All it takes is one point to alter the course of a tournament.
American qualifier Michael Russell was one point from a feat that hours earlier had seemed inconceivable: scoring a straight-sets win against top seed and defending champion Gustavo Kuerten in their fourth-round clash at 2001 Roland Garros. But after the Brazilian erased the match point by prevailing in a lengthy rally at 3-5, he clawed back to score a dramatic 3-6, 4-6, 7-6(3), 6-3, 6-1 victory.
After the match, Kuerten carved a large heart in the clay with his racquet and knelt down in the middle of it. It would become his trademark for the rest of the tournament as he went on to defend his title and lift his third crown in Paris.
“It was very special, maybe one of the greatest feelings in all my life on the tennis court,” Kuerten said. “I like these challenges, to fight and to give it my all. But a payback like this is more than you can ask for.”
While some players may have been devastated at coming so close to a career-changing win, the 23-year-old Russell was able to quickly shake it off. His inspired run in Paris pushed him inside the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings for the first time.
“I was down match point in the first round of qualifying and then had a match point on the World No. 1, so there was so much craziness within a three-week period,” Russell recalled to ATPTour.com. “I was able to get through the loss very quickly, but a lot of that had to do with being so young and just breaking through. There were so many career-highs from it that it didn’t give me a chance to be negative. I felt like I had my whole career in front of me and this was a launching pad.”
Although Russell’s memorable run would remain his best Grand Slam result, he’d go on to enjoy a lengthy ATP Tour career and peak at No. 60 in the rankings. He even developed a rapport with Kuerten and the pair casually brought up their epic battle over the course of their careers.
”We joked about it after, but obviously it’s easier to joke about when you’re the guy winning,” Russell said, laughing. ”But even walking around the grounds in Paris today, fans will sometimes come up to me and say they remember watching that match and how special it was. It’s really nice to get still that support. That match helped me for the rest of my career because it made me believe that I could win every match when I stepped on court.”