Monday, August 13, 2001

Kuerten's win gives him lift for U.S. Open

By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Gustavo Kuerten shows off his trophy.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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        MASON — When Gustavo Kuerten showed up at the ATP Tennis Center for the first time four years ago, he was coming off the first of his three French Open titles.

        He was a gangly 20-year-old unknown who had caught the tennis world by surprise. From the small town of Florianoplis, Brazil, “Guga” was mostly thought of as a clay-court player. He was just beginning to establish himself.

        Kuerten now stands as the No.1 player in the world. And, the champion of the Tennis Masters Series Cincinnati.

        The top seed quickly disposed of crowd-favorite Patrick Rafter 6-1, 6-3 in one hour Sunday to win $400,000 and his career-high sixth title of the year.

        This was Kuerten's third championship on hard courts, and it came against one of the favorites for the U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 27.

        All week long, as players talked about who would be tough at the Open, Kuerten's name almost never came up.

        “I guess he really hasn't proved himself this time of year,” the eighth-seeded Rafter said. “So in the past, I guess it was fair not to call him a favorite. But right now, I think you have to look very closely at how dangerous Guga can be there.”

        How much does Kuerten have to prove?

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        In the Tennis Masters Cup last fall in Lisbon, he defeated Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi over three straight days to win the season-long ATP Champions Race, which he leads again this year.

        And that was on hard court indoors.

        He already is tied for fourth-most Tennis Masters Series titles (five) and is 63-32 on hard courts since 1999.

        Kuerten is 15-3 in four appearances in Cincinnati. His .833 winning percentage is best among active players and second-best of all-time, behind only Mats Wilander (.837).

        “I don't care where I'm playing or which court,” Kuerten said. “Especially now, I feel that I'm ready to play and see what the guy will show against me. ”

Patrick Rafter shows his disgust with a line call.
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        Rafter showed little.

        Kuerten first had to finish his semifinal match against Tim Henman on Sunday. That was postponed Saturday night because of rain after Kuerten won the first set 6-2 and trailed in the second set 1-5.

        Henman won the first game Sunday to take the second set, and Kuerten won the third set with a 7-4 tiebreaker. Twenty minutes later, he came back out to warm up for his match against Rafter.

        Playing a second opponent in one day could have worked against Kuerten. Instead, it gave him the momentum to blow past Rafter in the fourth-quickest championship match here.

        “I think I start already with a great rhythm,” Kuerten said. “I think everybody was surprised the way the match went.”

        The 24-year-old Brazilian collected the winner's check for $400,000 and became the first Cincinnati champion from South America in 41 years.

        “(Kuerten) was definitely on fire,” said Rafter, who earned $211,000.         After Rafter held serve on the first game, Kuerten took the next seven. He dominated Rafter all day with his returns, serve and passing shots. He even mixed in some slices and drop shots.

        The match went too fast for Rafter to find any rhythm. Kuerten is 16-5 in tournament finals in his career.

        “I've never seen him serve that well before,” Rafter said. “Everything he did was just phenomenal. It was incredible. He believes he can win on all surfaces now.

        “Today was just a case of two different divisions of players out there, really. He was exceptional, and I take my hat off to him.”

        Kuerten was the first South American finalist in Cincinnati since 1980 and the first South American champion since 1960.

        He did not have an easy path, either. Kuerten had to beat rising American star Andy Roddick, German Tommy Haas, Wimbledon champ Goran Ivanisevic and sixth-seeded Kafelnikov just to get to Henman, who was runner-up in Cincinnati last year.

        After the match and on-court interviews, Kuerten stopped to sign hats, Brazilian flags, programs, balls, posters of himself and allow for some congratulatory kisses from his faithful female fans.

        “When I took him at 13 years old, I told him if you want to be No.1, you have to play all the surfaces,” said Larri Passos, Kuerten's coach since 1989. “Now is a dream for me.

        “We don't think about No.1. I go to the court with him and we try to fix little things he needs on important points. He hasn't anything to prove for anybody now. What can we do now? Just wake up in the morning and start to work.”


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