Jim Courier (left) and Monica Seles (right) helped kick off Wimbledon on Monday with an informal grass-court exhibition at Rockefeller Center. (AP)
The first time Jim Courier faced Monica Seles, it was at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy when the two were both teenagers. Courier wanted to rally and warm-up first, but the younger Seles had other plans and promptly hit the first two balls hard and past Courier.
“I turned to [coach] Nick [Bollettieri], I used an expletive, and I said ‘Never again,’” Courier said. “I walked right off the court.”
“I just came out and I wanted to prove that I was as good as the boys!” Seles recalled.
It was a decidedly more lighthearted affair on Monday afternoon at Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan, where Courier and Seles kick-started a week-long Wimbledon celebration that HSBC Bank is holding, complete with a grass court, an LED screen broadcasting live Wimbledon matches, and free dishes of strawberries and cream -- the traditional fare at the All England Club.
The two former No. 1 players each partnered with a series of fans, as a crowd of more than 200 people watched a series of five-minute-long doubles matches.
Even though scores were only loosely kept, Courier -- who is captaining the American side at the Davis Cup -- was not afraid to show his competitive streak. He trash-talked a fan after the fan’s hard serve was successfully returned -- “Get that cheese out of here!” -- and threw down his racket in mock frustration after his team lost a point.
“I believe that that is a violation of conduct, sir,” emcee Brett Haber joked after Courier threw his racket.
“That’s a violation of my partner missing her volley, that’s what that was!” Courier responded.
One of the biggest stars of the exhibition came in the form of 8-year-old Gabriela Price, whose serve was one of the hardest that the crowd saw all afternoon.
Price earned cheers from the crowd, as Seles admired her form and Courier told the crowd that they may be in the presence of a future U.S. champion.
In addition to giving tips to the crowd for how to play on a grass surface, both tennis stars talked about their predictions for the tournament, which began Monday across the pond. On the men’s side, Seles said she couldn’t pick between the three favorites, while Courier said he predicted Rafael Nadal would win -- unless he is facing Novak Djokovic. Both talked about how wide open the women’s tournament seems to be, although Seles said she favored Maria Sharapova to come away with the victory after her strong performance at the French Open.
Neither Courier nor Seles will be making the trip to England for the tournament this year, but both insisted that they were already at Wimbledon.
“I’m at Wimbledon right here -- I’m at Wimbledon in New York City,” Courier said. Screenings of Wimbledon matches will continue all week, as will complimentary racquet restringing and tennis clinics.