Wimbledon `99: Courier still delivering heavy goods

Tim Henman will not have to be reminded. There's plenty of life left in the old raging bull of tennis; Andrew Longmore listens to the high values of the great American survivor
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The Independent Online
JIM COURIER sits in the far corner of the Players' Restaurant at Wimbledon, drinking orange juice to counter a nasty cold - hay fever, he thinks it might be, though he has never suffered from it before - and talking about music.

He plays the drums, among other instruments, has a recording studio in his Florida house where he can lose himself to the early hours of the morning and talks of music as his passion. For the past two nights he has been to Earl's Court to see REM. He is good friends with the bassist. Much of his week has been spent on one court or another: three hours on Centre Court with Carlos Moya in a match of thrilling twists and turns on Wednesday, a toe-to-toe slugfest against Sjeng Schalken on Friday which brought Courier to the brink of exhaustion and twice within a point of defeat. Tim Henman should enjoy his weekend while it lasts; tomorrow he has another rendezvous with a heavy goods train.

There was a time in the early Nineties when it seemed Courier would never lose another tennis match. Long before Andre Agassi's mercurial strokeplay reached maturity, Courier had cornered the market in muscular ground strokes. The attacking baseliner was created and it had ginger hair, a baseball cap and no smile. It was not pretty, but it was mighty effective. Courier, whose father worked in an orange juice factory, seemed the awesome leader of a new generation of young hustlers who were about to signal the end of that classic breed, the serve and volleyer. Courier epitomised the modern tennis player. And the old guard wept.

"Yeah, I recognise that guy," says Courier, some years and a few dropped ranking places on. "I'd run people over if I had to get where I wanted to go. No one was going to stop me unless they jumped on my back and dragged me down." Nor is he about to apologise for the victory years. "Whatever's happened with my career, whether it's been great or not so great, it's the life I've carved out and I am who I am because of it."

Courier has always been a more rounded human being than the media portrayals of Robocop allowed. It was just that he was swept up in an image not of his creation, played up to it to an extent and wasn't that bothered anyway. Winning tennis matches was his priority. It still is, but he picks and chooses a bit more these days. A quiet night in Atlanta does not stir the juices quite as it once did. But put him on Centre Court at Wimbledon against an Englishman or at the NEC Arena in Birmingham with 9,000 fans screaming support for the guy at the other end and Courier is in his element. A rowing boat alone on the sea with the waves of the crowd crashing around him, as he so graphically put it in his interview after his epic five- set victory over Henman in the Davis Cup last March. A boat alone on the ocean? Hardly the "tough match" sort of post-match shibboleth. Courier has a strong and interesting mind.

"A crowd of that stature [at the NEC] does feel like waves crashing around you when you've lost a point. You're out there on your own. But I find it much easier in those circumstances than when everyone's cheering for me. You see, in tennis I was always the guy who wasn't supposed to make it. I was the guy with the funny strokes, who they said was `less talented' because my strokes weren't as elegant as other players. So I think I've always had that little chip on my shoulder that I've got to do it in spite of what other people think.

"But that chip on my shoulder has served me pretty well. I don't want it to come across as it's me against the world. I'm comfortable. When I was younger it was very much like that, but I enjoy that because it's instinctive for me to play well when everything's against me, it forces me to go deeper inside and focus more. When the crowd is all for me, I find it a little distracting." He smiles at the contrariness of his nature.

Partly that was the media, who Courier despised yet revered. He had been brought up reading Sports Illustrated and when the magazine turned against him, accusing him of being an automaton on and off court, he was more hurt than he cared to admit. Partly that cussedness stemmed from his youth. Courier grew up with the most talented single group of players in the game; he had to adopt his own style to find elbow room. Pete Sampras, on the verge of beating Roy Emerson's record of Grand Slam titles and Ivan Lendl's 270 weeks as the world No 1, Andre Agassi, one of only five players to win all four slams, and Michael Chang, youngest ever winner of the French.

Courier's own career statistics can tend to be lost in such glittering company: 58 weeks on top of the world, four Grand Slam titles - two French and two Australian - and one of only six players in the Open era to reach the final of every Grand Slam.

In those early days Sampras and Agassi were the dilettantes, Courier the businessman. The chemistry was important then and it is important now, but in a different way. Once, Agassi was the favoured pupil at Nick Bollettieri's academy and Courier the untalented dunce. It took time for the antagonism to wither. But, on Wednesday, Agassi made a point of watching Courier from the players' box, not for a look-at-me 10 minutes but for a serious hour and a half.

"There was a dynamic there with Andre that stemmed from the rift with Bollettieri aeons ago. That's long since passed. There was an absolute air of tension between Pete, Andre, Michael and myself because we were young guys making our way, trying to make names for ourselves. We were contending for slams every time and there was heavy rivalry out there. Now we're older and we've all been doing this long enough, and speaking for myself - and I hope they feel the same - I feel comfortable in my skin.

"I don't feel the need to match up my career with anybody's and feel better or worse about it. I felt genuinely happy when Andre won the French and that Pete will have the No 1 record because he deserves it. I hope Michael turns his career around. The media love animosity, it's a story, but hopefully we're above that now and we can band together a bit more."

But doesn't he ever wonder how Sampras manages to do it, to stay up there for six years? Wish it was him? "I know how he does it. He's sacrificed everything else in his life, which very few people are willing to do. Family doesn't get in the way, friends don't get in the way, nothing gets in the way. I did it to a certain point but not as much as he's done. There's too much life to be lived out there.

"I've found the middle ground where I can enjoy the ride as I'm going and not short-change myself. I'll go and see a rock concert on Tuesday night and play Wednesday. I once had tickets for U2 on the Saturday before the US Open started on the Monday and I wouldn't go because I was practising next day."

But the rebel is out now - the side of him that read a book during changeovers at the Masters - expressing politically incorrect views about women's tennis and the absurdity of his profession, orchestrating crowds like Jimmy Connors, courting the controversy he once loathed. He talks, with surprising passion for a self-confessed "unstuffy guy", of his reverence for the ghosts of the Centre Court, of wanting to captain the US Davis Cup team one day and about the book he's reading, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, about hell-raising days in Sixties Hollywood. Come to think of it, with his cold, he sounds a bit like Jack Nicholson, though he is more Peter Fonda these days.

Courier has survived, has emerged at the age of 28 with his values and his key friendships, notably with Brad Stine, his coach, and Gavin Forbes, his agent, intact. Tim Henman knows enough about the raging bull in Courier not to be fooled.