Rafael Nadal may well be on his way to becoming the greatest player ever on the claycourts of Roland Garros but he will likely never be held in more affection than the soon-to-be retired Gustavo Kuerten.
The already popular Brazilian forever won the hearts of an adoring Paris public for a spontaneous gesture at the end of an extraordinary fourth round tie against American Michael Russell in 2001.
Two sets and match point down and apparently about to ingloriously lose the title he had won for the second time the previous year, Kuerten dug deep, clawed his way back into the match and, with the center crowd noisily behind him, eventually triumphed.
At the end he sunk to his knees and traced a huge heart with his racket on the dusty, red clay to dedicate his win to the fans in the stands.
A week later, “Guga,” as he came to be known, repeated the touching gesture after the final in which he beat Alex Corretja in four sets and again the crowd went wild.
Recalling his emotions after the win over Russell, Kuerten said: “I experienced something incredible that day.”
“I could feel the fans behind me and there was a synergy between us. It was a magic moment — I’ve never felt anything quite like that,” he said.
Kuerten had exploded onto the Paris tennis scene four years earlier when as an unknown 20-year-old, ranked 66th in the world, he became the first Brazilian male to win a Grand Slam title.
In so doing he defeated along the way three former champions — Thomas Muster, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and in the final Sergi Bruguera.
More than the victory itself though it was the flamboyant manner in which he played and his obvious warm connection with the fans that caught the eye.
Dressed in Brazilian football colors and with a samba-band pounding out support, Kuerten, who wore his heart on his sleeve on the court, was a refreshing change from the dour grinders of the game like previous winners Bruguera, Kafelnikov and Muster who had dominated during the 1990s.
He broke into the world 10, but with a big wind-up on either flank usually found it tougher to compete with the best on the faster surfaces. Wimbledon in particular was a problem despite a quarter-final appearance in 1999.
The following year, however, was probably the best of Kuerten’s career.
He won his second French Open title in a tough four-setter against Magnus Norman and then went on to finish the year as world No.1.