Gustavo Kuerten briefly rekindled his Parisian love affair on Sunday before bidding a tearful farewell to the French Open.
The Brazilian has enjoyed a special relationship with Roland Garros since he celebrated his third and final triumph in 2001 by drawing a giant love-heart in the red clay with his racket.
He then lay down next to his impromptu artwork and blew kisses to the crowd.
Seven years on and struggling with a hip problem, his final hurrah ended with an emotional 6-3 6-4 6-2 defeat by local hope Paul-Henri Mathieu.
”Here is my life, my passion and my love,” a moist-eyed Kuerten told the crowd in French after being presented with a slice of clay court encased in glass.
”It’s great to be here with my family, my coach. But the most important [thing] is the love you gave me,” said Kuerten, who won the trophy in 1997, 2000 and 2001.
There were flashes of brilliance from Kuerten, including saving a match point with a rasping forehand winner that drew applause even from Mathieu.
But, patched up for one final appearance on his beloved red dust, a hobbling Kuerten could coax no more magic from his weary legs and walked into retirement to a standing ovation with cries of ”Guga” ringing in his ears.
”He’s a great personality and just everybody loves him. I don’t know even one guy who says something bad about him. The sport is going to miss him,” said Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic.
The Serb was the warm-up act for Kuerten’s farewell on Centre Court and, unfortunately for the crowd, he kept the fans waiting almost two-and-a-half hours as he laboured to a 4-6 6-3 7-5 6-2 win over Germany’s Denis Gremelmayr.
His compatriot and last year’s runner-up in the women’s competition, Ana Ivanovic, also had to work hard to defeat Sweden’s Sofia Arvidsson 6-2 7-5.
Serena Williams, eager for a second French Open trophy following her success in 2002, began her campaign with a ruthless 6-2 6-1 win over Playboy magazine pin-up Ashley Harkleroad.
Noting her fellow American’s latest modelling project, which will hit the stands in August, Williams quipped: ”I’m just surprised that she beat me to it. Darn.”
Djokovic came into the tournament touted as the biggest threat to Rafael Nadal’s hopes of capturing a fourth Roland Garros trophy, but during the first set he was made to look like a novice on clay.
Before Djokovic had a chance to soak up the atmosphere on the opening day of the championships, he was 4-0 down. Eventually, he made his experience count to wear down Gremelmayr.
”I’m not really happy with my performance today [Sunday]. I played pretty passively and he used it, he was taking chances and deserved to win the first set,” said Djokovic.
One of the favourites for the women’s title following the shock retirement of Justine Henin two weeks ago, Ivanovic lit up an overcast day when she stepped on Centre Court looking pretty in pink.
It was not long, though, before she felt the weight of expectation. After sweeping through the first set, she began to misfire and looked to be heading towards a third set before rediscovering her touch in the nick of time.
”This year I’m number two and obviously have more expectations for myself, so that’s something I’m still learning how to deal with,” said Ivanovic, who produced 30 unforced errors during her 96-minute contest.
Along with Kuerten, Carlos Moya was another former champion who failed to survive the opening day. The Spaniard could not match the tenacity of Argentine qualifier Eduardo Schwank and slumped to a 7-6 6-2 6-7 4-6 6-3 defeat.
Former semifinalist Nicole Vaidisova failed to snap her wretched run of form when she became the first seeded casualty, thumped 7-6 6-1 by friend and fellow Czech Iveta Benesova. It was the 15th seed’s sixth successive defeat in 2008.
James Blake made sure there was no repetition of last year’s United States nightmare, when for the first time in 40 years no American man made it to the second round in Paris. He won 6-4 6-1 7-6 against Germany’s Rainer Schuettler.
Argentina’s David Nalbandian and Briton Andy Murray also made it through. — Reuters