Tennis: Courier comes back from brink: Fright for Australian Open holder

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The Independent Online
JIM COURIER is known to start the year by diving into the River Yarra and end it by dipping into a book. In between, he plays tennis as though eccentric thoughts never entered his head.

Unbeaten at the Australian Open for the past two years, Courier was endeavouring to go about his business in the usual punishing fashion on the opening day when he was almost hustled out of the first round by Bryan Shelton, a 28-year-old compatriot from Alabama ranked No 99 in the world, who talks about retiring unless he makes progress this year.

Had Shelton not overplayed his hand at a crucial moment in the fifth set, he might well have caused the biggest upset since 1967 at Wimbledon, when Charlie Pasarell dispatched the defending champion, Manuel Santana, in the opening round. The last defending champion to lose in the first round of the Australian Open was the American Roscoe Tanner, who was defeated by Chris Lewis, of New Zealand, in 1977.

Courier, trailing 1-3, 0-40 and looking dejected, failed to put his first serve in court and played safe with the second. Shelton took a belt at the return, and it flew wide. 'He made a big mistake going for too big a shot,' a relieved Courier said, having extricated himself, 4-6, 6-1, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4, after four hours and 42 minutes.

True, but Shelton's entire performance was hit or miss: 20 aces, 20 double-faults, little more than half of his eager net-rushes producing winning shots. Yet it hugely entertained the Centre Court crowd.

'Bry-an] Bry-an]' came the chants of support for a smiling player with whom the Flinders Park regulars are hardly on nodding terms. The American umpire, Dana Loconto, had to ask Shelton's new friends not to call out during play after they had disputed a linesman's judgement while Courier was clawing back the break points.

Shelton, whose two titles on the tour were achieved on the grass courts of Newport, Rhode Island, relishes an opportunity to take a crack at the big names. He defeated Andre Agassi at the Lipton tournament in 1992, prior to the Las Vegan's Wimbledon championship, and tested Ivan Lendl over four sets at the All England Club in 1990.

'I really didn't want to play safe today,' Shelton said. 'I felt if I was going to win the match I had to take it away from him and play aggressively. I really wanted to take advantage of the second serve and get in behind it and keep constant pressure on him. I think the crowd enjoyed it because I was having fun out there.

'The top guys are a little bit more predictable. They play the percentages a little bit better, so you can set up a game plan and know what they are going to do in certain situations. I felt like I executed my game plan pretty well today. I was already preparing my acceptance speech out there, but Jim came up with some good shots when the chips were down for him.'

Courier was asked when last he experienced such a difficult match in the opening round of a Grand Slam event. 'I don't think I ever did,' he said. 'I can't remember.' Robert Seguso can. He defeated his fellow American 9-7 in the fifth set, in the first round at Wimbledon in 1989, when Courier was on the way up.

Gaining a reputation can have repercussions. Cedric Pioline, who accounted for Courier in the fourth round of the United States Open in September last year, was the first seed to fall here. The Frenchman, seeded No 7, lost in four sets to the Czech, Martin Damm. Pioline has made technical adjustments to his forehand since finishing runner- up to Pete Sampras at Flushing Meadow. He is trying to take the ball early, but is not always able to direct it to the intended destination.

Britain also left early. Chris Wilkinson was defeated by the 11th seed, Marc Rosset, 6-2, 7-6, 6-3, and Clare Wood lost to the Australian Nicole Provis, 7-5, 6-4.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 35