Commentary

Life before Rafael Nadal in Paris

Updated: May 22, 2012, 11:47 PM ET
By Matt Wilansky | ESPN.com

Ah, those indelible images of Rafael Nadal roaring his terrible roar in celebration, then gnashing his not-so-terrible teeth into the Coupe des Mousquetaires. Nadal, you see, is most certainly a dentist's dream patient, but he is also the scariest player to make his way to the rustic grounds of Roland Garros this side of Bjorn Borg. For the past seven years, Nadal has overpowered nearly every foe who has stood in his way.

Nadal has redefined tennis with a game so potent that his opponents have not been able to withstand his irrepressible attack. He's built a legacy that extends well beyond sport and into rare superstardom.

[+] EnlargeGustavo Kuerten
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesCharm, passion and charisma. There's a reason Gustavo Kuerten captured our hearts.

And when you think about it closely, it's actually a little hard to remember the French Open before Nadal emerged with those ruthless groundstrokes and unyielding mindset -- a combination that has led him straight to a record-tying six trophy ceremonies. We'll be hard-pressed to find another player in our lifetime who will come along and break all those seemingly unassailable marks that Nadal has left. Roland Garros and Rafael Nadal. Rafael Nadal and Roland Garros. Today, you just can't have one without the other.

But, contrary to what we've come to know and accept, there was life at the French Open before Rafa's assault began. A lot of it, in fact. And no one lit up Paris quite like Gustavo Kuerten.

A three-time winner of the French, Kuerten rose through the ranks to become arguably the most illuminating champion in recent times. He was the rare breed who could captivate us with not just his pursuit of titles but also his charm along the way. It wasn't as much about the results as it was the delivery.

"He had special charisma," ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said. "He had a style and substance about him that was natural. You wanted to embrace it immediately. He just had a lot of magical moments at the French Open."

In 1997, Kuerten, then an unheralded player ranked 66th in the world, became an instant celebrity with his inspired, energetic run to the championship. Along the way, Kuerten, who will take his rightful place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July, thwarted three former champions, including two-time winner Sergi Bruguera in the final. Although it was a routine 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win, Guga grabbed our hearts with his grandiose game and even bigger grin.

Kuerten single-handedly transformed Brazil, and much of South America, for that matter, into a passionate, faithful tennis haven. His genuine love for the game was so endearing that his vast followers quickly evolved into vociferous fanatics, clearly energized by Guga's brand of ball.

"It reminds you of the Brazilian soccer players," ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. "They take so much joy, and not just in the winning part of it, but the way it's done: the flair, passion and creativity."

But it was that seemingly innocuous day in 2001, when Kuerten, who had won his second French Open title a year earlier, carved (literally) his personality into the record books. After a harrowing escape against Michael Russell in the fourth round, Guga famously drew a heart into the clay, a message to the fans that needs no further explanation.

"Yes, the heart," Shriver said. "He just had that presence about him."

Kuerten was not touted as a multi-Slam winner à la Nadal or blessed with the unadulterated grace of one Roger Federer. But, let's face it: We're all suckers for great stories, for those who rise from the ashes and into immediate stardom. Guga was that guy.

In 2000, Patrick McEnroe was in Lisbon for the year-end championships. He watched as Marat Safin attempted to lock up the No. 1 ranking, which was all but a done deal. Safin entered the event coming off a dominating performance at the U.S. Open, where he crushed then-four-time champion Pete Sampras in the final.

After Kuerten dropped his opening match in the round-robin event, he had the slimmest of chances to strip Safin of the top ranking. But Guga did it, and fittingly, he did it with style.

"It was amazing," McEnroe said. "It was pretty awesome. He had a huge following there. And look at who he beat: Sampras and [Andre] Agassi back-to-back in the semis and final. Safin had all the momentum going in.

"That inspiration propelled him to new heights as a player. You could tell how much it meant to him."

The Lisbon title was also an affirmation of what McEnroe knew Kuerten could accomplish on a faster court.

"The way he played, his game wasn't a grinding, defensive style," McEnroe said. "I'm a little surprised he didn't have more success on hard courts. He wasn't your traditional clay-court player. He played with so much passion. He played a real offensive brand of tennis on clay. We were so used to the grinding champions of the Lendls and Wilanders, the Brugueras and Musters.

"Guga played drop shots, took the ball early; he wasn't afraid to come to net. He didn't just win by outworking people. He outplayed them. It was an all-out attacking game."

Kuerten was a true artist. From his beaming shirts to his trademark grunts to his flamboyant groundstrokes. He played with a style and substance that we just don't have today. You rooted for Guga because he left everything on the court. You could feel his every emotion.

And yes, Nadal has since locked his arms around nearly every conceivable record at the French Open, but no matter how much longer he plays and how many more records he racks up, he'll always trail Guga in two very important categories: his love affair with the game, and ours with him.