Guga eyes top 10 once again

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Former world No. 1 star Gustavo Kuerten is quietly working his way back up the charts, as evidenced by his ATP Player of the Month honors for February. The amicable Brazilian has been trying to relocate his once-formidable game since undergoing hip surgery two years ago.

Well don't look now, but "Guga" is a solid 14-4 this season, including a wildly-popular title in his native Brazil and a runner-up finish in Chile last month. The title marked his 20th on the ATP and moved his career on-court earnings to $14,362,208. Guga is currently fifth on the active list for career titles, behind Andre Agassi (58), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (26), Goran Ivanisevic (22) and Lleyton Hewitt (21).

Gustavo Kuerten
The resurgent Guga was 9-2 in February, including a title in his native Brazil.
The resurgent Brazilian won nine of his 11 matches in February and the big victory on his home soil prompted him to tell Brazil's Sport TV that, "This symbolizes my recovery after my surgery."

The lanky 27-year-old was the year-end No. 1 in 2000 and piled up three French Open titles in a five-year span on his beloved red clay from 1997-2001, including back-to-back championships there in 2000-01.

The 6-foot-3, 176-pounder currently rests at 16th in the world and ninth in the ATP Champions Race by virtue of his fine start to this '04 campaign, which has seen him reach at least the semifinals in three of his five tourneys thus far. He suffered a third-round loss at the Aussie Open in January (Paradorn Srichaphan) and a first-round setback in Buenos Aires last month (David Ferrer).

Kuerten, who opened his season with a semifinal run in Auckland, will be part of the powerful Pacific Life Open field at Indian Wells over the next two weeks, as he'll seek his first Tennis Masters Series shield in three years (Stuttgart 2001). Guga was last year's Pac Life runner-up to his fellow former world No. 1 Hewitt, who prevailed in ruthless 6-1, 6-1 fashion at the beautiful Indian Wells Tennis Garden. But in the process, Kuerten became the first non-American to reach the final at all four North American Masters Series events (Montreal 1997, Miami 2000, Cincinnati 2001, Indian Wells 2003).

Guga probably won't be the favorite at Roland Garros in late-May/early-June, but he might be one of 'em when the clay-court fortnight rolls around. Reigning champion Juan Carlos Ferrero and current world No. 1 Roger Federer will likely be the top picks to rule in Paris, but Kuerten will surely be the sentimental favorite. After all, it was Guga who drew a heart in the clay there in 2001 to show his appreciation for the supportive French crowd.

The baseline slugger, a three-time member of the year-end top-10 club, is already 10 wins over the .500 mark this year, but has yet to meet a top-10 performer, with his biggest win coming against world No. 23 Argentine Agustin Calleri in the Brasil Open final, which marked Guga's first clay-court championship since '01.

Guga will need to maintain his current winning pace if he hopes to return to the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup, where he hasn't performed since 2001. The Brazilian national hero made three straight trips to the exclusive eight- man event from 1999-2001, and won it in 2000 to finish that year No. 1.

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Scott Riley
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