Diplomatic Courier on the way back

Simon O'Hagan sees the return to form of a forgotten French Open winner
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Clay sticks to a sweaty shirt. It covered the back of Karol Kucera's in a horrible red smear as he gingerly got to his feet at the back of Court Suzanne Lenglen at Roland Garros on Friday evening. At the other end stood Jim Courier, the American who has twice been French Open champion. He was contemplating an unusual sight - an opponent who was now even more scruffily embattled than himself.

In an age when tennis players are there to be marketed down to the soles of their computer-moulded shoes, the image- makers have had a difficult time with Courier, the ginger-haired man from Florida who looks as if he should be cruising the interstate behind the wheel of a truck. Courier has never sold, and as a result nobody thinks much about 1991 and 1992, when he ruled Roland Garros, still less that he might have a say in 1996.

Courier may not be the brick wall of an opponent that he was when he became the world No1 in the early 1990s, but he goes into a fourth-round match today against Wayne Ferreira of South Africa as a player all others remain very keen to avoid. He is still one of the hardest hitters in the game, and, on this favoured clay court, one of the most durable.

Yet this time three years ago, Courier was about to enter a slump that went on for so long that there seemed no coming back. The 1993 French Open final was Courier's third in succession and his seventh in a Grand Slam event in little more than two and a half years. But he lost in five sets to Sergi Bruguera in a match his coach, Jose Higueras, says he should have won. The effect was damaging.

"He lost confidence after that match," Higueras said last Friday. "He started suffering a bit of self-doubt, and sometimes it take a little while to shake that off. Competition was tough, and everyone knew he was a bit more vulnerable." The result was that in 1994 Courier did not win a single tournament and he drifted out of the top 10.

Courier's problem in being forgotten so easily has been essentially one of style, both in his game and in himself. Anyone with a feeling for the aesthetics of tennis could be forgiven for recoiling at the sight of Courier hitting the ball, an activity reminiscent of a man trying to hack his way through the jungle. Even Higueras agrees that Courier's forehand "is not a shot you would ever teach to a child".

Double-fisted on the backhand, Courier is deceptively quick. He has to be: the brutality of his shot-making depends on his getting into position in good time to set himself before leathering the ball back down the court.

It would be a mistake to read too much of the player into the man. Courier is one of the more cultured figures on the men's tour, with a command of French that he has acquired not just through having a French girlfriend. That side of Courier is rather lost on the tennis public. "I think it has something to do with a lack of charisma," Higueras said. "But if it bothered him, he would have done more to put himself in the spotlight."

Courier took very well to the complete lack of interest shown in him when he turned up at a press conference here in the early part of last week. Rather spiky in his younger days, at 25 he gives off a much more relaxed air. "I feel like, on the whole, I'm happier more days than I'm not," he said. "Maybe I'm just more comfortable in my skin."

Playing is what Courier cares about, and his gradual return to form - he was back in the top 10 after a good US Open last year - owes more to his stickability than anything else. In Paris, where he is seeded eight, he came through his first two matches in comfort before his third-round meeting with Kucera ended in the fourth set with Courier leading two sets to one when the Slovak was forced to retire.

If Courier gets past Ferreira, he is likely to come up against Sampras in the quarter-final. But he has been through too much to want to look ahead very far. "I haven't played as well as I would have liked up to this point," he said, "but I'm encouraged to be in the fourth round here and like my chances in my next match. We'll see how far I go." Further, perhaps, than most people might expect.