- 03 Jun 2020
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, June 3, 2001, Gustavo Kuerten, twice the Roland-Garros champion, showed his appreciation for the crowd’s support by kneeling in a heart he had carved with his racquet on Court Philippe Chatrier. Guga had miraculously survived his fourth-round match against Michael Russell, ranked No 122, coming back from two sets down and saving a match point. He would go on to win a third French Open crown after sealing his love story with the tournament and its public.
Gustavo Kuerten, born in 1976, had made himself famous in 1997, when, ranked No 66 and unknown to the public, he claimed the title at Roland-Garros, defeating the last three champions on his way (Thomas Muster, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and in the final, Sergi Bruguera, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2). Not only was it his first career title, but it was even his first final on the tour. His game, relying on a great first serve and an impressive one-handed backhand, topped with great drop shots, made him a natural clay-court player.
He collected a second Roland-Garros crown in 2000, his peak year, defeating Magnus Norman in the final (6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6). The same year, after an amazing triumph at the Masters Cup, where he defeated both Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras on fast indoor courts, he finished the year as world No 1, edging Marat Safin at the last minute. In 2001, he was one of the big Roland-Garros favourites again, after claiming three titles on clay, in Buenos Aires, Acapulco and Monte-Carlo, and finishing runner-up to Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome.
Michael Russell, born in 1978, was ranked No 122 at the start of the French Open, where he had to go through the qualification rounds. In fact, Russell had just achieved something unique in tennis history as he had become the first player to ever qualify in four consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. In 2001, he had mostly competed on the Challenger tour in North and South America.
The story took place at Roland-Garros, Paris. The stadium, located in the west of Paris at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne forest, had been hosting the French Open since 1928. It was the first and now the only Grand Slam to be played on clay, the slowest surface, which made it the hardest tournament to win from a physical perspective.
Kuerten had won the tournament twice already. His smiley attitude, combined with his unexpected and refreshing 1997 victory, had made him one the public’s all-time favourite players. Facing him in Paris was maybe even harder than facing a Frenchman, as he always had a strong support from the crowd.
It was Russell’s first appearance in the Roland-Garros main draw.
Scheduled as the first match on the newly renamed Court Philippe Chatrier, the fourth-round match between Kuerten and Russell was not expected to be remembered almost 20 years later. The Brazilian had already won the tournament twice and his record on clay in 2001 had made him one of the top title contenders. His opponent had never played in the main draw. The week before participating in the Roland-Garros qualifying event, Russell had lost in the semi-final of a Challenger event in Scotland against world No 214 Gorka Falle. The American even had to save a match point against Frenchman Olivier Patience in the first round of qualies. In the second round of the main draw, he was down two sets to love against Bruguera before the Spaniard felt sick and retired at the beginning of the fourth set. On top of that, he had already played six matches in Paris and had to fight five sets in the third round to edge Xavier Malisse (3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4). There was surely no way he could be a threat to Kuerten.
Yet, two hours later, in front of a mesmerised audience, Russell, serving for the match, was one point away from eliminating the best clay-court player of his time. Kuerten was but a shadow of himself, far away from his usual standards in every aspect of the game, while his challenger boldly took his chances. The American had never played in front of such a crowd, and he was enjoying it so much that he wasn’t even bothered by the fact that they loudly supported his opponent. So far, he had delivered a great performance and displayed a high level of energy.
The players, very cautious on such an important point, engaged into a long rally from the baseline. After 26 strokes, a Kuerten forehand, which many people believed was out, landed on the baseline and allowed him to save the match point. Guga was about to write a new chapter of his legend. The Brazilian evened the score and pushed Russell into a tiebreak, which he won 7-3.
The momentum had changed. In the next two sets, Kuerten outplayed his opponent, who had never played a fifth set before Roland-Garros, to seal his victory, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1. After the traditional handshake, Gustavo Kuerten walked back to the middle of the court and, using his racquet, drew a heart on the ground. He then knelt in the middle of the heart and blew kisses to thank the crowd for the great support he had received that day. This gesture would remain a symbol of Kuerten’s special relationship with Roland-Garros and its public.
“It was very special, maybe one of the greatest feelings in all my life on the tennis court,” Kuerten would comment, quoted by ATP.com. “I like these challenges, to fight and to give it my all.”
A week later, Guga would claim his third and last French Open title, defeating Alex Corretja in the final, 6-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-0. He would draw a heart on the court again, but this time he would let himself lie on the clay, before getting up and climbing the stands to hug his long-time coach, Larri Passos.
Russell’s reflections on that match shows how this 2001 Roland-Garros fourth round would be remembered by tennis fans. Years later, even though he lost it and never reached the fourth round of any other slam again, people would recognise him. “But even walking around the grounds in Paris today, fans will sometimes come up to me and say they remember watching that match and how special it was.” Russell would reach his best ranking, world no.60, in 2007. He would never claim a title or reach a single final on the main tour.
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