europe and Asia. I don't get it. Any thoughts?
OK, so I set myself up for this one. Last week I explained that the reason Gustavo Kuerten is seldom discussed here -- relative to his ranking, anyway -- is because I rarely receive questions that pertain to him. Après moi, le deluge. From Florida to Florianopolis, you stuffed me with Gustavo gustations. So now that you've given me ammo, here's an all-Guga, all-the-time Mailbag. Consider it compensation for all those weeks your man got shortchanged. We will return next week to our regularly scheduled programming.
Why didn't you use Gustavo Kuerten's backhand when you built your perfect player? Is Marat Safin's backhand really better?
Fair point. If Safin is having back trouble that day, I'll gladly sub in Kuerten. There may have been subconscious dispensation given to Safin for aesthetic value. In the eyes of this beholder, his two-handed smack is a thing of beauty. Anyway, here's a point in your favor: Kuerten's backhand has certainly won him more titles than has Safin's.
Here's my question about Gustavo Kuerten: Was it as big a surprise to those of you who cover tennis that he won the French in 1997 as it was to fans like me? Before those two weeks at Roland Garros, I'd never heard of him.
Absolutely. For a spell, Kuerten was tennis' answer to the band R.E.M. That is to say, everyone claimed to be a fan of his before he went mainstream. Fact is, even the few journalists who were familiar with his inimitable game prior to June 1997 couldn't possibly have picked him to take the title. At the time, he had won fewer than 50 tour matches and zero tournaments. Yet when Kuerten beat Sergi Bruguera in the final -- becoming the second-lowest-ranked player to win at Roland Garros -- the immediate consensus was that it was more a breakthrough than a fluke. Of course, he has since proven that notion correct.
By the way, say this: If anyone had gone to the betting booth that year and picked Pat Rafter, Kuerten, Bruguera, and never-to-be-heard-from-again qualifier Filip DeWulf to be the four semifinalists at the French that year, he'd have enough money to bail out ISL.
The men's game today doesn't have a clear top player. Only Gustavo Kuerten has won more than one tournament so far this year. He is ranked No. 1 and Marat Safin is No. 2, although each has played well in only one out of the last four Grand Slams. Do you think any of the current top players can be a consistent No. 1?
You're absolutely right. The ATP can try to spin it as "depth" and "parity," but the fact is the men's game is in dire need of more predictability and consistency at the top. Kuerten needs to prove himself on grass, but he's probably the best bet to be a consistent winner. He plays well on a variety of surfaces, he takes care of his body, and he is perhaps the one player outside of Andre Agassi who has the game and the mental fortitude to go a month or two without losing a match. But Kuerten, too, is hardly immune to the upset bug. Like most top players, his record is pocked with too many losses to players outside the top 20.
What did you think of the selection of Pete Sampras over Gustavo Kuerten for player-of-the-year honors? Both Marat Safin and Kuerten won more tournaments than Sampras, both won an equal number of slams, and Kuerten won the year-end championships -- beating Sampras and Andre Agassi in succession. Kuerten won on hardcourts and indoors, and yet Sampras seemed like the preferred choice. What gives?
Most tennis journalists, self included, picked Kuerten as the player of the year in 2000. In addition, the ATP honored him with its Player of the Year distinction. Through November, you could have made a credible case for Sampras and Safin, but Guga sealed the deal in Lisbon. The consecutive wins against Sampras and Agassi were the highlights, but remember, too, that he beat Magnus Norman and Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the days prior as well. That's as good a week of tennis as we've seen in a long time.
If anyone tapped Sampras instead, I assume it's because he gave disproportionate weight to Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Sampras won one and made the final of the other, while Guga was a non-entity at both. Either that or -- just hypothetically, of course -- it was a shlocky Las Vegas awards show and Sampras was willing to appear in person while Kuerten wasn't.
What's the deal with Gustavo Kuerten? Last year he played miserable tennis for the first two months of the year and then made three of the first five Masters Series finals and won the French. This year he lost early in Australia but seems to be heating up recently. Also, how on earth does a guy built like a bamboo pole routinely overpower players like Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov from the baseline?
Your second question, first. How Kuerten generates so much potency and pace from limbs that have the circumference of car antennae is as mystifying to me as Gianluca Pozzi's status as a top-50 player. You're right, though, against all prevailing laws of physics, Kuerten can overpower anyone when he's on.
So what's his deal? Here's my no-holds-barred take on Kuerten: He's a supremely talented, fun-to-watch, charismatic player whose angular physique and affability (his mid-match handshake with Cedric Pioline at the 1999 U.S. Open was one of tennis' more charming moments) makes him all the more entertaining. Whether he likes it or not -- remember his reluctance at being named a New Ball? -- he may well be the leading light on tour in a few years. He has established himself as the world's best clay-court player and has the ability to win any Masters Series event. He's nobody's grass-court sorcerer, but we don't hold that against him.
Why hasn't he completely captured the imagination of the public? My best guess is that his uneven record at the Grand Slams dooms him. You and I know that tennis is a year-round sport and cumulative rankings exist for a reason. To casual fans, however, tennis consists of four events and a lot of sandwich filling in between. When Kuerten comes to New York as a top seed and gets waxed in his first match by Wayne Arthurs -- a player barely ranked in the top 100 at the time -- it's devastating. Same for when he arrives at Wimbledon as the defending Grand Slam champ and gets Alexander Popp- ed by a little-known German qualifier.
Gustavo Kuerten has found success on clay, carpet and hard surfaces, but not on grass. Do you think he has the game to better his results on this surface?
I think it depends how ambitious you want to be. On his serve and groundies alone, he certainly has the capacity to make the second week at Wimbledon. On the other hand, he's still a long way off from being a serious contender. He doesn't volley naturally enough and -- not unlike Sampras on clay -- he still doesn't have the nuances of the surface down. Last year at Wimbledon I saw Kuerten play Chris Woodruff in his first match. It was barely two weeks after he had won a Grand Slam, and Kuerten was an entirely different player. He was tentative, at times too patient and other times too aggressive, and clearly frustrated. He persevered in four sets, but you could tell from his discomfort that he wasn't long for the draw.
This is really difficult to understand. Gustavo Kuerten has won 25 straight matches on clay courts and no one has said anything about it! He's one of the toughest players on the circuit and surely deserves more credit. Besides, he's very charismatic and a very nice boy.
Carlos Woelz of Sao Paulo asked a similar question. You're absolutely right that Kuerten deserves the proverbial props for his recent play on clay. But it would have been a bigger deal if the events had been higher-tier tournaments. (A player winning back-to-back events in which he beats Jose Acasuso and Galo Blanco in the finals doesn't quite knock Hugh Rodham off the front page.) Rest assured that if Kuerten stays hot and can make noise at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, albeit on a surface other than clay, it will get plenty of play.
I'm interested in your opinion on replacing the grass at Wimbledon with, say, a surface more akin to those used at the U.S. and Australian opens. I've wondered for a while now why many of the top players (e.g., Gustavo Kuerten, Carlos Moya, Marcelo Rios, Alex Corretja, to name just a few) bother with the grass-court season when they have no chance of winning on a surface that heavily favors serve-and-volley specialists. Do Francisco Clavet, Mariano Zabaleta, Fernando Meligeni, Juan Ignatio Chela, Hernan Gumy, et al. really want to spend June in cold, wet and windy England? I'm with Ivan Lendl: Grass is for cows!
Wimbledon will be played on a surface other than grass about the same time Kuerten's animated coach, Larri Passos, wears his hair in dreads. As many of you often point out, grass is comically anachronistic as a surface. But in a perverse way, that's a lot of Wimbledon's appeal. The event sells itself on history and tradition, and that's not about to change.
Still, your point is well taken. Why do so many players weaned on clay and concrete even bother to make the trip, endure those gray days, the inevitable rain delays and those nasty, oleaginous bangers they serve at breakfast? For all its flaws, Wimbledon is still flush with too much prestige (read: points and prize money) for players to skip it. A player like Kuerten is better off winning three or four matches at the All England as he is winning a rinky-dink clay event that week -- assuming there was one. There's also a p.r. factor: As your man Lendl would attest, players who commit the sacrilege of bagging Wimby get mauled in the press.
What's the dope on lan Thorpe and Martina Hingis? Is this a new romance on the horizon?
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