RIO DE JANEIRO — Gustavo Kuerten wasn't the first. When I sat down to talk to the three-time French Open champion and former No. 1 last week at the Rio Open, he went out of his way to emphasize the history of tennis success in Brazil. Seven-time Slam champion Maria Bueno and Thomaz Koch had early success in the 1960s and the charismatic Kuerten brought Brazil into the tennis spotlight in the modern era with French Open titles in 1997, 2000 and 2001. Brazil could not have asked for a better personality to carry the torch. Likable and endearing with a beautiful clay game, Kuerten inspired a young generation of Brazilians to pick up a tennis racket and take to the courts.
But when that idol is no longer in the spotlight, who is supposed to inspire future generations? Brazilian tennis has never come close to reaching the standards set by Kuerten. After he reached a career-high of No. 21 in 2010, Thomaz Bellucci, 27, seemed like the most promising player in the modern bunch, but he's fallen back to a current rank of No. 71. On the women's side it's Teliana Pereira, who is currently ranked at No. 137.
SI.com sat down with Kuerten to discuss the current state of Brazilian tennis and the potential impact the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero could have on the growth of the sport. Kuerten is hopeful that this "golden age of investment" will payoff sooner rather than later. But he's the first recognize there are institutional and cultural roadblocks in the way.
SI.com: What is the state of tennis in Brazil?
Kuerten: Tennis had this golden era in Brazil. My best years, between 1997 to 2004, we had people changing the big ball (soccer) for the small one everywhere. In all the neighborhoods, in the poor communities, all around. This is the huge impact sports has [had] on people minds, to [make them] believe in themselves and want to be a part of it and create this conviction. After this I would call it the middle ages. Five years of dark times. A lot of doubts. What’s going to happen, Guga’s not playing anymore, who is going to come to come up in his place? We didn’t build at the right time all the details and put the plan on during this six to eight years. Develop and help them when we didn’t have anymore this idol. So we went all the way down. It was very sad to see this but I couldn’t do too much. I had all these injuries and surgeries, and I didn’t know how I could contribute better.
After all these very tough and bad years we started to have Thomas Bellucci to do a little bit better and we get used to the new reality. It will be the in-between stage. I think it’s normal right now.
Is it difficult to maintain the tennis tradition in Brazil without the big stars?
We are able to recover the historic part that I believe is crucial. We need to cultivate this to make sure it doesn’t disappear. For example, Maria Bueno. Nobody remembers her anymore. When I was playing I didn’t know until I was 17-years-old that she existed or was even Brazilian. We reconnect to all these facts and all this success in tennis. It’s very little but for us it’s huge.
We have this amazing opportunity with World Cup and now the Olympic games—it is a golden era for investment in sport. It will not be forever. So again, we need to build the right structure to develop players. It’s another opportunity we are having.
Right now, the tournaments like this and in Sao Paulo create a reality that is very much better than it used to be. I never played in my home country until I was the No. 1 player in the world. For them to have this experience is of huge importance. I think it will be the crucial challenge for the next year and a half to have everything set for after the Olympics. Again the cycle will go down. But if you are ready and you know it will happen then you can be prepared and you are not suffering too much.
How do you plan for the post-Olympic world? What, in your mind, is the best plan?
I believe we should target from A to Z. We are still very, especially for tennis, we are beginners. I hope after the Olympics we will have a decent infrastructure, like a national tennis center. The most shame I feel when I go all around the world, especially in the States, I see these amazing arenas. And we don’t have a single one. Sao Paulo and Rio, we should have 10 or 15 of those. We don’t have one place.
Do you mean other than soccer stadiums?
Soccer stadiums, the new ones we have because of World Cup. The others are not that good. It takes us too long to understand the capacity of sports. Also as a symbolic thing and as a business.
That's an interesting thing to hear because from the outside looking in it seems Brazil has an incredibly strong sporting culture.
Yes, but we have to get more knowledge of how to capitalize sport and how to be sustainable. We rely too much on the government. We need to establish more independence. More leagues, products, competitions. We are too much depending on federations and confederations and dealing with not fair proposals for the public.
Here at the Rio Open, it is outside the box what you see this week. Even here we can get much better on facilities, like parking, buying drinks. It’s more than a sport. It’s entertainment. It’s a show. This is where sport didn’t move forward in Brazil. It’s in the mind of the people but on a daily basis, it’s not on. I hope in the next 18 months we can get it going. A fresh start.
From the grassroots level, how do you get more Brazilians into the sport?
It’s a lack of opportunities. We are talking about sports but we are also talking about in general, in life. That’s why I see sport as the big instrument to turn around things, to get to the child and put them away from bad choices. Normally they don’t have a single option. So first one to come up with opportunities, they take it. It could be money, it could be a racket, it could be drugs. We have now a high percentage of kids who live this reality.
So the first step forward in trying to have the Olympics be the symbolic changing around, is to turn things around like this. Get the sports to the schools, to the kids. They choose after, if it’s tennis or it’s soccer.
They find soccer. Soccer doesn't find them. They find soccer already in their dreams, in their father’s dreams. It starts like this. The family wants to realize a dream and they get the kids the opportunity. It’s normal.
But in tennis let’s say, the father who dreams his child will be a tennis player is very little. But it used to be much higher. So our chances are smaller. But it’s amazing because we are completely passionate about sports. We love emotions. We are warm. We are there and we want to see it. But it’s still not organized enough, well planned enough, and it’s not a priority for the country. This is going to be a little bit a force for it could happen.
So you think the Olympics can be that force?
I think so. The big change in Brazil is that we’re too committed to the government involvement. So with the bureaucracy, what should take one year takes ten. Then the World Cup passes, now the Olympics will pass. I am sure [the development of tennis in Brazil] will happen. But instead of it taking 10-15 years it will take 100 years to make this big change. But I’m trying.