A Real Jim

A Real Jim By Steve Flink, 03/17/2005

Photo by Art Seitz

A few miles from the heart of midtown Manhattan on a quiet street in Soho, Jim Courier walks out of the February sunshine into the inviting Lucky Strike restaurant. Wearing dark trousers, a stylish grey shirt and casual shoes, Courier is ready to discuss his upcoming induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July, to reflect on his storied career and to examine his ongoing role as a central figure in the game.

Courier orders a chamomile tea, exchanges some small talk with his interviewer, then begins fielding questions with clarity and grace. Gone are the hard-edges of the personality he projected in his heyday. Now, he is thoroughly comfortable in his own skin, unmistakably at ease with himself. Speaking about the honor of taking his place in the Hall of Fame alongside Yannick Noah, Jana Novotna and Butch Buchholz — not to mention the 186 luminaries already enshrined — Courier asserts, “It was not what I ever dreamed about when I was a kid. It would never have crossed my radar screen. It would have been out of the realm of reality. I feel proud as I can be to say that I am there in the Hall. It is a coda, a nice exclamation point to my career, not as relevant as winning a major, but very much like achieving the No. 1 ranking, a culmination of a lot of things falling into place. It gives me more of a reason to have grandkids some day.”

Clearly, Courier celebrated success on a lofty scale, winning four majors. He captured back-to-back French Open crowns in 1991 (defeating Andre Agassi in a hard fought, five-set final) and 1992 (routing Agassi in the penultimate round); secured consecutive Australian Open championships, 1992-93, with final round triumphs over Stefan Edberg; and played on the last two title-winning American Davis Cup teams in 1992 and 1995. He finished 1992 as the world’s top-ranked player and reached the finals of every Grand Slam singles event. And yet, his time at and near the top of his profession was relatively short. Courier claimed his first Grand Slam championship when he was still 20 and collected his last of the premier prizes two years later. In a brilliant span from the middle of 1991 to 1993, he made it to the championship match in seven out of 10 majors, but never appeared in another “Big Four” final again, finishing among the Top 10 in the world for the last time in 1995 at 25.

It all happened in a hurry,” says Courier of his prime years. “I was working diligently on becoming a better tennis player and coming to terms with newfound tennis celebrity and trying to stay sort of calm in the storm, if you will, which I was pretty good at. I knew what my goal was and kept at it, which lends itself to the question: Why did it end when it did? I don’t know that that answer can really be told.”

Courier might well have lasted longer in the upper reaches of his sport had it not been for three back-breaking quarterfinal losses at the majors in the mid-1990s. At the 1995 Australian Open and 1996 French, Sampras struck back boldly to oust his countryman, after Courier led two sets to love. In between, Agassi rallied from two sets down to beat Courier at the 1996 Australian Open. Not closing out those accounts cut deeply into the core of Courier’s self-belief.

Andre was not committed to fighting the battle the way he is every day now,” Courier says. “When I was up two sets to love, he just started going for broke. In my mind, he was starting to tank the match, but his balls were going in. When a guy throws in the towel and it helps him get back into the match and beat you, that is a bitter pill to swallow. With Pete at the French, I had break point against him [at 3-4] in the fourth set. He broke a string on the first serve and then came up with a second serve 110 miles an hour on both lines going down the T [for an ace]. That was a genius shot. All you can do is tip your hat to him. Those were very tough losses.”

Complicating matters, Courier’s arm went dead in 1997-98. “It was frustrating for a couple of years,” he recalls, “because I had tendonitis in my bicep and no one could give me a cure. I did everything from acupuncture to traditional medicine, cortisone shots, the whole deal. The only solution was to loosen my strings and lift weights more because they were making the balls heavier. I even changed racquets, but I was mortified. This was my livelihood.”

Nevertheless, late in his career, Courier recorded three gratifying Davis Cup triumphs that reminded the cognoscenti of who and what he had once been. In 1998, he toppled an upstart Marat Safin in the decisive fifth match of a tie against Russia in Atlanta, prevailing in five sets with brilliant strategic acumen after losing 10 of the first 11 games. In 1999, the year before he would retire, Courier posted stirring five-set wins over Great Britain’s Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski as the Americans came through 3-2 in Birmingham, England. “Those were very satisfying wins,” Courier says, “because everyone loves to build you up when you are on the way up and to knock you down when you are on the way down. I had become a non-story. The magic of the big moment woke up the lion, so to speak.”

Courier is immensely satisfied with what he accomplished, and does not wonder what might have been. “Someone maybe a touch more egotistical would feel differently, but I am fortunate to have gotten four majors. There is no ‘what if’ for me. It is what it is. It was what it was. And if I was born tomorrow and you gave me this road, I would take it 101 times out of 100 because it has been an amazing ride. The ups have been as high as you can go and the downs have been pretty down, but it has not been boring. I have lived a Chinese proverb/curse: ‘May he live in interesting times.’ And my times have certainly been interesting.”

Courier emerged as a worthy member of America’s “Greatest Generation” of tennis players and set a tone during his biggest years that surely spurred on his compatriots. His one-two punch of a crackling first serve backed up by the game’s biggest inside-out forehand was exceedingly tough to confront. When Courier garnered his fourth major at the start of 1993 in Melbourne, Sampras, Agassi and Michael Chang had only secured one Grand Slam tournament title each. Although Chang did not take another, he made it to three more finals. Sampras, of course, soared to another level and set a record with 14 majors, while Agassi has eight in his collection. It was an exhilarating journey for Courier and his colleagues.

“I probably just reaffirmed their belief in themselves,” a modest Courier says. “Andre was a better ball striker than I was, Pete had a better serve and was a great big match player, and Michael was as tough a competitor as you will ever find. And I was a winner, a guy who found a way to win. My game was self-taught in many ways and reflects my personality.”

To be sure, Courier is proud of his contribution to the game and the collective impact his generation had on tennis. But there are some things he would alter if he could do it over again. Speaking forthrightly, he asserts, “Part of my strength as a player was my single-mindedness and my ability to narrow the field of vision and use all of my willpower to win. But that shut me out from taking advice on a lot of different fronts. Thinking about my accessibility to fans, the amount of autographs that I didn’t sign versus the ones I did, I look back a little mortified at my behavior. I was so exclusively focused on playing well that I put all the responsibilities of being a top-ranked professional on the side, believing that was not my job. That was sincere naiveté. I have a much broader perspective now. I understand that the players drive the popularity of the game. The thing that I am most upset about is that we had arguably the best generation of American players in history, but at the same time, the popularity of the game declined in America. There are lots of people in power just as culpable as I am and my peers, but we had a real opportunity to keep tennis on the front pages and it slipped away. Part of that has got to be my fault.”

In turn, Courier could be rash in his dealings with the media across his career. He does not hesitate in admitting that he was more defensive with reporters than he needed to be. “Absolutely,” he says. “I got burned a couple of times. To change my perception of the media after a thousand fluff pieces and two bad pieces is so naïve and irrational, and yet that is what I did. I got nailed by two of the top publications in America [Sports Illustrated and USA Today]; so I closed up after that. I was young and temperamental. I absolutely see now that the way to alleviate these problems is to extend an olive branch. Everybody needs everybody [in tennis] to make the machine work.”

At the outset of his 20s, Courier realized that exploring life beyond the boundaries of tennis could widen his world and add considerably to his potential as a human being.

Brad Stine, currently coaching the fleet-footed Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean, joined forces with Jose Higueras to coach Courier in his prime and returned after a three-year hiatus to work with Courier again at the end of his career from 1997 to 2000. He recollects, “When Jim was 20, we went to Rome and I asked him what he had seen, and he said just the hotel and the tennis courts. After he lost in the third round, Jose and I took a day with Jim to look around Rome. Once Jim had his eyes open, he would absorb everything. When we went to Paris, I spoke French with the cab driver. That idea interested him and he had a French girlfriend, which helped him a lot, and then he ended up giving his victory speech in French at Roland Garros.

Jim is a self-taught individual who decided he wanted to find out more about these cities and went whole hog into that. He became a voracious reader, reading a couple of newspapers a day and novels non-stop.”

In one renowned case, Courier chose to read a novel during changeovers of a round-robin match against Andrei Medvedev in Frankfurt at the 1993 season-ending ATP World Championships, which caused quite a furor in the tennis world. Most of the game’s observers saw it as a sign that Courier was losing his emotional equilibrium, but he says, “I was particularly stressed out since it was the end of the year. But what people miss about that story is that when I read the book during that match, I actually started playing better. I ended up losing 7-6 in the third and had three match points. It was an odd thing for the public to see, but was it really any odder than watching Arthur Ashe meditate at Wimbledon on the changeover? The book I was reading was literature and that was a side of me people weren’t aware of. I still hear about it all the time. It is one of those things that people associate with me, along with jumping in the Yarra (River) after I won my two Australian Opens and accepting the French Open trophy in French.”

In his formative years as teenager, Courier honed his skills at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, and there he began building his reputation for an unwavering work ethic. As Bollettieri says, “Jim Courier was a bulldog. He didn’t become No. 1 without working harder and longer than anyone else. That is what made him who he is. His success was based on the Courier attitude, and he has kept alive what he learned as a bulldog. He has very little ego and does things behind the scenes without always wanting to be acknowledged.”

A perfect example of that was Courier’s role in the Jan. 31 exhibition event in Houston that raised $518,932.50 for the Bush-Clinton Tsunami Relief Fund. Courier called the likes of Andy Roddick, Chris Evert, Anna Kournikova and John McEnroe to urge them to participate, and played the event himself. Jim McIngvale, who promoted the exhibition in his hometown, was struck by Courier’s selflessness. “Jim is organized, efficient, calls back on time and was very engaged in the whole process. He called from Australia when it was being set up and went above and beyond on
everything. He didn’t get paid and did it because it was the right thing to do. The guy flew in from Australia, hadn’t slept for 20 hours and put on a great event, making sure the other players were accommodated. To coin a phrase, the guy gets it. From a business standpoint, not many people in tennis do.”

Evert is in accord. When she got the call from Courier asking her to take part in the Houston event, she felt compelled to do it. “Jim has supported my charity event for many years,” she says, “and whenever he calls and wants me to do something I am there. He is one of the few people that I would drop everything to go help because Jim is so genuine and his motives are pure. Jim is a great example of someone getting better in every way after retiring from tennis. He said to me once that it was amazing to him how much nicer he was now than when he was playing. He was so intense back then and is so relaxed now. He is multi-dimensional and incredibly articulate. He can’t believe how much he is enjoying life and how much is out there for him.”

Commentary is on Courier’s agenda, although he does not take it too seriously. The view here is that Courier is the single best analyst among all of the announcers, significantly heightening the awareness of viewers, allowing fans to get a player’s point of view that can be easily comprehended. If he wanted to make it more of a full-time pursuit, he clearly could. But, Courier explains, “It is not a job. It is a hobby. I have done three Wimbledons, three U.S. Opens and two Australians and a few other tournaments, but that is about it. Watching the match, seeing what I see and trying to translate it for the viewer is a joy because I get to educate viewers and bring them inside the game to a level they probably don’t get to go very often. I like commentating at the majors. But the fact of the matter is there is one guy who is terrific at it by the name of John McEnroe. And the non-tennis public know John, whereas I am like the guy you think you went to college with or the actor you are not sure what role he played. John is a brand onto himself.”

Courier served as U.S. Davis Cup coach in 2002-2003 before a freak accident on a golf cart caused him to break his shoulder. He would like to someday become captain for the U.S. team, but not before Patrick McEnroe is ready to move on. As Courier clarifies, “I will have my hand in the air when Patrick’s time is done, but I will not go around the table and try to get him out of the job because Patrick is a terrific diplomat, and above and beyond that, he is a very capable captain. He deserves to be there as long as he wants.”

Last year, Courier made his debut on the Delta Tour of Champions, capturing the Masters event in London at the end of 2004. The 30-and-over contingent includes Thomas Muster, Richard Krajicek and John McEnroe. The tour has grown to 12 cities this year, half of which don’t get ATP or WTA Tour-level events, further enhancing the Tour of Champions’ attraction to fans. “It is probably what it was like to play in the burgeoning states of professional tennis,” Courier says, “where the intensity on the court is there, but the camaraderie afterward is also there. I went in with trepidation. When I broke my shoulder, I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to play again at any reasonably high standard. I wanted to see if my arm would hold up after a long break and it did beautifully. I have really enjoyed it.”

Courier, in fact, does not believe he would be out of his league against today’s ATP players. Asked to assess today’s Top 10 versus the best players of his time, he replies, “I have played against some of today’s guys. It is still one-on-one combat, and it comes down to your head as much as what you bring to the table. And nothing out there, with the exception of (Roger) Federer in full flight, says to me that I couldn’t beat these guys on my day.”

But he is far from attempting a comeback. Courier is fully committed to making InsideOut Sports & Entertainment, the company he started a year ago, his gateway to the future. “For me, it is a new challenge and a way for me to explore my financial and business curiosity because waiting for the phone to ring is no fun. To be able to create your own business is exciting. We are very much moving forward and will have an event that will be some champions tennis coming up. The business side of the sport is where my aspirations are.

“Tennis has been my way basically since I came out of the womb, and I would like to continue to stay relevant in the game through various forms. This is my No. 1 form.”

Senior Correspondent Steve Flink is one the foremost authorities on U.S. tennis and is frequently sought out for expert analysis for programs such as A&E’s Biography and ESPN Sports Century.

Original article appeared in Tennis Week Magazine, Issue:  March 17, 2005.