Kuerten, King of Clay

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Memory tells us that Thomas Muster was recently the most dominant clay court performer in the world. But I think it's safe to say that we can refer to Gustavo Kuerten as the new "King of Clay."

"Guga" just ran the table in beautiful Monte Carlo, including a straight-sets demolition of pesky Moroccan Hicham Arazi in the final on the Mediterranean. The win enabled Kuerten to regain his title in Monte Carlo, a tournament he first conquered in 1999.

Kuerten dominated Arazi with powerful groundstrokes and accurate drop shots.

"I think I played very solid," said Kuerten. "I was playing tactically right, putting him [Arazi] in so many difficult positions that I was able to comfortably control the match."

"He puts you immediately under pressure," said Arazi. "He pushes you far behind the baseline, plays very deep and very heavy shots, and you have to run a lot against him...I've never played other players who impressed me as much as he [Kuerten] did today," Arazi exclaimed following the match.

Kuerten's six consecutive match victories in Monte Carlo, the first important clay court tournament of the season, moved his record to 32-1 over his last 33 outings on dirt. Clay numbers like that are Muster-esque! Borg-esque even!

Kuerten hasn't lost on clay since May of last year when Swede Magnus Norman stopped him in a final at Rome. Guga, however, quickly avenged that setback the following week in Hamburg, and then cut Norman down in the French Open final in June. Since losing to Norman in Rome, Kuerten has rattled off five titles on his favorite surface, including a Grand Slam and a pair of Tennis Masters shields.

The 24-year-old Brazilian star is a stellar 23-4 this season -- thanks mostly to a flawless 16-0 record on clay -- and he's appeared in three dirt-lined events, winning all three. Guga titled back-to-back in Buenos Aires and Acapulco earlier this season.

Kuerten, who won three of his seven clay court tournaments a year ago, going 26-4 in the process, currently boasts 13 career titles, with all but two of 'em coming on clay. He broke through off the dirt last season by posting huge wins on an outdoor hardcourt at Indianapolis and on an indoor hardcourt at Lisbon (Tennis Masters Cup).

Because of last week's success in Monte Carlo, the lanky 6-3, 167-pounder from Florianopolis jumped to No. 2 in the 2001 ATP Champions Race, as his 219 points are second only to the great Andre Agassi.

Guga, who left Monaco with $400,000, leads the ATP Entry System (the official world rankings) with 4,645 points. Russian Marat Safin is second, with 4,270, while Agassi is third, 1,015 points off the pace.

Kuerten surprised the tennis world by capturing the 2000 Champions Race, supplanting the U.S. Open champion Safin on the final day of the season with an upset of Agassi in the championship match at the Masters Cup tournament in Portugal. The Brazilian icon is the reigning champion at the French Open, where he stunned tennis fans by capturing his first-ever Grand Slam title at the tender age of 20 in 1997. In turning that trick four years ago in Paris, Guga became the first Brazilian to title at Roland Garros, with victories over three former champs -- the Austrian Muster, Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Spaniard Sergi Bruguera. Oddly enough, Kuerten's success at the '97 French Open also marked his first-ever title on the ATP circuit.

The immensely-popular South American is one of only five players to capture the four-biggest clay court titles since 1950. With victories at Roland Garros, Hamburg, Monte Carlo and Rome, Kuerten is part of a group that also features Ivan Lendl, Guillermo Vilas, Jaroslav Drobny and Nicola Pietrangeli.

Take Guga off the clay, and he's...well...mortal. Kuerten's a combined 7-4 on non-dirt surfaces this season, and he's failed to title off clay since Lisbon in early December. He's played in three "big" non-clay tournaments in 2001, failing to get past the second round at the Australian Open (Greg Rusedski), the third round at the Tennis Masters Series-Indian Wells (Jan-Michael Gambill), and the third round at the lucrative Ericsson Open in Miami (Thomas Johansson). But, that being said, you don't have to be Columbo to figure out that Guga will be the favorite when the French Open rolls around late next month.

Until someone knocks off Guga in the City of Lights (like the certifiably-hot Agassi)...all hail Kuerten, King of Clay!

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