The most formidable Tennis Foe Jim Courier ever faced was the wall of a handball court in Dade City, Fla. "I hated that wall," he says. "It never missed."
Next toughest was that court itself. When it was resurfaced, eight-year-old Jim broke it in. His mom, Linda, was so horrified to see the black asphalt marred with little white scuff marks from Jim's sneakers that she got some towels and a bucket of water. Mother and son spent the next hour on their hands and knees rubbing out the evidence. "My boy wasn't into cleaning," says Linda, "but he didn't want to stop until the job was done."
Unlike many of his peers, Courier never throws in the towel. "He won't quit even if he's down five-love in the final set," says Australian pro Mark Wood-forde. "No one on the tour has more tenacity or a stronger will to win."
Two weeks ago Courier clawed back from a set down to beat Derrick Rostagno in the semis of a tour tournament in San Francisco. The victory vaulted Courier over Stefan Edberg into the No. 1 spot in the ATP computer rankings, making him the first U.S. man to hold that distinction since John McEnroe in 1985. "I'm going to enjoy this," said Courier. "Don't cheat yourself out of life, that's my theory."
February 24, 1992
Courier certainly never cheats himself. Though his game is somewhat limited, he maximizes his talent. "I play to see how good I can be," he says. "To me, tennis is trench warfare. I'm constantly digging, grinding and gutsing matches out."
Ranked 25th at the start of last year, he dug and ground and gutsed his way to No. 2 by winning four titles—most notably the 1991 French and '92 Australian Opens—by making the finals of the U.S. Open and the ATP Tour World Championship, and by reaching the semis of six other tournaments. "Jim docs one thing that a lot of athletes don't do when they get to the top," says veteran pro Brad Gilbert. "He works even harder."
Courier's career is practically a hymn to the work ethic. He attacks the ball with the vigor of a lumberjack, smacking every shot as if it were his first. "He's Andre Agassi with heart," says Barry MacKay, the director of that tournament in San Francisco, who ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in 1960. MacKay thinks Courier is the most exciting U.S. male player to come along in 20 years. "McEnroe was great," says MacKay, "but you really have to be a connoisseur of the game to appreciate him." MacKay compares Mac to a place hitter who punches a single to right, steals second and wheedles his way home. Courier, he says, has power to all fields.
"If the kid reminds me of anybody, it's Jimmy Connors," says MacKay. Courier won't dismiss the comparison. In fact, he has always been called Jimbo by his parents. "I just don't know if I'll have Jimmy's longevity," says Courier, 21, who ended the amazing run of the 39-year-old Connors at last summer's U.S. Open, beating him in the semifinals before falling to Edberg in the final.
Courier plays with a white-brimmed cap pulled low and tight over his brow. "Jim doesn't go for headbands," says a fellow pro. "He's into the collegiate look." Yet Courier spurned college to turn pro. "What I miss most about not going to college is the socializing," he says. Bummed out by an opening-round defeat in Los Angeles in '89, he flew to the University of Richmond to visit an old high school buddy. "I got to his dorm on a Friday and went straight to a party and got hammered," says Courier. "I woke up late the next morning, went to a tailgate party, got hammered, went to another party and got hammered again." He awoke that Sunday at noon and, still hammered, went to the airport. "I was basically a college kid for 48 hours," he says. "That was all the taste I needed."
Though he's not in college, Courier can be plenty sophomoric—asked last year how it felt to make the quarterfinals of the French Open for the first time, he snapped. "It doesn't suck." But he can also be self-deprecating, as he was at Wimbledon in 1991, when he harangued himself for blowing a set by shouting, "I want my mommy!"
Discreet, normal, down-to-earth is how Courier is described by Morgane Frühwirth, his French-born, Rio-raised girlfriend. She says, "He's never going to wear sunglasses at night or burst into the locker room in a screaming-pink shirt, saying, 'Look at me, I'm the best.' Sometimes Jim wants to give a really tough image of a macho man. But then you smile at him. and he melts like hot sugar."
Courier met his girl from Ipanema last year at Roland Garros. In addition to a Florida condo, they share a town house in Palm Desert, Calif. Every object in the town house's living room—lamp, couch, coffee table—is adorned with a yellow Post-it inscribed in French. "I'm giving Jim a Berlitz course," says Frühwirth, a graduate of the Sorbonne. "We have many dialogues. Usually simple ones like, 'Hello. Are you hungry? Are you angry? Do you want to go to bed soon?' "
And how does Jim respond?
"He'll say, 'No, I want to brush my teeth.' "
"The bottom line," Courier interjects, "is that we're not doing anything we're not going to do in English."
When not flossing, Courier serenades Frühwirth on his Fender Stratocaster. A favorite ballad is Toad the Wet Sprocket's Scenes from a Velvet Recliner. "Jimbo's voice isn't ready for the stage yet," says Linda. "He sounds like a lonely tennis player to me."
According to Frühwirth, the Couriers "represent the American family with their own house, children, the backyard, and the microwave in the kitchen." Courier's father, also named Jim, is an executive with a fruit juice pressing company; Linda is a onetime elementary school librarian. "Jimbo didn't grow up having it all," says Linda. "Early on, he didn't have private coaches or people paying all his travel expenses. He had to fight all the way, and he's a better person for that."
Young Jim's initiation into the sport came through a great-aunt, Emma Spencer, who ran the Dreamwold Tennis Club out of her home in Sanford, Fla. A former women's coach at UCLA, Aunt Emma schooled Jim in tennis etiquette. "She taught him how to behave during matches," Linda says, "and never to chew gum on the court."
Tennis ended Jim's childhood prematurely. "He stopped being a kid at age seven," says Linda, almost elegiacally. "That's when he entered the adult world of having to defend his line calls and his honesty against irate parents who got a little too involved in their childrens' matches.... The more successful he got, the more serious the game became. In the shuffle, Jimbo lost the joy of youth."
By 11, Jim was successful, serious and ready to shuffle off to Largo, Fla., where Harry Hopman, the legendary coach of the great Australian Davis Cup teams of the 1950s and '60s, had a tennis academy. Another player on the junior circuit had been taking lessons there and was beating him. "If I could play five hours a day," Jim told his parents, "I'd get better, too."
He scrounged up $50 to spend a day at the academy. Knowing she couldn't afford many more days, Linda persuaded Hopman to watch Jim hit. Hopman was so impressed by the boy's power that he took him on for free.
Two years later Jim reached the finals of the 14-and-under division at the Orange Bowl junior championships and was offered a full scholarship to Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. It was there that he trained and briefly bunked with Agassi. On sunny days he would take on Agassi outdoors. "Andre always won," Courier says. On rainy days they would slug it out indoors. "Andre always won," Courier says.
The Las Vegas-born Agassi, who plays as if auditioning for a casino version of Showboat, eventually commanded most of Bollettieri's attention. Though Jim became the first player since Bjorn Borg to win consecutive Orange Bowl championships, in 1986 and '87, he still had to travel to tournaments with one of Bollettieri's assistants. "Jim called home many times to tell us he wanted to leave," says his old man. "I'd tell him, 'Work your ass off, and if things don't improve, that's O.K.' "
But the harder Courier worked, the less things worked out. While playing Agassi in the third round of the 1989 French Open, Courier spied Bollettieri sitting courtside with Andre's brother, Phil. "Nick was clapping for Andre, cheering him on," says Courier. He whips his head to the side, as if wincing, and chuckles a bit flatly. "I realized Nick didn't want me to win. It kind of hurt me."
When Courier left Bollettieri in early 1990, he was an insecure, incomplete player who relied almost exclusively on power. "Jim had only one gear, the fast gear," says Jose Higueras, the Spaniard who became Courier's coach 16 months ago. "He confused tense*with intense. He had never been asked to think, so his game was easy to figure out."
Higueras is the maestro who orchestrated Michael Chang's 1989 French Open victory. Under Higueras's guidance, Courier has developed more variety in his game and better judgment in his shot making. "Over and over I told him, 'The worst that can happen is you lose,' " says Higueras. "And I told him, 'Even to lose is not so bad.' "
The teachings of Don Jose didn't sink in until Courier played Agassi last March in a tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. Courier had already dropped the first set 6-2. "It wasn't like I saw a burning bush," he says. "It was more of a burning forehand from Andre."
Rather than continue trading blasts with Agassi from the baseline, Courier began to vary his angles, speeds and spins. He won the last two sets 6-3, 6-4. "That was the first match I ever won with my head," he says. "I'm calmer, more cool-headed. Of course, I'm still a hitter, but now I can hit and think at the same time."
That ability eluded Agassi in last June's French Open final. Up a set and leading Courier 3-1 in the second, he seemed in control when a shower briefly halted play. During the delay. Higueras instructed Courier to back up on Agassi's serve to give himself a better chance of making a deep return and getting into some rallies. From his new redoubt. Courier won the second set 6-4. He lost the third badly, but he won the fourth by mixing up his shots so well that Agassi ended up spraying balls all over the stadium. Courier won 12 of the first 13 points in the fourth set and then took the fifth and the match.
"Beating Andre at Roland Garros was a sort of vindication," says Courier, grinning broadly. Does he still resent Bollettieri? "No," he says after a short pause. "Nick fed me, put a roof over my head and provided me with great competition."
He adds, with a pained softness, "I'm just here to help the ball club." He grins again, this time even more broadly. "I've got my Bull Durham clichès going. They're very handy. They keep me from putting my foot in my mouth."
Courier may have survived Bollettieri, but the pressures of staying in the Top 10 had nearly overwhelmed him. Less than a month before the '91 French Open, he was sputtering on Roman clay in round 3 of the Italian Open. Suddenly, in the middle of his match with Andrei Cherkasov, he thrust his arms heavenward and screamed, "I'm 20 years old, I'm Number 9 in the world, and I'm so unhappy with my life!" He got unhappier after losing the match 4-6, 6-1, 6-2. His traveling coach, Brad Stine, caught up with him in the parking lot.
"Look," said Courier. "I don't want to talk right now. I'm not going to be nice."
"That's all right," said Stine. "But don't expect Jose or me to be around when you decide to be nice."
Disarmed, Courier apologized. "I'm embarrassed by my actions," he said.
"You should be," said Stine. "You acted like an idiot on the court." He advised Courier to take two months off and let his ranking drop to the 20's.
"I can't do that!" said Courier. He smashed a racket and heaved it over a fence. "I've always dreamed of being in the Top 10."
Stine grabbed him and said, "Can't you see you're scared to have a single digit by your name?"
Says Courier now, "Brad really bludgeoned me. It he hadn't, I wouldn't have won the French."
A similar bludgeoning took place last August, two weeks before the U.S. Open. The grind of the circuit had left Courier weary and listless. He looked it in a 6-3, 7-6 loss to Pete Sampras in Indianapolis. "Josè and I sat Jim down and told him he looked tapped out," says Stine. "We asked him to skip Flushing Meadow."
"That would be quitting!" Courier said.
"If you want to win," said Stine, "you've got to act like it."
Courier started acting. "Sure, he made it to the Open finals," says Stine, "but he was mentally fried. He played the entire tournament on fumes."
The night he defeated Rostagno in San Francisco, Courier may finally have run out of gas. "Everything in my head has completely stopped," he said after the match. "I feel really relaxed for the first time this week."
He hardly had time to savor the moment. In the final the next afternoon, Chang beat him 6-3, 6-3. Then Courier flew to a tournament in Brussels, where Edberg awaited to attempt to reclaim the No. 1 ranking. Courier, though, held him off by making the final (which he lost to Boris Becker in five hotly contested sets), while Edberg lost in the semis.
Before leaving San Francisco, Courier called his parents in Dade City. "Mom," he said. "I think I'll splurge and take the Concorde to Europe."
"That sounds O.K., Jimbo," said Linda. "Every now and then you need to pat yourself on the back."