PARIS (AP) — The face of Brazilian tennis no longer is able to smile on a court.
Gustavo Kuerten can't play the game he loves — and that, for years, loved him back. He retired from the tour for good in 2008 after a professional career that included three French Open titles and a stint at No. 1, and nowadays even a hit-and-giggle session is simply out of the question thanks to hip problems that required multiple operations.
"Tennis got to be a big part of my life, but it doesn't need to be," Kuerten said in an interview with The Associated Press at Roland Garros.
"So I try to fulfill my life with other stories and other flavors," he said, using that famous wide-as-can-be grin to punctuate sentences. "Of course it would be nice to go out on the court. Sweat. Be out there, happy. But I have to deal with it."
A month shy of turning 40, Kuerten has not played a match of any sort in nearly four years, since an exhibition against Novak Djokovic in Rio de Janeiro before a crowd of about 10,000. Still, as his native land prepares to stage the Olympics, Kuerten remains an important figure in Brazil, as big a sports star as there is — aside, of course, from the beloved soccer players.
During the Rio Games that officially open Friday, Kuerten will be working for a local TV broadcaster, although he won't exactly be an impartial reporter: He will be rooting for the hosts to put on a good show and, more importantly, for his countrymen to regain their joy after economic and political turmoil.
"I never saw the Brazilian people so pessimistic, so sad, so bored," Kuerten said, shaking his head of bushy hair, his brown curls speckled by a bit of gray around the ears.
"I think the Olympics will bring this alive again, the brightening of being Brazilian. We are able to (have) success. Even in the worst crisis, we are able to have hopes. We are losing our hopes," continued Kuerten, an ambassador for the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. "This will be the main achievement the Olympics will give us, for sure."
He has prompted plenty of people to pick up a racket, via dozens of schools he established around Brazil or simply via his playing days.
Orlando Luz, an 18-year-old from Brazil who won a Wimbledon junior doubles title, recalls hearing his father tell tales about Kuerten and watching videos of his French Open triumphs.
"He's my idol," Luz said. "You could look at his face, and he was playing his best on every point. He was fighting on every point. That's what I try to take from him."
The hosts' Rio tennis team will include medal contenders in men's doubles: Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares.
When Kuerten won his first Grand Slam trophy, in Paris in 1997, Soares was 15 and keeping track from afar while playing in a junior tournament.
"He was a huge inspiration, not only for me, but for everybody, because he made all of us believe that we could be something in tennis, we could do something in tennis," said Soares, who won the Australian Open doubles title in January.
"He completely (caused) a huge transformation. Nobody really knew tennis; only the tennis fans did. He brought tennis to the masses," Soares said. "Right now, tennis is the second sport, behind soccer. And if you think about soccer in Brazil, it's not a sport, it's a religion. So that makes tennis No. 1 of the 'normal' sports."
One indication of Kuerten's status: He's known simply as "Guga," which used to be a common nickname for "Gustavo" in Brazil, along the lines of "Bill" for "William."
"After he came along, 'Guga' is just him. No one else," said Kuerten's older brother and business manager, Rafael. "Some people tell me, 'I lost my nickname.'"
Kuerten wants to use that popularity to boost tennis at home and abroad.
He recently became a global ambassador for the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 2012.
"If I were more active and able to play more, I might not have the time to do these other things — and I wouldn't have the time and the experience to look at things more clearly and to value what it's all about," Kuerten said. "You look differently at things and opportunities. For me, it's a mission to transform tennis in Brazil."
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich