Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Jim Courier Q&A: "30 minutes of terror"

Jim Courier, an International Tennis Hall of Famer and the United
States' Davis Cup captain, talks with reporters before playing in the
recent Champions Shootout in Sacramento. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Jim Courier is tennis' Renaissance man.
   This, after all, is the guy who:
   --Read Armistead Maupin's novel "Maybe the Moon" during changeovers in the 1993 ATP Championships.
   --Gave his victory speech in French after winning Roland Garros.
   --Wears a suit rather than a customary warmup during Davis Cup matches as the United States' captain (Davis Cup lingo for coach).
   --Mentioned not only Pablo Picasso but Jackson Pollock in a recent interview.
   Apparently, Courier has been reading more books in the past 20 years. If there were an award for Best Vocabulary by a Sports Figure, he would win handily. When is the last time an athlete or ex-athlete used words such as "microcosm," "trepidation," "conduit," "palette" and "amorphous" in a chat with reporters?
   Not bad for someone who skipped college and turned professional out of Nick Bollettieri's tennis boot camp in Bradenton, Fla., where he roomed with the more promising Andre Agassi. All three -- Bollettieri, Agassi and Courier -- wound up in the International Tennis Hall of Fame (Bollettieri will be inducted in July).
   With his inside-out forehand, baseball-style two-handed backhand and fierce determination, Courier won two French Open and two Australian Open singles crowns, climbed to No. 1 in the world in 1992 and played on two Davis Cup championship teams. He's one of only three American men (with Don Budge and Agassi) to appear in all four Grand Slam singles finals.
   These days, in addition to handling his Davis Cup duties, Courier works as a tennis broadcaster and plays on the seniors circuit he founded 10 years ago.
   Still fit at 43 with wavy, strawberry blond hair parted down the middle, Courier could pass for a teenager. Although he can be testy because he doesn't suffer fools gladly, Courier was candid, colorful, cordial and -- sorry to spoil the alliteration -- self-deprecating during a session with a handful of reporters before facing John McEnroe in last month's Champions Shootout in Sacramento.
   Following are highlights of the interview:
  Q: What's trickier, being the interviewer or the interviewee?
  A: Oh, you guys have the hard job. You have to think of the questions, and I have to react to them (tonight). I can definitely sympathize. It's about 30 minutes of terror before a match ends in Australia if I'm getting ready to interview someone (on the court).
   Q: How much pressure is the on-court interview?
   A: The pressure is on the players. We're talking about a microcosm of what they're dealing with, but within the broadcast space, that's the toughest thing because it's a high-wire act. I'm out there (in front of) 15,000 fans. That's primarily who the player is talking to, but I also have producers who want certain things. I have people criticizing me because I'm asking fluffy questions.
   I'm trying to the give the players an opportunity to show more of their personality early in the tournament, then when we get later in the tournament, it gets more serious, and I have to respect that we're in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam or the semifinals and try to get something that's more pertinent to the match and scenario and history that we're witnessing.
   I hate it, honestly. I hate it. But I know it's something that I'm there to do and I'm expected to do. I do it with trepidation and fear because it's a YouTube moment waiting to happen.
   Q: Was the Aussie crowd receptive to you? Sometimes it seems they favor their own local people.
   A: I'm probably not the person to ask. They're not there to listen to me; they're there to listen to the players. I'm just a conduit. If I'm doing my job right, I'm representing what the audience wants to find out. If I ask a stupid question, I will hear it -- and I have heard it, because I ask at least a couple a year.
   Q: Example?
   A: We're in Rod Laver Arena this year, and Rod Laver is sitting right above me. I (had) read that the arena in Basel (Switzerland) is the Roger Federer Arena. So I look it up on the Internet -- which is infallible, as you know -- to confirm it, and Wikipedia says it is. Then I go on the court and present that to (Federer) and say, 'Hey, this is Rod Laver's building. You get to play in your building in Basel,' and he quickly corrects me, and the crowd whistles a little bit, and you feel like an idiot. And you are for believing the Internet.  
   Q: Billie Jean King said the other day that tennis is an art form that shapes time and space. You've hit a million tennis balls. Do you enjoy the art of the game?
Courier slugs his trademark baseball-style
backhand during the Champions Shootout.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   A: I'll be facing an artist across the net tonight, in all seriousness. Johnny Mac has a broad palette. My artistic sensibilities are a little more Jackson Pollock than Picasso. I'm an athlete. I do what I can with what I have. I'm not a classically trained tennis player, and as a result, I'm limited in what I'm able to do.
   John is the other end of that spectrum. He's truly someone who does change the geometry on the tennis court. What's beautiful about our sport is not just the one-on-one combat but the different ways each individual approaches tennis to achieve the same goal.
   I was asked the other night, 'Who do you like watching the most among the current players?' I don't think I'm alone in feeling like Federer is one who makes it look easier than I ever dreamed. I also love the smash-mouth tennis of (Rafael) Nadal, because I can relate to what he does a lot more, but I can appreciate Federer. 
   Q: We've had (Stefan) Edberg, and we've had (Lew) Hoad, but is Federer the most graceful, the most beautiful of the elite champions? 
   A: I wasn't lucky enough to see Hoad play a lot. Edberg certainly is in that class. The thing with Federer is that he doesn't even make noise when he plays. He doesn't grunt; his feet barely squeak in an era where these players are moving more than anyone ever had to on surfaces that are very audio-friendly. We get a lot of noise. He's the most beautiful player in the men's game that I've ever seen.
   Q: Will we ever see serve-and-volley tennis again?
   A: If conditions change, if the courts get quicker and (the ball stays) lower, allowing serve-and-volleyers to excel and make it more difficult for (opponents) to swing hard at balls because they're getting on them quicker and lower, then yes. It would take (indoor) tournaments like we used to see in the Bay Area and Philadelphia where it was low-bouncing and quick and virtually impossible to succeed at the baseline, as you'll see if you look at my record.
   Q: What's the role of luck in tennis? Would the result have changed if there hadn't been that rain delay in the French Open? (Courier defeated Agassi 3-6, 6-4, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 in the 1991 final. Agassi had a break point for 4-1 in the second set when play was postponed. As Sports Illustrated reported: "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.")
   A: If you have a long enough career, luck has a more limited impact. Over time, things don't necessarily balance out, but they come closer to that. Where I -- and I'm sure most competitors -- am guilty is seeing things unfairly. Someone else got more luck than we did, and maybe we don't see when we're lucky.  
   There's no question that in my first major final, I needed luck. I was going to be three sets and out if it didn't rain because I couldn't think clearly and I needed a coaching break. I got lucky. There's no other way to describe it. Now, what I did with that moment and how I was able to take what Jose Higueras said and transform it into results speaks to what I was capable of.
   I'm proud of that reaction, but I don't know if I would have ever won a major if I had lost in three sets in my first major. It took Andy Murray (four) tries to get through the finish line, and he's a terrific player, as we all know.
   Q: Can you think of an unlucky moment in your career?
   A: If I could go back and put Hawkeye on the tennis court, there's one shot I'd like to know whether it was in or out. That was set point (for Courier) against Pete (Sampras) in the second-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon (in 1993). He hit a shaky forehand volley behind me, and it landed possibly on the line, possibly out, and they called it good. That was at 6-5 in that tiebreak, and I ended up losing that tiebreak [and the match 7-6 (3), 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-3]. You just never know. Pete said after that match that he was sick to his stomach and he couldn't eat. Maybe I would have been able to tough him out and win Wimbledon, which would have been a dream come true.   
Courier interviews Roger Federer during the 2012
Australian Open. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Q: With Stanislas Wawrinka winning the Australian Open and Murray winning two Slams, is this golden era ending, this incredible dominance of three guys?
   A: I think the Big Three/Big Four era -- now that Murray has become a part of that -- is at the very tail end, at the least. Wawrinka's win should signal to the others that they can break through. He beat two of those guys (Novak Djokovic and Nadal). Whatever Rafa's injury issue was, Novak didn't have that problem, and (Wawrinka) beat him in a big moment. When someone puts their hand up and says, 'I'm ready to take that on,' it's like a green light for the rest of the field.
   I'm not ready to give up that Big Four era because I feel like we've been lucky to witness it. It's been amazing; the matches have been incredible. (The Big Four) are still going to be there, but I don't think they're going to dominate the way they did.  
   Q: Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, Jerzy Janowicz, Ernests Gulbis ... who is most likely to make the next move?
   A: It's too soon to tell.
   Q: Is 22, 23 the new 19?
   A: It's funny. I had some free time today at the hotel, and I'm getting ready to do TV in (Indian Wells), so I'm sort of getting my head around what I want to talk about. I went through the rankings, and I was looking for teenagers. The first one I found was (Australian) Nick Kyrgios (pronounced KEER-ee-ose), who's north of 150. You look for other teenagers in the top 400, and there are only eight. There were often 15 to 20 teenagers in the top 100 when I was growing up and playing, so it's changed significantly.
   So, yeah, 23, 24 seems to be where you're starting to get a look at what these players will be as opposed to what they are or have been. It's a different time, but short of Janowicz's (semifinal) run at Wimbledon last year, we haven't seen those guys make a deep, deep, deep run. Until they get there and show us what they're like when the spotlight hits them, it's hard to know.
   It's clear who has talent, and those guys you named all do. But talent is amorphous, right? You just don't know what's going to happen when pressure hits talent. Then you see what that chemical reaction is.
   Q: What's the best advice you've gotten during your career?
   A: I'm often asked this by parents of juniors or players who are trying to move to the next level. I got some incredible advice from Jose Higueras that's so meaningful yet simple, which is why he's such a great coach. He makes it easy for you to understand. He said simply, 'It counts the same whether you hit a winner or the other player makes an error.'
   I had such a force-based game -- particularly when I was raw, when I came to him -- and I would often punch myself out of matches. I wasn't willing to let other players miss. Jose opened up the other side of the court for me. I began to understand for the first time what other players do -- what they do well and what they don't do well -- and where you can wait for a mistake as opposed to taking a risk.
   He basically was the first one to speak to the math of the sport to me and understand how to shift the percentages to my side. That's a real small nugget, but it's an ever-important one, particularly for an offensive-minded player.
   Q: Was it as satisfying to win a point with an error as it was a winner?
   A: The Davis Cup guys have fun at my expense. Whenever there's a new player around, they pull up this YouTube of me playing Edberg in our second Aussie Open final. Edberg double-faults to give me the break of serve at 4-all in the fourth, and I just screamed, "Yesss!" There's your answer. From a sportsmanship standpoint, it's maybe not a highlight of mine, but it speaks to that (question).
   Q: What is your takeaway from the Davis Cup in San Diego? (Great Britain defeated the United States 3-1 earlier this year as Sam Querrey blew a commanding lead and lost to 155th-ranked James Ward in five sets to give the Brits a 2-0 lead.)   
   A: I should have been a little firmer with Sam earlier in the week to get him to play full-throttle tennis. I made a mistake there in not getting on him to play the way he plays best. Sam is not a great defensive player, and if I had been as forceful with him as I was prior to the Murray match (which Querrey lost in four sets in the clincher), I think we would have been in much better shape and we would have found ourselves in a fifth match.
   But I love working with these guys. I make lots of mistakes, and that's how I learn. Hopefully we'll get more chances to help these guys win this thing (for the first time since 2007), but it's been a great time for me. I really do enjoy those weeks, even though they're very stressful.
   Q: When you were No. 1, there were four American men in the top 10 ...
   A: And dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
   Q: There are none now (although John Isner climbed to No. 10 last week). Has the rest of the world gotten better, has the U.S. declined, or both?
   A: I'm developing a theory -- maybe you guys can tell me whether you think it has any merit -- because I'm asked this question so frequently. It's a valid question -- all you have to do is look at the rankings. I'm starting to look toward when tennis became an official Olympic sport. The line of demarkation was 1988 in Seoul. Looking at the amount of American men and women in the top 100, we were pretty dominant.
   Since then, we've seen more countries spend more resources and more athletes be pushed in that direction. Near that point in time, the wall came down in Eastern Europe, and players didn't have to defect anymore. More nations have looked toward tennis, and it's more challenging for us as a result. We can't expect to dominate.
   Does that make any sense?
   Q: What do you think of the phenomenon of past greats coaching the top players?
   A: (Ivan) Lendl opened things up because he showed that as a part-time coach (of Murray), you could have a full-time impact. (Jimmy) Connors was kind of a trailblazer with (Andy) Roddick. Other coaches now are following, and we'll probably see more and more of it because it's a great way to (continue competing). My outlet is the Davis Cup. Their outlet is a player who has the capability of winning a major and trying to help them do that.
   Q: Can you see yourself coaching on an individual level?
   A: Never rule anything out is probably a pretty good rule of thumb. I'm in a different stage of my life where I'm hoping to start a family, as opposed to some of these (coaches) who are on the back end of having families. The kids are now leaving, and (the fathers) have more time.
   Timing is really important. I don't know what the future holds for me or if anyone would ask, but it is fascinating for all of us who follow the sport to have those names involved. I'd love to see more of the women get involved. The sport is always healthier if you can keep the icons around -- the (Boris) Beckers, the Edbergs, the Lendls, the Agassis and the Samprases -- because it gives us another layer to talk about.
   Q: Do they have experience that other people can't offer?
   A: The experience gives them a lot of respect from the players who will be hiring them or seeking their counsel. There's a shared experience of dealing with big-pressure moments that you either have or don't have. It doesn't mean you can't be a better coach without it. I'm sure you can, but when top players look for counsel, they're looking for something they can relate to and something that's going to help lift them.
   At this level of play, it's not going to be about technique. It's going to be about the X's and the O's and about the mental side of things. That's where the top players have experience.
   Q: Who are the mentally toughest players you've seen?
   A: It's pretty clear in my mind that Rafa is No. 1. Connors would certainly be in the conversation behind him, (Michael) Chang behind him and Sampras behind him. Pete wasn't as consistent with his output, but his major final record (14-4 in Grand Slam singles finals) is incredible. Rafa and Monica Seles are my top tier on the men's and women's side.
   Q: What makes Nadal so mentally tough?
   A:  He has an incredible ability to play every single point with 100 percent intensity, focus and consistency, and he doesn't deviate. Down 5-0, he doesn't look any different than if he's up 5-0. He's a marvel.
   Q: Regarding the "super coaches," Magnus Norman has never been put in that category, but what he did with Stan ...
   A: And Robin Soderling. (Norman) is 2 for 2.
   Q: Has Norman been given short shrift?
   A: Not inside the game. He has the men's respect, both as a player and coach. He was cut down in his prime by a hip injury, and he has done a terrific, low-key job of getting the best out of his two players. He'll continue to get opportunities to work with great players because of that.
   Coming soon: Q&A with John McEnroe.

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