Courier primed for senior moment

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The Independent Online

Affectionately dubbed "the dinosaur circuit" by John McEnroe and at times similarly in peril of extinction, the Tour of Champions is restored to robust health and about to pitch its tent for the annual showcase event at London's Royal Albert Hall this week.

Affectionately dubbed "the dinosaur circuit" by John McEnroe and at times similarly in peril of extinction, the Tour of Champions is restored to robust health and about to pitch its tent for the annual showcase event at London's Royal Albert Hall this week.

A seniors' event long held together by the glamour of Jimmy Connors and subsequently the glue and glitz of McEnroe will boast a record field of 12, nine of them former Grand Slam champions, and so strong this time that Johnny Mac has needed a wild-card invitation to enable him to defend the title he lifted a year ago and which he has won four times in all since it first came to London in 1997.

Fine prizefighter and promoter that he is, McEnroe has been roaring his intentions for the past few days ("I feel like kicking some ass"). Mainly due to injury, he won only one match on the Delta Tour of Champions' six-tournament swing through Europe which determined the qualifiers for this week's Masters, and the man who topped those rankings, Jim Courier, has roared right back at Mac ("John is talking up a storm, but it's not going to happen").

Celebrating his first season among the seniors, the 34-year-old Courier won in the Algarve and Brussels and was runner-up in Paris and Brussels. With reason, the man whose hurricane hitting took him to two French and two Australian Opens claimed: "I'm the favourite right now." If Courier's retirement at the age of 29 in May 2000 was a surprise, his reappearance bordered on a shock. Here was a music devotee who insisted there were other things in life and proceeded to prove it by setting up his own company and moving to Manhattan.

He famously packed it in "when the training became difficult and the matches ceased to be fun", despite asserting he was a better player later on than in the Slam-winning stage of his career. "The trouble was everybody else was better, too. They were physically stronger and working harder, and I didn't have another gear to take it to. In the early 1990s Andre [Agassi] and I were way ahead of the pack as ball strikers, but the tide rose and everybody came up with it."

Courier stayed in touch with the game because his company is in the business of producing and promoting live sporting and music events. And, rather than run around dragging a lorry tyre behind him, as he used to, Jim has kept fit by playing tennis, frequently with McEnroe, a near-neighbour in New York.

"Got to keep myself in shape," said the Florida-born bachelor, "got to stay fit for the ladies." It was at a charity event in Atlanta in the summer of last year with Thomas Muster, Mats Wilander and Mikael Pernfors (all of whom are in the Albert Hall line-up) that Courier decided he was hitting the ball so well he ought to consider moving back into competitive tennis. "I made a decision to play regularly again in the fall, but that was quickly taken away from me because four days later I broke my shoulder on a golf course. I was driving a cart and as I came down a hill I didn't notice a crevice in the fairway. It was a freak accident. The cart turned over and it landed on my shoulder, breaking it in four places.

"Your shoulder is pretty close to your head, and if the cart had hit my head I was gone. Or it could have missed me altogether. I guess I got the middle punishment and I was lucky. It mended quickly because I am very diligent when I set my mind to something and I was very serious about rehab."

Courier reintroduced himself to tennis this summer in a charity event against McEnroe in Texas and played so well in a subsequent seniors' event in Marbella against another Albert Hall qualifier, Sergi Bruguera, that he committed to the Tour of Champions. Though he jokes that he is in the London field "on my good looks and charm", Courier acknowledges: "It is a pleasant surprise that I have been playing this well."

A further surprise is that Courier is no stranger to the Albert Hall. "I played there in the Masters Doubles in 1989 with Pete Sampras as my partner. We were both teenagers with skinny legs and skinny necks. We have filled out admirably since then."

Improved, too, since the dynamic duo came seventh in the eight-team field. Courier has also shown off his musical skills at the historic building, playing drums alongside the guitar of Wilander at a tennis charity event there in 1992.

Courier acknowledges that there is a phalanx of talent standing between him and victory at the Albert Hall, although he is the youngest competitor apart from Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, who will be 32 the day after next Sunday's final. "There are a lot of people with major titles, the famous of the game. Everyone is still playing aggressively and everyone is fit. What I don't want to participate in is something where you get sympathy. I want the fans to remember the level of tennis I bring to the table. That's what this has got to be about for me to be in it."

Should he win in London, Courier does not plan to dive into the Thames, as he did into Melbourne's Yarra after winning the Australian Open in 1991 and 1992. "At this time of the year, it wouldn't be wise." He reports no lasting ill-effects from his immersion in that famously polluted river. "Sanity is still within my grasp, at least there is nothing I can blame on the Yarra." More than those plunges, it is Jim's decision to read a book, Maybe The Moon by Armistead Maupin, during the changeovers in a match with Andrei Medvedev at the World Championships at Frankfurt in 1993, which tops the list of things he is asked about. Medvedev won but Courier enjoyed the book, which is still in his possession.

"So many people ask me about that book that maybe I should have it bronzed, at the very least." There will be no time for reading on court this week, though, as Juggernaut Jim Courier shoots for the moon, the winner-take-all first prize of $100,000.