Had they been playing darts, they would have punctured the tavern wall. Had they been at a carnival, they would have cracked both the sledgehammer and the bell. As it was, Court One at Stade Roland Garros in Paris barely escaped demolition last week when two American teenagers set out to prove not only which one was the most macho but also which one would be Cain and which one would be Dis-Abled.
To most Parisians the match was nothing more than a routine third-rounder at the French Open, one in which their beloved Andre Agassi—don't snicker; these are the same folks who still think Jerry Lewis is hysterical—would make ratatouille of somebody named Jim Courier. But when both young men's shots started ricocheting off the dirt and into the backstops with explosive bursts—the likes of which the locals had not witnessed in, oh, maybe 200 years when the Bastille fell—everyone realized this match was special. For Courier, 18, a native of Dade City, Fla., who for too many years has been about as close to Agassi as Agassi's faded denim britches, yet miles away recognition-wise, surely it was.
Just last month Agassi defeated Courier in the Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills in three close sets. In February in Philadelphia, Agassi won their first meeting as pros in two close sets. Before that were matches in a couple of junior tournaments—Courier did come out on top once—and all those practice sessions and challenge matches over the past 4½ years at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Agassi and Courier were roommates for a spell. Agassi always won those battles too.
Then one day Agassi, who's older by 110 days, went off to join the circus and become a star. "He was out on the back courts with the others. But he was spunky: he had flair, marketability, and he was different-looking," said Bollettieri last week in Paris, referring to Agassi's triple-toned, rat-tailed, blow-dried haircut. Bollettieri's favoritism led Courier to feel, in his own words, "like I was playing second fiddle."
June 11, 1989
"Second fiddle?" Agassi said last week. "Sounds like an insecurity problem to me."
"I'm insecure?" Courier said when told of Agassi's comment. "Let's talk."
That's how it went a few minutes after the match between these allegedly close friends, so you can imagine what kind of talking the intensely puissant. 6'1", 173-pound Courier did with his racket during his 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory. To borrow from the loser's rock 'n' roll vernacular, the match was a case of heavy metal over guns 'n' poses.
Not that Agassi was shocked. "Every time I play the guy he gets as high as he can be," said Agassi, who was the fifth seed in Paris. "[Courier] is the most powerful player on tour. He's like, 'I'm going to hit this as hard as I can. Then when I get a short ball I'm going to hit it harder.' He doesn't even think out the point. I rely more on thinking."
Double-handers, double-talk. Those who witnessed the carnage on the clay didn't perceive much deep reflection on either side of the net, but they couldn't have missed Courier's initial displeasure at having to play Agassi's foil. The match began last Saturday evening, with Agassi entering the court by himself, brandishing his electric-yellow racket and waving, as is his custom, to wild hosannas. Minutes later, out stalked Courier, grim and tight-lipped. "I had the eye of the tiger," he said later. "I've heard that 'Rah-rah, Andre, we love you' before. I wasn't going to be intimidated."
But he was perturbed. In their meeting at Forest Hills, Bollettieri and Bill Shelton of IMG, the manager of record for both competitors, sat with Agassi's brother, Phil, in an obvious show of support for the favorite. The same threesome was together at courtside in Paris. "I understand the rankings situation," said Courier, who's No. 47 on your ATP scorecard and who does at least get to travel with a Team Bollettieri assistant, Sergio Cruz. "But it's tough thinking, God, is my coach rooting for me or against me? You think Agassi, you automatically think Bollettieri. Jim Courier doesn't enter that equation."
Bollettieri could have avoided the sticky situation altogether. During the Agassi-Courier match he could have strolled over to Court Central, where his distaff phenom, 15-year-old Monica Seles of Yugoslavia, was upsetting fourth-seeded Zina Garrison. Or he could have taken up a favorite position amid the mists of Roland Garros's central fountain, where, often shirtless while sopping up the infrequent rays, he bestowed autographs upon awestruck fans.
Before the match, Cruz had urged Courier to stay inside the baseline, to counter power with power. From there Courier used his compact backswing to pock-mark the court with winners, win a first-set tiebreaker 9-7 and take a 4-2 lead in the third set before the match was called because of darkness at 9:04.
That night Agassi, who had clearly been outblasted and was dying on the vine (he has never won a five-set match), had the chutzpah to intimate that the postponement would help his opponent rather than his own weary bones. "He was all hit out," said Agassi.
The next afternoon Courier needed 44 minutes to hit Agassi out of the tournament. Agassi did have a brief respite when he cut down the pace and won eight straight points to get to 2-3 in the fourth set. But then dat ol' debbil Macho reared his flashy head again.
"When Andre turned it back on, I turned it back on too," said Courier, who converted 74% of his first serves and slammed seven aces. He also struck 60 winners, and most important on the machometer, he won the forehand slug-fest, pounding 29 placements to Agassi's 10. "Was I in the zone?" said Courier. "Pretty close to it. I was playing on instinct. I was just sort of out there."
The son of a sales executive for the Lykes Pasco fruit juice processing company in Dade City and of an elementary school librarian. Courier has been out there on the circuit only since February 1988. At 12 he was a power-hitting Little League pitcher and shortstop—he both delivered up a home run to and hit one out on Derek Bell, now in the Toronto Blue Jays system, then of Tampa's Belmont Heights. A few years earlier a great-aunt, Emma Spencer, who coached women's tennis at UCLA in the early '60s, introduced Courier to tennis. He gave up the diamond at 13, and entered the academy a year later.
In 1986 and '87, Courier made a name for himself in the juniors by becoming the first player since Bjorn Borg to win consecutive Orange Bowl titles. His breakthrough came last fall, when he reached the semifinals of the Stockholm Open with victories over two Swedes, Mikael Pernfors and Anders Jarryd. Nonetheless, before Paris his first season's match record was 9-8.
On Monday in the City of Lights he had his lights turned out again, this time by the U.S.S.R.'s Andrei Chesnokov, who rallied to win 2-6, 3-6, 7-6, 6-2, 7-5. In an even more dramatic comeback, earlier in the day, 17-year-old U.S. wunderkind Michael Chang overcame not only a two-set deficit but also cramps and dehydration to stun top-seeded Ivan Lendl 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. By the final set Chang, the 15th seed, was so debilitated he could do little more than patty-cake his serve, lob back his ground strokes and go for winners. Somehow, though, Chang hung in, and by the end Lendl was clearly addled by his inability to put away his hobbled opponent. He double-faulted on match point.
Among the Bollettieri gang, of which Chang has never been a member. Courier has always been the hardest worker, with a bright, cool head despite Sunday's postmatch gloatathon. An exuberant Courier hurled his racket Eiffel-high (upon its crash landing. Agassi's mane was nearly sheared into a crewcut) and conducted cheers for each section of the crowd.
Ah, but could one blame him? Last year Courier failed to qualify for the French Open, while our hirsute hero was wading through pop worship en route to the semifinals. Now, without a tournament victory this year, Agassi can't even beat his former roomie.
Two ships passing in the glow of a Grand Slam? "What's next? I'm going home to work on relaxing," said Agassi before catching the next plane out of Paris. Bollettieri meanwhile moves on to cultivate his tan at Wimbledon. And Courier will be with him.