It's Hammer Time

June 17, 1991
June 17, 1991

Table of Contents
June 17, 1991

On The Scene
The NBA Finals
French Open
College World Series
World Bowl
The McRaes
Thomas Hearns
Lanny Wadkins
Horse Racing
Women Sportscasters
Point After

It's Hammer Time

In an all-American slugfest, Jim Courier nailed Andre Agassi to win the French Open

Not that your sensibilities were assaulted and your block completely knocked off into the Seine, but when those two brash and obnoxious American tourists coldcocked their way through the men's final of the French Open, looking like a couple of jackhammer operators opening up a cavern in the clay, weren't all your hopes that tennis might retain at least some politesse dashed forever? It wasn't horrifying enough that Andre Agassi, 21, proved that just because a guy looks like some freaked-out neon Jesus in a bowling shirt, it doesn't mean that he can't blow yet another Grand Slam final. Nah, that wasn't nearly enough. The character who beat Agassi was—get this—none other than Jim Courier, his former roommate at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy for Baseline Bashers and Awesomely Cool Dudes and Dudettes, in Bradenton, Fla. Courier is 110 days younger than Agassi, and he's nearly as crass, sassy and sartorially dyslexic.

This is an article from the June 17, 1991 issue

Courier kept coming from behind to win a 3-6, 6-4, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 match that was interesting only if you appreciate unforced errors (123 total), favor baseball caps on tennis players, and possess a surly 'tude—not to mention a dirty, disheveled shirt that's as far out there as Courier's emotions, which, unfortunately, he sometimes shares with the public. For instance, how did he feel after reaching the quarterfinals in a major championship for the first time? "It doesn't suck," said Courier.

Old Nick sure does know how to Emily Post 'em, n'est-ce pas? In truth, Courier, who hails from Dade City, Fla., split with Bollettieri less than two years ago because he thought the Incredible Tanned One was spending too much time squiring Agassi into the ranks of the elite. Moreover, Courier listens only to rock bands like—this is not a typo—Toad the Wet Sprocket. That's nothing: Agassi thinks he is one—a band, not a toad. C'est la vie. What did you expect, Harry Connick Jr.?

Connick, the debonair jazz troubadour from New Orleans, played the famous Olympia music hall in Paris one night during the tournament, and he was the closest thing to a clean, calm, elegant, self-effacing American that the French experienced for the two weeks. Connick sang in the film When Harry Met Sally, but when Andre met Jim on Sunday at Stade Roland Garros, Courier sent a message that was as loud and orgasmic as anything that Meg Ryan offered in the movie's famous restaurant scene. Namely: I can win the big ones, and my onetime roomie can't. Indeed, Courier has won all four of the tournament finals he has reached in the three years he has been on the circuit, while Agassi is 0-3 in Grand Slam championship matches over the last year.

"The pessimistic side of me questions if I'll ever win one," said Agassi afterward, devastated, his voice breaking and his eyes tearing. The bluster was long gone from Agassi, who had been a solid favorite to win the first all-American men's final in Paris since 1954, when Tony Trabert beat Art (Tappy) Larsen. Agassi had a break point for a 4-1 lead in the second set, but he blew it. That's when the skies over Roland Garros rained on his parade. During the short precipitation delay, Courier was advised by his new coach, Jose Higueras, to move 10 feet behind the baseline, the better to retrieve Agassi's bullets and to work his way into rallies.

Voilà! Ripping shots with his compact backswing, Courier won five of the next six games to roar back into the match. Agassi recovered, however. After angrily shouting to himself, "How many——forehands are you going to miss?" he smothered Courier, winning the last five games of the third set. Then, surprisingly—although, in retrospect, maybe not, considering Agassi's roller-coaster career—he lost 12 of the first 13 points of the fourth set to allow Courier back into the match once again. "Anytime I saw [Andre] slice, I made a beeline for the net," said Courier afterward.

The wind started swirling in the fifth set, the two players traded service breaks, and the score stood at 4-4, 15-all, with Agassi serving. This wasn't a ladder match back at Nick's Place. (During his semifinal defeat of 12th-seeded Michael Stich, Courier had called up to Bollettieri, who was sitting in the stands, "A long way from Bradenton, right, Nick?") Nor was this a mano-a-mano meeting between friends-turned-enemies, which is what Courier and Agassi seemed to be at Roland Garros two years ago, when Courier upset Agassi in the third round and then said that he had always felt he was playing "second fiddle" to him.

"Second fiddle?" Agassi responded. "Sounds like an insecurity problem to me."

"I'm insecure?" sideswiped Courier.

No, Sunday was the goods. And 4-4 in the fifth of a Grand Slam final is truly crunch time. Agassi blinked. First, he nearly fanned on a forehand. Next, Courier rapped a forehand crosscourt winner to go ahead 40-15. Finally, after a long rally, Courier, in desperation, launched a lob, which fell short. Agassi let the ball bounce and then mightily whacked it—into the doubles alley. Nothing, not his gray denim, his purple panty hose, his dangling earring or his image-is-everything charisma, could bail him out now.

Courier served out the next game for the championship, punctuating the moment with an ace on match point. He then keeled over backward into the bronze dust, much of which he had already pancaked on his shirt and ball cap. "It was like facing the Niekro brothers out there," said Courier, a former Little League pitcher, referring to what the blustery conditions in the final set did to the ball. "The whole purpose was to keep grinding, to keep the ball in play and make Andre hit another shot. Yeah, he missed that overhead.... Anything can happen—and anything did."

Agassi and Courier weren't the only invaders to give the men's draw the look of a clay-encrusted sequel to An American in Paris. In the first week of the tournament three-hundred-ninety-seven-year-old Jimmy Connors, in the role of Gene Kelly, tore the place apart even while losing to Michael Chang (SI, June 10), who in 1989 had become the first American male to win the French crown since Trabert in '55. Thirty-four years of nothing, until Chang—and then last spring Agassi reached the final. Now here was Agassi again; Chang embarrassing the French hope, Guy Forget, in the fourth round; and Courier knocking off the world's No. 1 player, Stefan Edberg, in the quarters. Even the U.S. Open champ, Pete Sampras, who was supposed to know nothing about playing on dirt, broke out of a minislump and whipped Austrian clay specialist Thomas Muster in the opening round. Then there was Chicago's own 6'6" Todd Martin, 20, a qualifier with three pro match wins in his life going into Paris. He got to the fourth round but lost to his hitting partner, Courier.

"I'd like to slap around those people who five years ago asked, 'Where's American tennis?' " said Courier. "Well, here we are. How're ya doin'?"

Edberg may be the best volleyer in the game, but he didn't do well when Courier ripped serve returns at his feet and then misripped an Edberg delivery that turned into a winning lob on the key break point in the fourth set of Courier's 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 win. "I hit that one with the expensive part of the racket, which is not the strings," said Courier, laughing.

Following each win, Courier became the first person ever to attempt the M.C. Hammer dance at Stade Roland Garros. Then, ever macho, he would either drag Higueras—who had also guided Chang to the French Open title—to a practice session or go for a run in the Bois de Boulogne.

During the women's semis on Thursday, a bizarre scenario unfolded in the players' gallery at one end of the court, a place where paranoid agents, fawning groupies and hopeless, get-a-life hangers-on outnumber parents and friends at the rate of sleazy to one. While Monica Seles, the No. 1-ranked woman in the world, was defeating Gabriela Sabatini 6-4, 6-1 in the first match, a man with a luxuriant, white hair-and-mustache combo, Jim Levee, who used to "sponsor" Steffi Graf (read: give her jewelry and a Porsche), was sitting with the parents of Seles, whom he now "sponsors." Call him a somewhat ubiquitous smarm-schmoozer to the stars. The 50-ish Levee (pronounced lev-EYE) says he is the nephew of publishing billionaire Walter Annenberg. Levee switched allegiance from Graf to Seles before Seles beat Graf in last year's French final, during which he taunted Steffi and her father, Peter, by shouting out, "Number One!" and pointing toward Seles.

During Thursday's second semi, in which Arantxa Sànchez Vicario stunned Steffi 6-0, 6-2, Levee was right on the aisle when Peter stormed out of the gallery five games into the most humiliating day of Steffi's proud career. What happened next was this: Peter whacked Levee on top of the head—it would be the most accurate Graf backhand of the day—and kept walking. Levee rose to his feet and screamed threats. Levee later vowed that he "would get two bodyguards at Wimbledon and break both of [Peter's] legs."

In an impromptu press conference outside the players' lounge, Levee announced he would have Peter "arrested" for hitting him. "I give to the players, the agents take, and I end up getting hit in the head," said Levee. Pointing to his player's guest badge, he assured reporters, "Yeah, this is the correct spelling. Levee, double e. The Germans always get it wrong."

A rich guy can spend his money and time any pitiable way he wishes, but what does it say about the Grafs and the Seleses that they accepted such largess or embarrassing backing or whatever it is. "He [Levee] is very good at cheering for me; I can always hear his voice," said Monica on Saturday after she had successfully defended her title with Levee sitting next to her father, Karolj. "I heard about it [the Graf-Levee incident], but it is totally not my business."

Seles took control of the championship match, which she won 6-3, 6-4 after spotting Sànchez Vicario a 2-0 lead. The two teens play similar games, but Seles's pace is quicker, her angles more pronounced, her variety more extensive. Corralling most of Sànchez Vicario's drop shots, she won six of the next seven games as Sànchez Vicario became flustered over what she perceived to be bad calls. "Hombre! No!" she screamed time after time before pleading, in vain, for the umpire to climb down from his chair and inspect the mark.

In the second set, rallies lasted 15, 20, sometimes 30 strokes as Sànchez Vicario chased Seles's penetrating drives, moon-balled them back and jumped out to a 4-1 lead. Seles steadied, though, and, as she said later, "got mad." She held serve at love, broke back at 15, held again and broke at love when Sànchez Vicario made four awful errors. Just then, Sànchez Vicario looked up at the players' gallery, where her mother, Marisa, was holding her pet Yorkie, Roland (named after the stadium in which Aranxta had won the French title in 1989), and where Levee was smoking nervously. "The dog just bit Levee, but didn't draw blood because there isn't any," said Barry Newcombe of London's Sunday Express.

The last game was the best game, women's or men's, of the tournament. It lasted 12 minutes and 20 points. Seles fought off three break points, and Sànchez Vicario survived three match points, the last by crushing an overhead to end an exhausting 32-stroke rally. Sànchez Vicario got one more breaker, but Seles drilled a forehand crosscourt for the seventh deuce of the game, and then she nailed a backhand down the line. Those were about the only rockets from the champ that Sànchez Vicario didn't touch all day. Finally, on Seles's fourth match point, Sànchez Vicario netted a backhand.

Up in the Seles camp, the mood was euphoric. "What heart! Oh my god! This is tennis! This is sport! I go have beer!" said Karolj, who did not reveal whether his family would be tipping brew with, or receiving a Lear jet from, Levee.

After Monica had fashion-plated herself into a shimmering black sheath, accessorized by a gold-and-crystal necklace and matching chandelier earrings from Perrier, she considered her position, halfway to the Grand Slam. Seles vowed she would serve and volley on the Wimbledon grass. "I don't want to stay in the backcourt all my life; I've got to cut the cake somewhere," she said.

For most of the fortnight, Boris Becker seemed to be cutting his own swath—like Seles, he won the 1991 Australian Open, the first of the majors—not only toward another Grand Slam title but also back to the No. 1 ranking. With Edberg's quarterfinal loss, Becker could have regained the top spot had he beaten Agassi. But as in the semifinals of the U.S. Open last summer, and for the fourth time in a row, Agassi measured Becker's monster serve, smacked it right back and brazenly dared his 6'3" foe to take the net. Becker wouldn't—or couldn't—and he lost 7-5, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.

The match may have turned on a single call, at 5-5 in the first set, advantage Becker. Agassi hit an ace with his second serve, which Becker insisted had landed deep. When the linesman ran out to inspect the mark, his glasses flew onto the clay. Becker quickly donned the specs and peered at the mark. After the ensuing laughter had died, the call stood. Agassi held serve and broke for the set.

"Boris has improved tremendously on the baseline," said Agassi, "but I kept him deep, on his heels. The longer the rallies, the more they favored me."

Even with 15 aces, even with breaking Agassi to open the fourth set, Becker knew he never had a toehold. Agassi kept grazing the corners and winning the rallies, not to mention the final six games of the match. Then Agassi climbed over the net to join Becker in a warm embrace, solidifying a mutual respect. "He told me I could have won [the tournament]; I told him my head was——up," said Becker, who spent 15 minutes analyzing Agassi in the manner of a veteran spin doctor.

His diagnosis: "Whether [Agassi] wins or loses, he is always fair to me. This shows me he is not a clown, not just another guy. As a player he is in a different league. Today, he does not walk off saying he is the greatest. He realized how close he came to losing. He knew it's a matter of maybe one point. That is class."

But Becker also said that Agassi would have to realize that mere strokes would not be that important on Sunday. "Andre is ready to win a Slam [event]," said Becker, who has five under his belt, "but he must keep his nerve."

Instead, it was Courier, in his first Grand Slam final, who kept his nerve. With the victory, he moved up in the rankings to No. 4, supplanting none other than a certain longhair from Las Vegas whose dust he used to swallow. I'm insecure? The French Open's 100th-anniversary champion would play second fiddle to Agassi and all the rest of the game's rock 'n' roll antiheroes no more.

PHOTODAVID WALBERGAfter serving out the title match, Courier briefly did his rendition of the M.C. Hammer dance.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERAgassi huffed and puffed and then blew yet another Grand Slam final.PHOTODAVID WALBERGBecker learned the hard way that Agassi is hard to beat on the baseline.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERNew do, old script: Seles ripped through the field to retain her title.