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Across The Net with Vince Barr:
Jim Courier Interview
By Vince Barr
It's hard to believe that Jim Courier has been officially retired from the ATP Tour for nearly 12 years now. Since stepping away from the game as a player, Jim has maintained a high public profile in professional tennis through his television work in both Australia (Channel 7) as well as the United States (CBS, ESPN and other networks). In addition to covering all the grand slams, he achieved one of his lifelong ambitions last year when he was appointed captain of the U.S. Davis Cup squad, succeeding Patrick McEnroe. In his playing career, Courier has attained the top-ranking in the sport, won four grand slams (two Australian Opens and two French Opens) and was the runner-up at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He also played on two Davis Cup winning squads (in 1992 and 1995) and was an instrumental force on several other teams that, while falling short of the Cup championship, advanced into the later rounds partly due to his efforts on the team. I had two opportunities to personally interview Mr. Courier, once in Cincinnati where he was in town to cover the finals of the 2011 Western & Southern Open with fellow analyst (and former player) Mary Carillo, and the other occasion two months later after he played in the Champions Series event in Surprise, AZ (a suburb of Phoenix). We talked about a number of subjects ranging from his playing career in Davis Cup, contrasting that with his role as captain; talking about Novak Djokovic's unbelievable year in 2011, changes in the game since he played and the role he played in reuniting two long-lost friends several years ago.
Vince Barr & Jim Courier
Ironically, I was at his last professional match in Key Biscayne, FL, at the 2000 Ericsson Open when he lost to Thomas Enqvist, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 4-6. I had periodically followed his career even though I was more of a Pete Sampras fan and teased him when I saw him in Cincinnati that I would have followed him more but that he always seemed to disappear in the later rounds in Cincy! That remark, which was clearly made in jest, allowed Mary Carillo to pile on when she added "Geeze, Jim, he's got all the negative moments in your career memorized!" and then she started laughing at him. Courier joined in the fun and intimated that I was right, he did not usually make it to the later rounds in Cincy because "the heat and humidity bothered me." Then he added, in response to my Sampras remark, "...that's ok (that you were a Pete fan) because you saw him play a lot more often than I did," then he unleashed a huge smile. It was a great way to start part one of our interview.
Rather than adhere to a strict question-and-answer format, I have interspersed parts one and two of our interview in thematic order and added some clarifying comments to improve the story flow. Whenever Jim made some comments, I have enclosed them in quotations but have usually omitted the standard clarification such as "said", "thought", "observed" and so forth. Unlike the interviews in Cincy I do each year when I talk to multiple people in one blog entry, Jim was the only person I spoke with on these two occasions. Therefore, adding those descriptors at the end of his quotes would have been unnecessarily repetitive (not to mention rather boring as well). Any clarifying comments I made were enclosed in parentheses.
Beginning of the Courier interview
Let's start with the end of your career. I was at your last match and didn't even realize it at the time. Obviously, there is no one way to end a career. Some people make the announcement that a certain year will be their last on tour (like Mark Woodforde back in 2000 and more recently, Andre Agassi, in 2006) and then the year unfolds as one long good-bye. Others go out on top, step away from the game and then declare their retirement a year later like Pete Sampras did in 2003. From my perspective, it was like you were there one minute and gone the next. Please walk us through your decision to retire.
"Yeah, I didn't announce my retirement that day (after the loss to Enqvist). I announced it a couple of months later. I decided to retire from the tour in San Jose, CA, when I lost in the semifinals to Philippoussis in three sets (in February, 2000, when he lost 6-4, 3-6, 4-6) and I just wasn't that excited about the wins or the losses at that point. That's when I knew that I was running on empty and I needed to shift gears. But I played it out through Key Biscayne because I wanted my family to be there for my last tournament."
If you had to pick a top-5 list of the most memorable moments in your playing career, what would they be? "In no particular order, winning the French Open (1991 & 1992), winning the Davis Cup (1992 & 95), turning # 1 (first achieved 2/10/92), winning my first tournament on tour (in Basel, Switzerland, in 1989 as a 19 year-old) and breaking into the top 100. Those are kind of the seminal moments from my career."
I have to ask you about your unusual backhand or perhaps more appropriately, a lack of one when you were playing. You ran around that shot and turned all backhand volleys into forehands and I don't think you would teach anyone to play that way. So, what prompted you to adopt that style of play when you were on tour? "Well, you don't see that style in play nearly as much today because the game has changed. You can't get away with it because of the (increased) speed of the game (as compared to when I played). You just can't "cheat" around your backhand as much as I did. Federer does it quite a lot but he doesn't do it as much as I did, just because the pace of play has picked up. Like anything in life, you have strengths and weaknesses; you try and accentuate your strengths and minimize your weaknesses." I wasn't criticizing the shot inasmuch as pointing out how unusual your backhand was at the time. "Oh no, I didn't take it as criticism; it's just that the way that I played best at the time was maximizing my serve and my forehand, so anything I could do to do that, I did and running around my backhand was just something I needed to do."
In Arizona, Courier was no longer running around his backhand but he still lost to Sampras, who would go on to win the champion's series of events. What makes him still such a difficult person to play? "Well, Pete's serve (first and second) is still such a big weapon and he presents a big challenge because you have to try and find rhythm and he takes that away from you; he's good at it." In his playing career, he managed to win against Pete on four occasions (once on carpet, another on hard court and twice on clay) while losing the other 16. Of course, having said that, I'd be remiss if I did not also mention that he managed to win the French Open twice, an accomplishment that Sampras was not able to attain once and Jim also got to the finals of each major which was something Pete was not able to do because his game on clay was not well suited for success on that particular surface.
No one expected Novak Djokovic to put forth the kind of results that he did in 2011. Nadal noted after his loss to Novak in the U.S. Open finals that he did not think that kind of result was a repeatable accomplishment but congratulated his Serbian counterpart, nonetheless. While Novak had won a grand slam event prior to the start of the 2011 season, no one expected him to win three other majors that year. So, what had changed for Novak to allow for that kind of season? "Well, he's shored up his two major weaknesses, his forehand and his serve. Those were the shots that continued to let him down in past years and obviously, not that much because he was still hovering around the top, getting to the finals of majors. Tennis-wise, that was the biggest adjustment that he made. He made some good adjustments to his team, he is mentally stronger; he's more centered; he simplified a lot of things. He's really streamlined his world and turned it into a professional operation. He has no distractions and you can see the results are pretty clear."
I noted that after he won Wimbledon, the press (and especially Linda Cohn of ESPN) waxed philosophically about the fact that Djokovic switched to a gluten-free diet and, in Cohn's opinion, that change certainly helped his on-court performance in 2011. However, when I asked Novak about her comments when I saw him in Cincinnati, he said that those comments were overblown. Yes, he switched his diet, but Novak did not think that change was a controlling factor in terms of the results he was having in 2011. What did Courier think was the key to unlocking Novak's exceptional year? "Well, I don't have a gluten problem, so I can't speak to that aspect of how it has impacted Novak's game, but what's clear to all of our eyes is that he's handling a stressful climate much better than he ever did. He used to suffer and default with frequency in hot and humid conditions. He's found a way to combat that and whether that's diet or some other things that we're not aware of, I can't speak to it. I can just see the results and it's clear that he's been able to pick that part of his game up, move forward and not have to worry about it."
While Djokovic's sensational 2011 year was impressive in many ways, he's not the first touring pro to put together an exceptional year when their game magically comes together and they can dominate the game. For instance, Roger Federer had seasons (from 2004-07) where he lost single-digit matches all year long (6, 4, 5 & 9) while winning impressively (74, 81, 92, 68). During those four years, Federer collected a total of 11 grand slam singles crowns and in three of those years, he won three slams in one calendar year. Rafael Nadal went 82-11 in 2008, winning two grand slam singles crowns, suffered through an injury-plagued year in 2009 (going 66-14) but he rebounded in 2010 with three grand slam singles titles and an overall record of 71-10. It seemed apparent to me that the time a given player could expect to dominate, even within the last 10-15 years or so, had inexplicably shrunk. So, I dug a little deeper into the statistics regarding the players who ascended to the top-ranking from 11/13/2000 (when Sampras was last ranked # 1) to 2/2/04 (when Federer first achieved top billing in men's professional tennis). Six different players obtained the # 1-ranking in that period of time (Safin, Kuerten, Hewitt, Agassi, Juan Carlos Ferrero & Andy Roddick). However, aside from Lleyton Hewitt, who spent a total of 80 weeks atop the rankings (not consecutive) and Gustavo Kuerten, who recorded a total of 43 weeks at the top, no one has been able to consistently dominate the game until Federer.
Courier speculated as to why we see one player have just a phenomenal year from time to time. "Good genetics between parents? I mean, you get some special athletes that come through and you have windows of time when you have a little bit more chaos. There's a lot more clarity now at the top of the men's game. And even if it has shifted a little bit (in terms of time to dominate the game), there's only three guys that we're really talking about: (Andy) Murray is on the outside of that conversation right now. I can't speak as to why it's not happening on the women's side but we're just very fortunate (in the men's game) to have these players in this time period, playing all together, it's very special."
Following on the heels of the dominance question, I asked Jim why so many players were coming up with injuries. Serena withdrew from Cincy with an injured toe, Novak subsequently retired in his championship match in Cincinnati with a shoulder ailment and Kim Clijsters was not able to defend her 2010 Cincinnati title due to an abdominal strain. "Well, there are two aspects to that question; one is the health of the players. And while the players over on the women's side aren't suffering because they're not playing enough, or at least not the ones who matter; on the men's side, the guys have been remarkably resilient for the most part. These guys are screeching tires out there on every surface and it's ridiculous to watch what they put their joints through. What's scary is that we won't really know the impact of what they're putting their bodies through until the next 20 years are up. The second part of that question involves overexposure. Players aside, for the health of the global sport of professional tennis, it would make sense if the season had a logical conclusion. Ideally, this would come rather quickly after the conclusion of the U.S. Open. That would help people to start yearning for tennis again instead of being tired of it. Obviously, that's not really an American problem (because the schedule after the Open heads indoors to Europe along with some fall tournaments in Asia) because we don't get that much tennis here anyway and people forget about it after the U.S. Open. But what's nice about other sports is that they have an off season, people talk about trades and different things in those sports before the preseason gets going. (Trying to shorten the schedule) is a big conversation because you'd have to try and unravel all the underlying issues involved."
Next, we tackled the subject of Davis Cup and specifically the differences between playing in one of the ties and coaching in one. I noted that I wished I was in Brazil back in 1997 when he and Mal Washington defeated Brazil (led by Gustavo Kuerten in his breakout year) and Jim interjected that, had I been there, "you'd have been hot, just like we were. Look, Davis Cup is something that is near and dear to my heart. With the calendar question we had, there is a logical adjustment to Davis Cup that would alleviate calendar pressure. I hope that gets changed before I pass away." At that point, Mary Carillo asked Jim incredulously, "Well, how long do you think you're going to be around?" at which point I interjected "at least 40-50 more years" (Courier had just turned 41 years old on August 17th in 2011). He then rolled his eyes and said, "I'd say it's a flip of the coin, even if I have that much time (laughing). Davis Cup as a player is a big piece of my memories from my ATP days; as captain, it's a management job. I enjoy it; it is a different challenge entirely. It's dealing with egos, a ton of psychology to it. I have a great bunch of guys who are passionate about it, which makes it really easy to be in the mix with them. The only tough part is actually picking the team, not everyone gets to play every time." So, how do you go about picking the team? "It's pretty simple; you put the best team on the floor that gives you the best chance of winning. There's really no magic to that." Did Patrick McEnroe (the previous Davis Cup captain) give you any advice in terms of telling you how to be a Davis Cup captain? "Patrick and I live about 6-7 blocks away from each other in New York City, so we get together fairly frequently. Patrick was great, early on, telling me about how the politics of Davis Cup are, as well as just giving me a lot of insight of the guys who played for him. So he's been very helpful."
One tie in particular that Courier participated in stood out in my memory since he had a pivotal role in allowing the U.S. to pull through and that was the 1994 quarterfinals in The Netherlands. The Dutch tennis federation constructed a special stadium along the harbor in Rotterdam just for the occasion. The Dutch squad was led by Richard Krajicek while the American team had Pete and Jim in the quarterfinals. So, what stood out to Courier about that weekend? "Well, we went over there to play a couple weeks after Wimbledon (the quarterfinals ran from July 15-17, 1994); Pete and I both played singles and we each won in straight sets on the first day and both played great. Our doubles team lost a tight one (on the following day), then Pete lost to Richard Krajicek in four sets (6-2, 5-7, 6-7, 5-7). After the first day, I was fully expecting not to have to play a live match (for the fifth match of that tie), since I thought that we'd win at least one of the next two matches (either the doubles rubber or Pete's second singles match). So, I had to regroup when Pete started losing and get my game face on. I had to get ready to play (Jacco) Eltingh who was a tricky player; he had a great kick serve, really nice volleys and they had the crowd with them as well as all the momentum since they had won the last two matches and brought the tie back to even. I got out there and won a tough four-setter against him (6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1) and it was certainly some high-level tennis. I played some great tennis but he was inspired by the crowd and it was a thriller."
I then asked both Courier and Carillo what has changed in the game of tennis since they had played. Jim answered first and said that, in his opinion, "The players are just not as good as when we played" which prompted Mary to burst out laughing in that sort of contagious laughter she often exhibits on television. Jim also laughed and then said "I said that with extreme sarcasm! The game has become more physical, the athletes are more physical, they are taller, stronger and faster; the game is elevated, partially because the equipment has made it easier for the athletes to play at a quicker rhythm. The studies have shown that the ball gets to the opponent in half the time than it did about 30 years ago. So there's less time to react which also puts more stress on the body. But having said all that, the tennis now, at least on the men's side, is probably the best that it's ever been. The quality of the tennis is better than it's ever been, the rallies are astonishing. The only thing missing is some variety of court speeds so that we could see more of a variety of play, like the serve and volley. Those guys could be more successful if the courts were faster and we see that at times, like Montreal last week and a little bit here as well."
Back in the 1994, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story "Is Tennis Dying?" which was more about the amateur game and how the USTA (among other entities) was not doing enough to encourage kids to pick up a racquet and play the game. In my opinion, the authors of that piece in SI took an incident from one of Jim's matches the year before when he was "caught" reading a book by San Francisco novelist Armistead Maupin called Maybe The Moon during one of his changeovers. The article strongly suggested that the game had become so disinteresting, even at the pro level, that one of the premier players of the time even lost interest in one of his matches. From everything I've read and heard about that incident, it was blown way out of context and I'd like for you to shed some light as to what was really going on and kind of set the record straight about it.
"Well, it was a match at the end of the season, playing at the Tour Championships in Germany," Courier noted. "I was pretty fried mentally at the end of the year from playing a lot of matches and I was on "tilt" (a pinball machine reference for those of you who might not recognize the analogy). I was playing Andrei Medvedev, and had just lost the first set (3-6). I told myself that I was so mentally burned out that I needed to read a book to distract me because I was about to implode. So I started reading the book during changeovers for about 60 seconds to not think about the stressful situation I was in. (And it worked for a short period of time); it relaxed me and I played a lot better. I won the second set (6-1). I was up in the third set 6-5, 30-love and ended up choking and losing in the breaker (4) and it became a big story as a result of me losing the match. If I had won the match it would have been interesting to see how it (the story) would have played out." I suggested tongue-in-cheek that had that occurred, the New York Times would have signed him up as a book critic which made Courier chuckle. Then he added that, had he won, "maybe tennis players would have all started reading books on changeovers, so it was an interesting thing simply because it was different."
In your career, you've been to a place were so few of us who pick up a racquet can ever dream of getting to, competing professionally on tour, winning several grand slams, being the best player in the world, traveling around the globe, representing your country in one of the oldest team competitions in professional sports. You mentioned being burned out, mentally fried after awhile on tour; talk about what it's like playing such a mental sport that also requires an extreme amount of physical dedication (to say nothing of a fantastic level of natural athletic ability) to play tennis professionally. "The fact that there is no real off season shortens careers, in my opinion. If you want to see players play tennis longer, they have got to have that and I'm talking about a break of at least three months so that they don't have to worry about their ranking, points, etc. because that is where the stress is. People often misconstrue the fact that players are playing exhibitions (during the "off season") and say that while the players often complain about playing too much, here they are doing all these exhibitions in the one month where there are no tournaments, chasing money and playing these events. But the people who are saying that have never been inside the lines and don't understand the difference between the pressure of playing for your ranking vs. the "pressure" of playing in an exhibition (where there is no pressure at all since neither points nor position factor into the equation). All the exhibitions are simply being paid to practice. So it's a pretty frustrating argument for me to read; you know, tennis players don't tend to become writers and critics, so you don't have that perspective being reflected in the argument relating to length of season. Being a tennis commentator is by far the easiest job in the world (laughing). So it's a real challenge (i.e., the length of the season) and is something that I hope the new CEO of the ATP Tour will take with two hands and try to get done, eventually; it will take time. But it would be great if the season ended in early October."
Not many people realize that you played a role in reconnecting two childhood friends, both of which are now famous though one person is probably more famous than the other one: James Blake and recording artist John Mayer. How did that happen? "That was in Davis Cup when I was helping Patrick McEnroe, when he first took over. We were down in Winston-Salem, NC, and I stumbled upon John Mayer's album (Room For Squares, his debut CD) and I was playing it in the locker room. James asked who that was and I said John Mayer and he said, "let me see that album cover" and I showed him the cover on the CD and he said "No way!" and I said, what? He said "I grew up with that guy; I used to play, me and my brother used to play tennis with him and his brother in Connecticut." And then they got reconnected after that. This was before John was a known commodity; his album had just come out about a month before, guessing that would have been October, 2001 (Vince's note: Jim has an unbelievable memory as this CD was released on 9/18/01; as of June, 2009, according to data I found, the CD had sold 4.3 million copies)."
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