All Hail Guga!

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PHILADELPHIA (Sports Network) - Well...he definitely surprised me. Guga...that is.

Brazilian youngster Gustavo Kuerten is the world No. 1 star, and has a shiny new Masters Cup to prove it.

After waiting for Kuerten (KEER-ten) to cave in off the clay over the last couple of months, the two-time French Open champion proved many of his naysayers wrong by capturing the exclusive season-ending tournament in Lisbon.

The strong clay-courter was not expected to title indoors with such racket powers as Super Safin, Powerful Pete and Awesome Andre on hand in Portugal. But that's exactly what Guga did, in extremely surprising fashion I might add.

After dropping his opening match in Lisbon against Agassi, with the world No. 1 ranking still very much in the balance, Kuerten roared back to capture his next four encounters in succession, stopping Roland Garros runner-up Magnus Norman, Olympic gold medalist Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the 13-time Grand Slam legend Sampras and the career Slam ace Agassi on his way to the stunning achievement.

Kuerten, he of the big ground strokes and swift serve, basically had to go all the way in Lisbon to become No. 1, while the U.S. Open champion Safin had to fall short of the final in order for Guga to top the year-end ledger.

I guess it was no fluke, considering Kuerten was an impressive 61-19 on the ATP circuit in 2000, including his second French Open crown in four years, a Tennis Masters Series victory in Hamburg, and, of course, the remarkable run at the Masters Cup.

The Masters Cup -- formerly the ATP World Championship -- features only the Top 8 players in the world, including the year's Grand Slam winners. Organizers in Lisbon clearly were thrilled when the year's four Grand Slam titlists reached the semifinals there.

The lanky 6-3, 165-pound Kuerten compiled five titles this past season, one in which the clay-court stalwart surprised everyone by going 28-12 on hardcourts, as well as 5-2 on carpets. As you would expect, Guga, arguably the best clay-courter on the planet right now, posted a stellar 28-6 mark on his beloved dirt.

The popular Brazilian star cranked up his game a notch against the biggest of the big boys in 2000, recording a 5-2 record against the mighty trio of Sampras, Agassi and Safin. He went 2-1 versus Andre, including 1-1 in Lisbon; 1-1 against Pete; and a perfect 2-0 versus Safin. Kuerten's other 2000 victory against Agassi came in the semifinals at the Masters Series event in Miami. He eventually lost to Sampras, giving Pete everything he could handle in the Miami final, but finally avenged the setback by shocking the former No. 1 Sampras in the Lisbon semis. And Guga owned Safin, downing the imposing Russian in title matches in both Hamburg and Indianapolis, establishing one of the sport's great blossoming rivalries in the process. Safin entered the 2000 campaign with a flawless 4-0 record against Kuerten.

One player that Kuerten didn't own this past season, however, is another former world No. 1, Patrick Rafter. The injury-slowed Aussie was a brilliant 3-1 against his Brazilian counterpart, although Kuerten did prevail in their last matchup of the season, a third- rounder at the lucrative Masters Series tourney in Paris.

After losing to Agassi in three sets in his first round-robin match in Portugal, Kuerten exacted some revenge by rolling over the seemingly-invincible American, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, in Sunday's dramatic showdown at the futuristic Atlantic Pavilion. A Kuerten loss would have given the world No. 1 ranking to Safin.

"Every point was the point of my life," said Kuerten. "I just felt amazing on court, relaxed and comfortable."

The Brazilian slammed 19 aces, to Agassi's seven, and also slugged 50 winners, compared to only 15 for Agassi.

Kuerten almost seemed destined to win the Masters Cup, having been a physical wreck just four days before the tournament. He was aching so badly in various joints and muscles that he almost considered dropping out of the year's most-anticipated event. But ATP trainers Bill Norris and Alex Stober went to work on the eventual champ, getting the outwardly happy-go-lucky warrior ready for battle.

In securing No. 1, the 24-year-old Kuerten became the first non- American to do so since Sweden's Stefan Edberg in 1991. The U.S. held a stranglehold on the position for eight years, with the six-time No. 1 Sampras, Agassi (1999) and Jim Courier (1992) all holding down the spot. Guga also gives South America it's first-ever world No. 1 star. The United States and Europe combined to boast the year-end No. 1performer 17-of-27 years since the inception of the world rankings.

Surprisingly enough, tennis-rich Australia has yet to place someone atop the year-end list.

Only one other South American player has achieved No. 1 status, as Chilean Marcelo Rios held the position for six weeks during the 1998 season. South America has also produced the likes of Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc of Argentina and Andres Gomez of Ecuador. Vilas was a four-time Grand Slam titlist. Gomez subdued a young Agassi for the 1990 French Open crown.

The Diadora-clad Kuerten, who placed fifth in the world by the end of the 1999 season, owns an even 10 career titles, including eight on clay, heading into a highly-promising 2001. More importantly, Kuerten took home $4,701,610 in prize money in 2000, including $1.4 million for the Masters Cup, bringing his career total to $8,923,321 since joining the tour in 1995.

To say that 2000 was a breakthrough season for the amicable Brazilian would be a gross understatement.

Suffice it to say, everyone will be gunning for Brazil's biggest sports star next year. Kuerten has already replaced soccer star Rivaldo as Brazil's newest national hero.

Brazilian fans have elevated Guga to the pantheon of the country's sporting elite, which includes such legends as soccer great Pele and the late auto racing icon Ayrton Senna.

A class act on the court, Kuerten is also one of four players nominated for this year's Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award, joining Alex Corretja, Tim Henman and Rafter.

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