By Andrew Downie
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - For a few years at the turn of the century he was the King of Paris and the darling of Brazilian tennis but a failure to build on his success means no one is likely to challenge Gustavo Kuerten as Brazil’s best-known tennis player any time soon.
Guga, as he is universally known, won the French Open three times and his celebration of his final title in 2001 when he scratched out a heart on the Roland Garros clay is one of the tournament’s most unforgettable moments.
But since he retired in 2008 no Brazilian has come close to repeating his achievements.
"Tennis hasn’t really happened in our country, it’s not like Sweden," Guga told Reuters in an exclusive interview.
The reasons are manifold and not new. Another Brazilian, Maria Bueno, won 11 Grand Slam singles titles between 1959 and 1966 but it took 30 year before Guga came anywhere near replicating her haul of trophies.
Poor funding and organization are crucial, as are a lack of courts. Brazil, a country of 210 million people, has around 10,000 tennis courts, only 212 of which are public, according to estimates by the Brazilian Tennis Confederation.
A feeling that tennis is not a sport for ordinary people – former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva famously told a poor child to forget being a tennis player because "it’s a bourgeoisie sport"– have not encouraged participation.
Rafael Westrupp, president of the Brazilian Tennis Confederation, admitted that Brazil missed the chance to build on Guga’s fame.
But he told Reuters there was now a structure in place and pointed to the success of Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares in the doubles (with different partners) and eight Brazilians in the ITF Top 100 Youth rankings as evidence they are moving in the right direction.
In addition, Brazil has more regional tournaments and under age competitions that "have created favorable conditions for a large number of high performance tennis players to develop to the best of their abilities".
ROLAND GARROS DRAW
Nevertheless, there were no Brazilians in Thursday’s first- round singles draw for the French Open which begins on Sunday.
Guga is playing his part to encourage a new generation, setting up a tennis school that teaches both tennis and beach tennis to kids and adults.
The initiative, started in 2010 and based on a franchise system, now boasts 48 centers in 30 cities, with coaches teaching more than 3,000 budding Roger Federers and Serena Williams's.
However, even he acknowledged that as a developing nation beset with problems, Brazil will always find it tough to produce players who can compete with the Americans, Australians and Europeans.
"Players who have been playing tennis for five years and are very good, who have parents who support them, and federations who support them, sometimes even they don’t have the answers,” Guga said.
"If these players advanced we’d have extraordinary results in terms of high performance."
"They (the players) need to be the protagonists, you can’t wait on the governments or federations. If that was to happen it would be great. But that day has never arrived for Brazil, we haven’t lived through any virtuous cycle. It is very difficult here."
(Reporting by Andrew Downie, editing by Ed Osmond)