RIO DE JANEIRO — To friends, he's simply "Guga." But to the multitude of his admiring tennis fans, Gustavo Kuerten is a collective chant: "Guga! Guga! Guga!"
And as the French Open begins Monday, Kuerten can step onto the slow red-clay courts of the Stade Roland Garros knowing he will be cheered the loudest.
He is a star in Paris, the city that sparked "Gugamania" three years ago, when Kuerten became the the lowest-ranked player ever - at No. 66 - to win a Grand Slam title.
And in his native Brazil, where soccer is much more cherished than tennis, the rapid rise of Kuerten has ushered in new appreciation of the game. Now the Brazilian tennis federation is tapping the ace's surging popularity to serve the game to a wider local audience.
'Guga': on top of his game for French Open
So far the game plan to spread the sport seems to be working.
"The interest in tennis has grown hugely since he won Roland Garros," says Marco Tulio Vasconcelos, the Banco do Brasil executive who oversees the Tennis Brasil project that the bank is funding. "Sales of tennis equipment have increased 30 percent since then, and the number of people taking tennis lessons has jumped 40 percent.
"I think we can say tennis has grown to become one of the most popular sports in Brazil, after soccer, in large part because Guga portrays such a good image for the sport," he adds
Image is everything they say, and Kuerten's affable demeanor has captured the imagination of his countrymen. He radiates goodwill and confidence and appears equally at ease with his surfing buddies from Florianopolis as he is with Andre Agassi. Last year, his comrades on the ATP tour voted him the second-most popular player, after Agassi.
Most notably, Kuerten displays a down-to-earth maturity that few sportsmen possess. That maturity has helped him steer clear of the internecine feuding common in other Brazilian sports, and added to tennis's marketability to a new audience.
"He is a very accessible guy who is easy going and gets along very well with people," says Ivan Caetano of Brazilian Olympic Committee. "He's well-known for being close to his family, his mother, and his grandparents, and that stuff is important in Brazil. When you have an idol like that in a sport, the sport benefits and that is what has happened with tennis in Brazil."
A hometown kid
And unlike many Brazilians who ignore their local soccer club and cheer for the big-city teams, Kuerten passionately supports the Florianopolis side he watched as a kid. The self-proclaimed beach bum likes nothing better than taking his surfboard to the Atlantic coast to catch a few waves.
Such behavior has helped make him one of the most popular sportsmen in Brazil today. At 23, the stringy tennis player has found a place in the Pantheon of Brazilian sports, alongside such legends as Pele and Formula One racing champion, Aryton Senna.
The Isto Gente, Rio's version of People magazine, placed Kuerten among the Top-20 Brazilian athletes of all time, ahead of soccer superstar Ronaldo. Last year, the Brazilian Olympic Committee named him the Athlete of the Year, the first tennis player to receive the honor. Kids imitate him by wearing his trademark bandanas, and television stations broadcast his matches live.
"The country stops when Guga plays tennis," says Florianopolis Mayor Angela Amin. "He has managed to popularize a sport that was once only played by the middle classes."
Any mention of Brazilian tennis historically began and ended with Maria Bueno, who won Wimbledon women's singles titles on three occasions (1959, 1960, 1964) and was runner-up twice.
But of late, tennis is reaching a wider audience in Brazil. Televised matches attract a 50 percent greater audience than before Kuerten appeared on the scene. And in five states across the country, Banco do Brasil is building tennis academies to nurture new talent.
"Him winning Roland Garros really got people interested," says Carlos Alberto Martelotti, the assistant director of the Confederation of Brazilian Tennis. "But it's not that he's just a tennis player. He's charismatic, pleasant, funny , and extroverted."
Kuerten has also won deep respect for his work with the handicapped. He visits children in hospitals across Brazil, and donates $200 for every match he plays to the Association of Parents and Friends of the Handicapped.
"I lived every day with [Guilherme] and it was a great experience for me," he said recently about his handicapped brother, who gets to keep all the trophies that Kuerten wins. "I try to be satisfied with the life I have, to see that I have a good life and understand that there are many people with problems greater than me."
"I don't want to buy anything," Kuerten told reporters when he won the French Open. "My life is perfect even before this tournament.... I have a good house, and I have my mother's car that I use a little bit."
On the court, Kuerten's power belies his scrawny physique. He's known for his deceptive swings and a blisteringly paced two-handed backhand passing shot.
Earlier in the season, Kuerten had his share of problems to deal with, especially a back injury and a string of patchy performances. But he has found his groove over the past few weeks, finishing runner-up in the Italian Open and then going one better in the German Open in Hamburg last weekend, adding the only major clay-court title missing from his repertoire. In the final, he beat Russia's Martin Safin, one of hottest players this season, in five sets that commentators described as the best match of the year.
At home in Paris
The victory lifted him to No. 2 in the world rankings - on the new ATP system introduced this year - gave him a boost of confidence just in time for the French Open, where the fans adopted him as their own. And back in Brazil, Kuerten's growing legion of fans will also be cheering.
"Tennis will never be the most popular sport here," says Martelotti. "But thanks to Guga, it is becoming ever more popular. Even people who aren't interested in tennis are interested in Guga. He is the idol we have been looking for."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society