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Kuerten Searches for His First Victory on Grass at Wimbledon

June 20, 1999|DARREN TULETT | BLOOMBERG NEWS

LONDON — Gustavo Kuerten is the world's seventh-ranked tennis player, but British oddsmakers give him about as much a chance of winning Wimbledon as the Thames River has of freezing over in June.

The 22-year-old former French Open champion has never won a match on grass and comes from a long line of Brazilian baseliners.

This year, he didn't even bother to participate in the traditional warm-up tournaments on the grass courts of England where serve-and-volley players dominate.

Still, Kuerten believes he can at least get past first-round opponent Chris Wilkinson, if for no other reason than the British player is ranked 200th in the world.

"I know Wilkinson is a dangerous grass court player, but maybe I'll have a chance to get some rhythm," he said.

Kuerten has two wins this season--both on clay. He lost in the quarterfinals of the French Open last month to Andrei Medvedev and flew home to Brazil to spend the next three weeks practicing on an indoor synthetic grass court at his brother's tennis academy.

"I know it's not the best preparation, but I needed to go home to recharge my batteries," he said. "At least this way, I avoid the rain."

Kuerten has only played four tournament matches on grass and he's lost them all. His two previous Wimbledon appearances ended in five-set defeats to Jason Stoltenberg and Justin Gimelstob.

Still, Wilkinson could prove dangerous even with his ranking and a record of never advancing past the third round of any tournament on the professional circuit.

The 29-year-old has an 11-8 win-loss record at Wimbledon, though, where he has reached the third round four times. Wilkinson can also count on the backing of the home crowd.

Kuerten hopes a practice session under English skies and an exhibition match with three-time Wimbledon winner Boris Becker will fine-tune his preparations.

"I really want to get a first win under my belt," he said. "And if I win one, who knows how far I might go," he added.

Back in Brazil, Kuerten, or "Guga," as he's known there, has come a long way since he first traveled to Europe with his longtime coach, Larri Passos, at the age of 15.

He was so interested in the sport that when he failed to qualify for some Grand Slam junior championships, he would wind up hiding in the bleachers just so he could watch the top pros at work.

Although now a favorite with sponsors in his homeland, Kuerten tries not to lose touch with his roots. He prefers to hang out with his old friends in his home town and hit the beach as soon as he's back from tournaments. He was voted Brazil's top sports personality in 1997 after becoming the first man from that country to win a Grand Slam title.

One luxury he allowed himself after the French Open victory was the purchase of an apartment at Praia Brava, Kuerten's favorite beach, some 20 miles from his house.

Praia Brava's going to seem a long way away, Kuerten said, if he fails to break his grass-court losing streak next week at Wimbledon.

The odds are long. The only baseliner to win Wimbledon in 15 years was Andre Agassi in 1992.

Oddsmakers make Kuerten a 100-1 underdog. One even said Kuerten has as much a chance to win as Prime Minister Tony Blair does of releasing a top-10 single--or a deep freeze on the Thames.

"Believe me, I don't want to get back to the beach that quickly, however much I love it," Kuerten he said.

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