Deja Guga?

A year after hip surgery took him off the tour and out of the Top 20, Gustavo Kuerten has made a convincing comeback. Now his sights are set on his greatest love, Roland Garros. By ADAM SACHS.

ONE hundred miles southeast of Hollywood, down the Sonny Bono Memorial Interchange, beyond Bob Hope Drive and out past Frank Sinatra's old Palm Springs compound, a couple of tennis players are sweating in the winter sun. A crowd stands two deep around the court, though this is just a practice session and practice sessions are dull on purpose. This crowd, these fans wandering the grassy grounds of the Tennis Garden at Indian Wells, California, might not be familiar with all of the top players on tour, but they know their tennis celebrities.

In the forecourt is the Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero. On this March day he's ranked third in the world, an accomplishment that doesn't seem to overly dazzle the onlookers. "He could change his shirt," a woman suggests.

"Who's that with Guga?" another asks.

On the other side of the net looms the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, known to one and all as Guga. Everyone recognises his lanky frame, his distinct geyser of reddish-brown hair. Kuerten looks like a slightly unkempt, slyly sexy South American soccer superstar and is worshipped accordingly. Wherever he goes you expect the chorus of his countrymen. They wrap themselves in the Brazilian flag, beat on drums, and chant their hero's name: Guga! Guga! Guga! The ladies of Palm Springs, in their tailored tracksuits and tasteful sun-visors, may not bang a drum but they do hold a torch.

"Oh, that hair," one says. "It's something," another confirms.

A husband asks without malice, "Do you think he's cute?" A wife responds without hesitation, "His personality is so cute." There's an air of studied nonchalance on the court as the two pros play out points. Kuerten grunts but you can tell they're just practice grunts. He rips a low forehand that seems to make the net duck and the crowd lets out an appreciative whoooooee. Juan Carlos unleashes a down-the-line backhand winner and the crowd is as quiet as a ball boy. It's not JC's fault. He faces not just a formidable practice partner or a former No. 1. He's squared off against that towering personality. Today Kuerten is 24th in the ATP entry rankings, unseeded in the Pacific Life Open but an undeniable presence. At 6 foot-3 he resembles a monstrous Raggedy Andy doll flouncing about. He punishes the ball, and as a crowd pleaser he kills. Even when he's grimacing, straining for a shot, he seems to be smiling. Ferrero looks like he might throttle somebody whose cellphone chirps mid-serve. Kuerten looks like he might jump into the crowd and hug everybody.

After an hour with Ferrero, Kuerten and his coach, Larri Passos, move to another court. The crowd moves with them. About 150 people linger in the sun to watch Passos feed his charge an endless diet of short balls. This is about as boring as watching genius can get. But Kuerten has a purpose the fans can sense. And hear. His grunts sound real now in the desert sun, with his trainer observing from behind, the snow-frosted Santa Rosa Mountains at his back. Behind Kuerten, too, are those other incredible peaks: three Roland Garros titles and the feat of becoming, in 2000, the first South American in ATP ranking history to finish the year at No. 1. Then came last year's deep-down low: arthroscopic surgery on his strained right hip, which kept him off the tour for two months, contributed to his fourth-round exit at Roland Garros, and left him out of the Top 10 for the first time in four years.

What lies ahead is a year to re-establish himself on the tour. Goodwill and a cool haircut count for only so much: To return to the top, he needs to resume the habit of winning tournaments. He kicked off 2003 by winning Auckland. After Indian Wells and Miami, there will be the long string of clay-court tournaments that lead back to his beloved Roland Garros. Can he win in Paris again? Team Guga can barely even talk about it, so great is the desire for a fourth crown.

What they can say — what Passos said later and what the on-court effort is confirming for the fans at practice today — is that Guga is back to play. Or as Passos puts it, sweetly to the point, "Today he believes in his body again."

"For me it's very clear, I don't think I'm going to be number one this year," Kuerten says. Relaxing in the players' lounge at Indian Wells, he doesn't sound the least bit defeated. Nor does this sound like false modesty. Rather he speaks like an athlete with clear plans, clear hopes, and an ever-clearer picture of how to get his body to do what he needs it to do. Right now he's somehow folded his long, angular frame into a plush chair, a fuzzy approachable figure slightly distracted by the car-chase movie flickering on a TV nearby. The tattoo of the sun, radiant on his right wrist, is just that, "a tattoo from last year, just to give me some energy," he says. Around his neck he wears a few small lockets on a chain. Gifts from his mother and one of his brothers, they represent patron saints of Florianopolis, Brazil, his hometown.

"At the beginning it's one of the doubts," Kuerten says of a player's relationship to his own abilities. Rookies don't know how they will last in a best-of-five match, don't know their physical limitations. "Then as the years go by you start to learn a lot from your body. You see how it's going to respond, how much energy is left, what you can use and what you cannot. What you have to practice more of tomorrow, or less. This is the experience you take from the first years on tour and you can see how everybody, around 18 or 19, they start to have this success but they are not really used to it. But when they reach 21, 22, they learn and then have this big step up."

There are these lessons of experience and then there is something else: the wisdom that comes from overcoming adversity. For Kuerten, 26, coming back from surgery means not only getting his body back into form but also listening more closely to it.

Surgery and rehabilitation "make you learn," he says. "It changes a lot of the way you look at yourself playing the game. You try to pay attention more to your body, be aware of what your body is saying. You see how much more and how many tournaments you can really go for or if you really don't need to play that much and enjoy the other ones more. After surgery, your health is much more important than what you're doing on the tennis court. You start to appreciate it much more when you're not feeling any pain. Before it would be normal but now it's like a pleasure."

Keeping the good vibes flowing is a top priority for Team Guga. "You have to have your little team — they support you," Kuerten says. Larri Passos has coached him since he was a child. Then there is the trainer, the older brother who looks after business interests, the manager, the agent, and his full-time media-buffer, publicist Diana Gabanyi.

"One of the most important things now is the happiness," Passos says. This isn't a case of celebrity coddling. "I always talk to him about the happiness, about the mentality. Because if he enjoys what he is doing then he will play well."

Staying happy means managing body and mind, schedules and expectations. Players may be support<147,3,7>ed by an entourage, by that "little team," but tennis isn't a team sport. The pressures on the tour are constant, the timetables punishing. "For us, every 30 or 40 minutes is important," Kuerten says. He laughs, adding that this is why he grants so few interviews. Gabanyi shields him from the hungry (if friendly) press at home. "I talk to him every day so nobody else has to," she says.

The strategy — to overwhelm the curious, to give reporters everything they could possibly need except for the direct access to Guga that would only distract him from his game — was developed after he won his first Roland Garros title and it became clear that they needed a game plan to capitalise on his new found fame and control the media madness that followed it. Based out of Sao Paulo and travelling with him to maybe 15 tournaments a season, Gabanyi sends out a press release every day of the year, give or take a holiday or two.

Passos knows that sometimes his job is to give Guga room to learn and time to think so he doesn't have too many thoughts rattling around in his head while he's on the court. "In Buenos Aires, he was playing well, but he had a problem with his serve," Passos says. After the tournament, "we went back and changed the position (of his toss) and now it's working well. I told him during the tournament that I saw you doing wrong but I cannot say. The mental side of it is very important. The coach has to know when to talk and when not to talk."

Conversations between coach and player and between player and his body continue. The year began well — the win in Auckland, plus his two semifinals (Buenos Aires and Acapulco) out of his first four tournaments. "Last year was just about rehabilitation and dedication to come back, don't get myself injured again," Kuerten says, looking a bit uncomfortable as he curls and uncurls his legs in the not-quite-big-enough chair. "At this stage I feel at more of a high level of competition. So it's looking good. I think it's not going to be my best year, because I still have something to grow. But I think it will be a comeback tour."

Controlling Kuerten's expectations doesn't mean curbing his enthusiasm. When practicing away from the crowd, "sometimes he's screaming `Let's go!'" Passos says. After the surgery, sometimes he was thinking too much about rehabilitation, about his own body, and his plans, Passos adds. "But now, today, he is really Guga. He has the vibrations, you know? We come from Brazil and we need to play everything with our heart."

It would be hard to overstate the importance of Roland Garros to Guga's career or his centrality to the appreciation of the game in Brazil: No Roland Garros, no Guga. No Guga, no Brazilian tennis. He's a national treasure, and proud though Brazilians may be of his roots, they recognise the staging ground for his greatness: In 2001, the Post Office of Brazil issued the Guga stamp, which pictures Kuerten in front of the Eiffel Tower.

"Everything changed in Brazil after he won the French," Gabanyi says, summing up what would be considered common knowledge in Brazil and too obvious for any press release. "Really it was overnight. The next day people knew who Guga was and what a tennis ball and tennis racquet were and they didn't <147,4,0>before."

I ask Gabanyi how Guga compares to the South American soccer stars his frame suggests. He is in the same strata, she says. You know Ronaldo? Sure. You know Giselle? Yes.

"In Brazil, it's Ronaldo, Giselle and Guga," says Gabanyi of the country's three biggest celebrities. Do they, like, hang out? "They are friends," she says. "They do not get to see each other very much because of schedules but they are proud of each other."

Life as a member of this deeply Catholic country's other trinity means the spotlight is always on. Gabanyi deflects all questions regarding Guga's personal life. About tennis, though, Kuerten understands that the newspapers at home are just doing what they have to do. "When I lose they cannot say "Hey, great job from Guga, he lost in the quarterfinals!" he says. "But if you're winning and playing in the top ranks you're doing OK. I can come here (Indian Wells) and lose in the first round, like Andre Agassi last year, and then go to Miami and win the tournament. So this week I'll be the worst player in the tournament and the next week I'll be the best player in the world. These are the things that change sometimes your confidence of your happiness, too. Make yourself believe more or less in you — this is just the way we live, you know."

Brazilian fans don't chew up and spit out their tennis heroes after a few seasons, perhaps because they're loyal, perhaps because they've never had any to chew on before. Now others are following Guga's footsteps in the red clay. Andre Sa, who sometimes trains with Kuerten, is ranked No. 78 and made it to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon last year. After losing to Tim Henman, Sa noted that before Guga came along volleyball was a more popular sport in Brazil than tennis.

Talking in the players' lounge, Guga dismisses the suggestion that he carries the weight of his country's expectations on his shoulders. Even as he says it you get the sense he's willing away the distraction of outside influences, the weight of others' hopes.

But the worst pressure you can feel, Guga says, is the pressure that comes from inside. It's a sports cliche but a useful one. He turns monitoring his own pressure valves into a form of offensive strategy. "If you want to get everything in a rush, if you try to show everybody else, it never helps," he says. "My main goal is to always feel that I'm on the court because I like to play. So, for myself, I feel comfortable."

Kuerten also tries not to be distracted by future tournaments, not to focus too much on Roland Garros. "It's our love tournament," Passos says. "But if you put your mind to the French Open today, you cannot play tomorrow." Indeed, at Indian Wells, Guga ripped through Goran Ivanisevic, Roger Federer, Agustin Calleri, James Blake and Rainer Schuettler, only to play Lleyton Hewitt in the final just hours after completing a rain-delayed semifinal. Exhausted, Kuerten fell quickly. But he'd done spectacularly well — on hard court, no less — and added momentum to his comeback.

He reminds himself to take each tournament as it comes. He says you can't pick your moment but must build success consistently over a season. You must be technical and vigilant and sane and hopeful, even if it seems impossible to be all of that at once. Still, there is a special chemistry whenever he returns to Paris. He's never even been to the city when the tournament wasn't on, so a sort of Pavlovian conditioning kicks in, triggering winning feelings, a flood of emotions. "It's like I come back and start to repeat my success and I feel how happy I've been in this place," he says. But I have to keep growing slowly. If I think it's gonna be like the others years, if I get there and just think I'm gonna win again no problem, you're crazy."

Surveying the past and considering the near future, Guga is content. This year is a stepping stone. He'll be happy as long as he tries hard. But would he rather win a different Slam for variety's sake?

"I'll stick with the French," he answers with no hesitation. If he moves as quickly on the court as he responds to that question, maybe he'll always have Paris.

At a Glance... Gustavo Kuerten Age: 26 Born: Florianopolis, Brazil Resides: Florianopolis, Brazil

Grand Slam Titles: 3 (1997, 2000 and 2001 Roland Garros)

Career Titles: 18 Career Prize Money: $13,787,075 Grand Slam Record: 54-21 Year-End 2002 Ranking: 36 Highest Ranking: 1 (in 2000) * Began playing tennis at age six. * Speaks Portuguese, Spanish and English.

* Loves to surf; his favourite place to hit the waves is the Fiji Islands.