Two years after Gustavo Kuerten captured the French Open in one of the most improbable, colorful and delightful scenes in Grand Slam history, fans at Roland Garros are still going gaga over Guga.
Only Andre Agassi among the men's quarterfinalists comes close to Kuerten in winning the affection of French fans. And if the two meet in the final, chances are chants of "Gu-ga, Gu-ga" will be louder and more frequent that those of "A-gass-i, A-gass-i."
The blue-and-yellow clad surfer boy from Brazil, whose power belies his scrawny physique, reached the quarterfinals Monday with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 romp over Czech Bohdan Ulihrach.
It was like a family outing for Kuerten, whose grandmother, mother, brother and girlfriend sat in a crowd that has adopted him as their own.
But the 22-year-old Kuerten didn't come in this year as an unknown as he did in 1997, when he became the lowest ranked player
at No. 66 to win a Grand Slam title.
Rather, Kuerten has been the hottest clay-court player this year winning Monte Carlo and the Italian Open to rise to No. 8. He is now within striking range of reaching No. 1 this summer.
He was the consensus player to beat, according to his rivals, when the tournament began. And nothing has changed to alter that assessment as they've seen him win four matches with the loss of only one set.
"These last two months, I've been playing wonderful, with a lot of confidence, too," Kuerten said. "That's the way I came here. And now I think I'm growing in this tournament, playing better and better."
The draw has been kind to Kuerten, who was seeded No. 8 and escaped any real test in his early matches. Only one of his opponents had a winning record this year.
Next up, though, is Andrei Medvedev, who knocked out Pete Sampras in the second round and overcame a partisan crowd Monday to beat Frenchman Arnaud Di Pasquale 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-3), 6-1.
An equal opportunity employer, the French Open filled the men's quarterfinals with famous, infamous and anonymous players from seven countries.
Joining the popular Agassi and Kuerten, and the scowling Marcelo Rios from Chile, were another Brazilian, Fernando Meligeni, the Ukrainian Medvedev, Spain's Alex Corretja, Uruguay's Marcelo Filippini and Slovakia's Dominik Hrbaty.
It's not so much a who's who of tennis, but a "Who are they?"
Corretja, at least, has some strong credentials. Ranked No. 6 and a threat on both clay and hard courts, he advanced to the quarters with a 6-2, 6-3, 7-5 victory over Austria's Stefan Koubek.
Meligeni is just starting to make a name for himself. Almost as skinny as his compatriot Kuerten, Meligeni also displayed uncanny power in a 6-1, 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (7-1) upset of No. 14 Felix Mantilla of Spain.
"Brazil deserves this," Meligeni said. "I hope we can stay in the tournament and play the semifinals together, and one guy i going to be in the final for sure."
Meligeni said he was inspired by Kuerten's victory here in 1997.
"A friend of yours wins the tournament, it shows you that you can do it," he said. "I don't know if I'm good enough to win the tournament. I just get on the court, try my best, hit the ball harder, and run like a dog."
Meligeni acknowledged that the power he and Kuerten generate with their groundstrokes doesn't come from their pipsqueak muscles.
"I think the power is from your mind and your heart," he said. "I'm not so strong, but I fight a lot, I run a lot, I have good legs for tennis.
"You don't need to be like (Arnold) Schwarzenegger to play tennis. You have to be smart and play your best. That's all you need to do."
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