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Kuerten persists to take Open title

Posted: Monday, June 12, 2000

PARIS -- Gustavo Kuerten celebrated his second French Open title 42 minutes and 10 match points too soon.

The umpire wouldn't give Kuerten the victory the first time he thought he'd earned it, and neither would an amazingly resilient Magnus Norman, who fended off more match points than perhaps anyone in Grand Slam history.

Not until Norman sent a forehand inches wide on the 11th match point to give Kuerten the tiebreaker 8-6 -- 52 tense points after the disputed call -- could the Brazilian claim the championship Sunday, 6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (6), and the No. 1 spot in the rankings race.

''Every time I thought I was going to win, and then it was one more, and one more, and one more,'' an exhausted Kuerten said after the 3-hour, 44-minute match.

There were chants of ''Gu-ga, Gu-ga'' by the dozens of yellow-blue-green-clad Brazilians in the crowd throughout the match, and when it was over they danced round and round Roland Garros to the sound of steel drums.

''Here I am again,'' the 23-year-old Kuerten, winner of the 1997 French Open, told the crowd during the trophy ceremony as he accepted the $600,000 winner's check. ''I'm so happy to be here.''

The drama didn't truly begin until Kuerten took a 5-4 lead in the fourth set. Norman, in his first Grand Slam final, had played nervously and sloppily in the first two sets, uncharacteristically slamming his racket on the court several times, while the spindly but strong Kuerten put on an artistic show without facing much pressure.

When Norman found his rhythm in the third set and twice broke a tiring Kuerten, the match became interesting but still seemed a rather prosaic duel -- a dull finish to the tournament a day after Mary Pierce claimed the women's title for France and a few hours after she and Martina Hingis teamed to win the doubles championship.

That all changed at the moment when everyone thought the match was over. At 15-40 on Norman's serve, the Swede hit an inside-out forehand crosscourt that the lineswoman called wide and that Kuerten, standing a few feet away, also saw out. Kuerten circled the spot, then walked to the net to shake hands with Norman.

''For me, it was clearly out,'' Kuerten said. ''I could be already taking my trophy, taking my pictures. I was there, running all over.''

But Norman questioned the call, and umpire Francois Pareau came down from his chair to look at the spot from several angles. When Pareau ruled that the ball had touched the sideline, Kuerten argued, but to no avail.

''I think it was in,'' Norman said. ''Maybe Guga saw it out. It's a lot of emotions, match point. He really wanted to win that one.''

Televised replays of the point didn't clearly settle the matter and wouldn't have changed the umpire's ruling in any case.

Now at 30-40, Kuerten saw the next match point slip away when he hit a forehand wide. Kuerten kept arguing with the umpire and staring at the disputed spot for a couple of points, and when Norman sprayed a forehand wide by a foot, Kuerten circled that spot, too, in a mocking gesture at Pareau. Norman saved that third match point with a forehand winner, and eventually won the game when Pareau again overruled a linesman and called a forehand by Kuerten long.

''Every time I missed another chance, I was still thinking about that,'' Kuerten said. ''It's really strange. The points keep passing.''

Kuerten, bothered by a sore back and pushed to five sets in his previous two matches, received back and calf massages from a trainer several times during this match and looked increasingly weary as the match tightened.

But he channeled his anger into a strong service game to take the lead again, 6-5, and put Norman back on the defensive. Norman and Kuerten each dug in now, amid incessant chants of ''Gu-ga, Gu-ga,'' and produced the longest game of the match and the most tension-packed in memory -- 24-points, nine deuces and four match points. When it finally ended on a backhand into the net by Kuerten, Norman pumped his fists as if he were on the verge of victory rather than the brink of defeat.

That confidence didn't last long. Norman double-faulted and hit a forehand long as Kuerten took a 3-0 lead in the tiebreaker. Then Norman gained a couple of minibreaks and tied it up 3-3. It was a strange tiebreaker, neither one giving in, yet neither one dominating. Kuerten won the next three points to make it 6-3 and give himself three more match points, but Norman saved them all to knot the score again at 6-6.

Norman resembled the proverbial cat with nine lives, but now he found himself hanging on to his 11th when Kuerten smacked a service winner for a 7-6 lead. This time, Norman couldn't save himself. After all the long, brilliant rallies of the match, he finally succumbed to defeat in a brief exchange when he pushed an easy forehand slightly wide.

Tennis records are not kept on match points saved. But no one, including experts who have followed the game for more than five decades, could recall any player surviving so many in a Grand Slam tournament.

Some players run into the crowd after winning and hug their parents or lovers or coaches. Kuerten climbed up over the seats to embrace a Brazilian banking pal named Carlos de Almeida Braga.

''He was someone that really appreciated my work since I was young,'' Kuerten said. ''When I start to play here as a junior, he really helped me. Every match I win, he give me some money. Was good for me ... a lot of motivation.''



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