RIO DE JANEIRO – Gustavo Kuerten was not the first. When I sat down to speak to the three-time Roland Garros champion and former No.1 last week at the Rio Open, he went out of his way to highlight the success story of tennis in Brazil. Seven-time Slam champion Maria Bueno and Thomaz Koch enjoyed early success in the 1960s and the charismatic Kuerten put Brazil in the spotlight of modern tennis with the Roland Garros titles in 1997, 2000 and 2001 Brazil could not have dreamed of a better personality carrying the torch. Amiable and endearing with a beautiful clay court game, Kuerten inspired a younger generation of Brazilians to grab a tennis racket and hit the courts.
But when this idol is no longer in the spotlight, who is supposed to inspire future generations? Brazilian tennis has never come close to meeting the standards set by Kuerten. After reaching a career high of No.21 in 2010, 27-year-old Thomaz Bellucci appeared to be the most promising player in the modern peloton, but he fell back to the current rank of No.71. Teliana Pereira, who is currently ranked 137th.
SI.com spoke with Kuerten to discuss the current state of Brazilian tennis and the potential impact the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro could have on the growth of the sport. Kuerten hopes that this “golden age of investing” will bear fruit as soon as possible. But he is the first to recognize that there are institutional and cultural obstacles in the way.
SI.com: What is the state of tennis in Brazil?
Kuerten: Tennis experienced this golden age in Brazil. My best years, between 1997 and 2004, we had people who changed the big ball (football) for the small one everywhere. In all neighborhoods, in poor communities, all around. This is the huge impact that sport has [had] in people’s minds, to [make them] believe in them and want to be part of them and create that conviction. After that, I would call it the middle ages. Five years of dark time. Lots of doubts. What will happen, Guga no longer plays, who will come and climb in his place? We didn’t build all the details at the right time and put the plan in place over those six to eight years. Develop them and help them when we no longer had this idol. So we went down to the bottom. It was very sad to see that but I couldn’t do too much. I’ve had all of these injuries and surgeries, and I didn’t know how I could better contribute.
After all these very hard and bad years we started to have Thomas Bellucci to do a little better and we are getting used to the new reality. This will be the intermediate step. I think it’s normal at the moment.
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Is it difficult to maintain the tradition of tennis in Brazil without the big stars?
We are able to recover the historical part which seems crucial to me. We have to cultivate this to make sure it doesn’t go away. For example, Maria Bueno. No one remembers her anymore. When I was playing, I didn’t know until I was 17 that she existed or that she was even Brazilian. We reconnect with all these facts and all these tennis successes. It’s very little, but for us it’s huge.
We have this incredible opportunity with the World Cup and now the Olympics – it’s a golden age for investing in sport. It won’t be forever. Again, we have to build the right structure to develop the players. This is another opportunity we have.
Right now, tournaments like this and in Sao Paulo are creating a much better reality than before. I never played in my home country until I was world No.1. For them, having this experience is of paramount importance. I think it will be the crucial challenge for the next year and a half to have everything in place after the Olympics. Again, the cycle will go down. But if you are ready and you know it will happen, you can be prepared and you are not in too much pain.
How do you see the post-Olympic world? What do you think is the best plan?
I believe that we have to target from A to Z. We are still very, especially for tennis, we are beginners. I hope that after the Olympics we will have a decent infrastructure, such as a national tennis center. The biggest shame I feel when I travel around the world, especially in the United States, is seeing these amazing arenas. And we don’t have one. Sao Paulo and Rio, we should have 10 or 15. We don’t have one place.
You mean other than football stadiums?
The football stadiums, the new ones we have because of the World Cup. The others are not that good. It takes us too long to understand the capacity of sport. Also as a symbolic thing and as a business.
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It’s an interesting thing to hear because from the outside it looks like Brazil has an incredibly strong sports culture.
Yes, but we need to better understand how to capitalize on sport and how to be sustainable. We rely too much on the government. We need to establish more independence. More leagues, products, competitions. We depend too much on federations and confederations and deal with proposals that are unfair to the public.
Here at the Rio Open, it’s off the beaten track what you’re seeing this week. Even here we can improve the facilities a lot, like parking, buying drinks. It’s more than a sport. It’s entertainment. It’s a spectacle. This is where the sport has not progressed in Brazil. It is in the minds of people but on a daily basis it is not lit. I hope that in the next 18 months we can move it forward. A new start.
At the grassroots level, how do you get more Brazilians to play this sport?
It’s a lack of opportunities. We talk about sport but we also talk in general, in life. This is why I see sport as the great instrument to turn the tide, to reach out to the child and protect him from bad choices. Normally, they don’t have a single option. So the first to offer opportunities, he seizes them. It can be money, it can be racketeering, it can be drugs. We now have a high percentage of children who are experiencing this reality.
So the first step forward in trying to make the Olympic Games symbolic change is to change things like that. Bring sports to schools, to children. They choose after, whether it is tennis or football.
They find football. Football can’t find them. They find football already in their dreams, in their father’s dreams. It starts like this. The family wants to make a dream come true and it gives the children the opportunity. It’s normal.
But in tennis, let’s say, the father who dreams that his child will be a tennis player is very small. But before, it was much higher. Our chances are therefore less. But it’s amazing because we are completely passionate about the sport. We love emotions. We are warm. We are here and we want to see it. But it is not yet organized enough, well enough planned, and it is not a priority for the country. It’s going to be a bit of a force because it could happen.
So you think the Olympics can be that force?
I think so. The big change in Brazil is that we are too committed to government involvement. So with bureaucracy, what should take a year takes ten. Then the World Cup will pass, now the Olympic Games will pass. I am on [the development of tennis in Brazil] what will happen. But instead of taking 10 to 15 years, it will take 100 years to make this big change. But I try.