If you watch tennis even just from time-to-time, he’ll have been impossible to miss, given that he seems to work for every TV channel which broadcasts the sport.
If you’re over the age of 40, you’ll know that he used to swing a tennis racquet with a fair degree of purpose.
If you’re under the age of 40, it will depend how invested your interest is in the game of tennis, as to just how aware you are to the impact he made on the sport during the early 1990s.
That nice American man with the microphone, who strolls onto tennis courts all around the world, to share in charmingly inoffensive conversations with the tennis stars of today, more often than not with Roger Federer.
Jim Courier is the man in question.
Four times a winner of a grand slam singles title, a beaten finalist on a further three occasions, by the age of 22, Courier had reached the final of all four grand slam tournaments, the youngest male to do so, and a record which stands to this day.
Armed with a double-handed backhand, - which always adds a degree of the maverick to a tennis player – a bludgeoning forehand, the face of a poker player and a trademark baseball cap, Courier stepped out of Nick Bollettieri’s industrial tennis sweatshop as the surprise candidate for greatness.
With Andre Agassi having been anointed as ‘the chosen one’ by seasoned observers of Bollettieri’s academy, with the rich promise being shown by the moody prodigy that was Pete Sampras, with the spirit and talent of Michael Chang, and with the continued presence of the legendary gunslingers John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, Courier found himself cast in the role as the slightly awkward and under-noticed outsider of American men’s tennis, as the 1990s came into view.
This was despite a promising junior career, in which he won the prestigious Orange Bowl in 1986, then retaining his title the following year. In doing so, Courier became the first player to win back-to-back Orange Bowl titles since an emerging Bjorn Borg.
Added to this, Courier illuminated just how adept he would become on the red clay of Roland Garros, when he claimed the junior doubles title in 1987.
Courier’s place in the Bollettieri pecking order at this time however, can be mapped, by how when he made his grand slam debut at the 1988 US Open as an 18-year-old, it came exactly two years after Agassi made his at the very same venue.
While Agassi was the older of the two players, it was by less than four months only.
Courier exited the 1988 US Open in the second round, while Agassi’s fast ascending star status carried him through to the semi-finals, where he lost to Ivan Lendl. Agassi also made the semi-finals of the French Open earlier in the year. Compared to Courier, Agassi was deemed to be lightyears ahead of his former room-mate.
Over the course of the next two years, Agassi continued to push the established names of the sport, as he reached another US Open semi-final in 1989, and then reached his first grand slam final a year later, losing to Andrés Gómez in Paris, and Sampras in New York.
Courier in the meantime was making steady, yet quietly modest progress, inclusive beating Agassi at Roland Garros in 1989. As 1991 rolled into view however, he had still to make it beyond the last-16 of a grand slam tournament.
That was about to change.
At the beginning of 1991 the landscape altered. Agassi’s losses at the final hurdle at both Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows drained his confidence, while Sampras was blinded by the spotlight cast upon him in winning the 1990 US Open.
With grand slam winning days now long behind McEnroe and Connors, there was a vacancy for an American hero on the tennis court.
Courier hit the floor running in 1991, as he won the first two Masters series events of the year in Indian Wells and Miami. A breakthrough had been made.
Having again gone out of a grand slam tournament at the last-16 stage in Australia, this time in a five-set war of attrition against Stefan Edberg, Courier arrived at the French Open as the number nine seed.
At Roland Garros, Courier finally made it to a grand slam quarter-final for the first time.
Just as in Melbourne, Edberg crossed Courier’s path. It was within these two games at the Australian and French Open’s that a compelling rivalry was consummated. On this occasion, Courier prevailed in four-sets. Courier had even beaten Edberg when he claimed his first ATP tour title, in Basel in 1989.
Having struggled to reach the business end of a grand slam tournament until now, Courier took to the higher platform like a seasoned campaigner.
Wimbledon champion to be, Michael Stich, was defeated in the semi-finals and suddenly Courier found himself in the French Open final, looking across the net at Agassi. It seemed incredulous.
In a five-set slugfest, Courier twice came back from a set down to grind out victory against his fellow Bollettieri graduate. Agassi, the man so heavily tipped to be the new king of tennis, had now lost three out of three grand slam finals, while Courier had succeeded at the first time of asking.
Before 1991 had drawn to a close, Courier had reached the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, where Stich beat him on the way to winning the title, and the final of the US Open, where Edberg proved to be his nemesis, at the end of an incredible tournament, where Connors had rolled back the years in reaching the semi-finals as a wildcard entry.
Courier had been the pantomime villain in his semi-final defeat of Connors, but the final proved to be a bridge too far. It would be his one and only shot at a US Open final.
Courier finished the year by reaching the final of the end-of-season ATP Tour World Championships, in Frankfurt, losing the final to Sampras, having again defeated Agassi in the semi-finals.
1991 had been beyond Courier’s wildest dreams, but 1992 would still startlingly exceed what went the previous year.
Having lost out to Edberg in New York, the two went head-to-head as the top two seeds in the Australian Open final. Courier victorious in four-sets, celebrated by running to the banks of the River Yarra, where he promptly dived in to the murky waters.
At Roland Garros, as defending champion, Courier swept all before him, dropping only one-set on the way to retaining his title, and dismantling Agassi yet again in the semi-finals. In the build-up to Paris, Courier had also won on clay in Rome.
The top seed at Wimbledon, Courier made an early exit, ending the possibility of a calendar grand slam. He did however go on to reach the semi-finals at the US Open where he was outthought by Sampras, and another ATP Tour World Championship final, where he was beaten by Boris Becker.
Courier ended 1992 as the world number one, a position he would hold on to for 58 weeks, and he went into 1993 at high velocity.
Retaining the Australian Open, where he again dropped just one-set, in the final against Edberg, Courier had unwittingly won the last of his four grand slam titles.
At the age of 22, Courier seemed set to dominate men’s tennis for many years to come, but the high rolling momentum had peaked early, and his career very gradually receded to where many had expected it to plateau in the first place.
Despite having collected his last grand slam title in Melbourne at the beginning of 1993, there were still a number of near-misses on returning to the winners’ circle.
Courier was denied a hat-trick of French Open titles, when he was beaten by Sergi Bruguera in an epic five-set final, and he followed that up by reaching the Wimbledon final, where he became the first of Sampras’ seven victims in the final at the All England Club.
It goes forgotten how closely contested a final it was. Sampras edging the first two sets on tie-breaks, before Courier clawed one back, eventually losing out in the fourth. He’d even found time to defeat Edberg once more in the semi-finals. For somebody who was classed as being ill-at-ease on grass, it was one of the great what might have been moments.
It was also Courier’s seventh and last grand slam final.
The 1993 Wimbledon final was the one where Sampras set off for the stars, and with Agassi having finally broken his grand slam curse on the same centre court 12-months earlier, Courier was about to be overshadowed by his contemporaries.
There were further runs to the semi-finals of the Australian and French Open’s in 1994, and the US Open in 1995, Sampras again his conqueror in Melbourne and New York, although Courier did enjoy one more success against ‘Pistol Pete’ in the quarter-finals in Paris, on a surface Sampras failed to truly master.
It was Bruguera that Courier eventually fell to at Roland Garros again in the semi-finals.
And with that, Courier, the classic heavy hitting baseliner, drifted away into the ranks of the also rans of men’s tennis, until his retirement from the game in 2000.
Courier’s rise to the top had been unforeseen, but it had also been a refreshing one at a time when the exceptional natural talents of Agassi and Sampras had been expected to inherit the sport without question.
Agassi and Sampras were of course merely delayed in reaching that destination, but the hard work, stubbornness and grit of Courier placed him at the very epicentre of the game for significant period, and that in itself, left his gifted rivals with huge servings of self-doubt, during which Courier collected a spree of grand slam titles.
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