A Funhouse of Mirrors – The Jim Courier Interview

by Bill Simons


Candid, smart, on the edge, unafraid and almost cocky: there are many ways to describe America’s thoughtful new Davis Cup captain. Here Jim Courier talks about American culture, Davis Cup, how to change the game, and from Roger Federer and Andre Agassi to Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal.

INSIDE TENNIS: So how come you don’t get more TV airtime in the U.S.? You get lots in Australia, but here…

JIM COURIER: I don’t get any offers. [laughs.] I don’t hire and fire TV announcers.

IT: Federer and Nadal are the two transcendent champions of our era. Most feel Federer’s the best of all time. Yet he’s got a lopsided losing record against Rafa, who has more Masters, a better Davis Cup and Olympic record. So who’s the better player?

JC: Roger’s the more complete player. He has all the shots, and they’re more fluid. But it’s a bad match up — lefty vs. righty. The strengths Rafa brings to the table obviously hurt Roger. And Roger hasn’t been able to consistently solve them. He’s certainly gotten his wins. It’s hard to blame Roger for the times Rafa didn’t make it to finals and Roger was always there. So consistency is a big part of what we should be looking at. It’s too early to tell where Rafa ends up as consistency goes. He has a lot of room in his story to write an incredible one. But shot by shot, Roger is the best I’ve ever seen and that’s ever walked the earth — male or female. But tennis is more than just shots. It’s about being clutch and beating the people on the other side of the net. That’s why it’s such an interesting conversation.

IT: You were in so many hostile Davis Cup environments as a player — in Holland, Birmingham, in Brazil, where they’re going after your family. What’s it like to…

JC: Actually, I really like those moments. I almost enjoy them more than the home ties because it’s really easy to find your friends when you’re playing away. You have a close-knit group with you and everyone else is cheering hard for their side. There’s more satisfaction coming away with a road victory. Maybe that’s just indicative of my personality. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I’ve always enjoyed that challenge.

IT: Did you ever feel any anti-American sentiment when you’re playing in Brazil, or in smaller countries?

JC: America has an interesting global role, don’t we? It certainly seems to be changing. Our government right now has a softer hand than we’ve had in the past, but I still think that we’re the global behemoth. We’re the world’s policemen, whether you and I like that or not. That’s a fact. People globally feel that. Without a doubt, there’s huge satisfaction when a relatively smaller nation can take on a bigger nation and defeat them. There’s a lot of pride in that. There used to be a lot more politics in the Olympics, when the Soviet Bloc committed a lot of resources for propaganda purposes. But it would be naïve of us not to think that there’s something more to it than just two tennis teams going to bat.

IT: Is there a David vs. Goliath thing happening?

JC: Yeah, there certainly is and they have every right to think of it that way. We’ve got a huge population and our government isn’t afraid to let people know that we think what we do is the right way. I just disassociate what we’re doing with our government. We’re there to play tennis and represent the U.S., but I’m also aware that not everyone’s going to be able to think that way.

IT: Let me go right back to a question you’re probably sick of…

JC: What’s wrong with American tennis?

IT: Bingo.

JC: I like what I see from the USTA level, which is where the gun is normally pointed in these discussions. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that most champions are born into certain environments and encouraged early. Then, later on, they might get some assistance from their federations. It’s unfair to expect the USTA, just because they make this pot of money, to just snap their fingers and make champions. It’s not simple, and anyone who thinks it is hasn’t really looked underneath the hood to see how the engine works. When you think about our great players in recent years, you think about Andy. His brother was a great junior and college player, so Andy was brought into tennis very early through his family. James Blake’s older brother, too, and his mom taught at a club.  Lindsay Davenport, same story — mom at the tennis club. The Williamses — that’s a well-documented story. These are typically family-driven. We could have a great bottle of wine and talk about it.

IT: The LTA in Britain hasn’t exactly produced a cadre of great players.

JC: There’s no evidence that says that the money a federation has translates into success. I hope that that will change. What I like about the USTA is that it’s developing systems to help the coaches coach better. The best thing is the 10-and-Under Tennis model. That’s going to be huge in bringing more players into tennis at a younger age, and it will give stickiness to the sport. We lose a lot of young athletes because it’s such a difficult sport. It’s not like kicking a soccer ball. You can kick a ball into the net, throw a basketball into the net. Tennis is complicated. It’ll make a lot of great athletes run the other way because they can’t be successful initially. But when we’re talking about five-, six-, seven-, eight-year-olds, 10-and-Under Tennis and QuickStart are absolutely the way forward to attract more people. Let them have fun and be passionate. You’ve grown the pot and then you weed out the better ones. That’s where the USTA comes in. You can help nurture them. There are only four U.S. tournaments that the very best players in the world play every year — Palm Springs, Miami, Cincinnati, and the U.S. Open. So how would golf or NFL or NHL fare if there were only four times a year that their very best were visible? Tennis went international, and for us to expect it to be popular media-wise is very naïve. And that translates into children and families being interested.

IT: Inside Tennis just celebrated its 30th anniversary. You’ve been around a long time. How has tennis changed the most — the globalization, the technology, the technique?

JC: All of the above. It’s changed globally in that we’ve lost a lot of tournaments in the U.S. They’ve gone overseas. There’s not a tournament in Phoenix, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas. The Masters in Madison Square Garden, both men AND women. There are certainly great cities in this country that don’t have ATP and WTA events. Our fans are very provincial. They want American champions.

IT: Guess how many Northern Californian men, including Stanford players, were ranked in the top 100 in 1981.

JC: You would’ve had Johnny Mac, Scott Davis. Brad Gilbert was probably already in there. I’m going to say you probably had about seven or eight?

IT: Try 28.

JC: Wow, that’s incredible.

IT: It’s not just the U.S. A few of the Grand Slam nations — Australia and England – are struggling, too. Is there an element of desire, ferocity, willingness to pay the price that’s missing? You and Pete, Andre and Michael had a certain win-at-any-cost mindset.

JC: You’re casting an eye on the general malaise in the U.S., suggesting that we, as a nation, have become fat and happy. There’s certainly some merit to that. We have a lot of options. We’re a great country. Even the poor can be fat in the U.S. That says something about a country. That’s how incredible what we have is. But it can also take away incentive. It does take a great hunger to be successful at anything. I’m not suggesting that the entire nation can’t be successful, but there’s something to it when you have 150 cable channels and the Internet at your fingertips and video games and all kinds of ADD-addled devices like my iPhone and your BlackBerry and things that keep us busy. Focusing on one thing can be tough, and people with fewer options are more apt to concentrate on what they’re doing. There’s probably something to hunger. You can drill down on where hunger comes from and figure it out from there, but there absolutely has to be a sense of urgency if you’re going to play tennis because you’re the team — there’s no one for you to rely on but yourself. If you don’t want to practice, unless you have a hard-nosed coach, you don’t have to. One thing’s for sure — not everyone should get a trophy for participating. Trophies separate the winners from losers, and life is about winning and losing. Go into business and you see. You’re competing every day.

IT: You’re known for really bringing it at crunch time. You won two five-set deciding matches in Davis Cup, finals in all four Slams, etc. We’ve seen Andy Murray now lose in three straight finals; young Caroline Wozniacki has struggled on the big stage; Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic couldn’t handle the No. 1 ranking. Talk about the craft of victory. How do you acquire that big-stage presence?

JC: Isn’t that a great question? Many books have been written about what the X-factor is, what separates people who win big matches versus those who struggle. Some of it’s innate, but there’s a piece of it that’s learned, embracing those moments. Fear is an interesting energy that we all have to face. Some people step up and aren’t afraid but still come up short. And some would rather cop out: “My shoulder hurts” or “I didn’t give it my all.” They can sleep at night. What separates the winners from the losers is that they can deal with doing their best while still coming up short. There’s a reason why Federer and Nadal are so gracious when they lose. They sleep well at night knowing that they’ve given their best.

IT: As Davis Cup captain, if the U.S. gets to the fifth set of a fifth rubber and you’re looking to an Isner or a Querrey, what do you say to them to get him in that frame of mind?

JC: That’s the question, isn’t it?

IT: Yeah.

JC: It’s a question I’ll be asking myself in those situations, because you really have to look at it individually to understand how each person reacts. I wish there was a cookie-cutter button to press to get everyone into that mode. A lot of our guys naturally get into that mode. Andy is just an incredible warrior. He likes those moments and always has. I haven’t seen enough of Sam and John to know. We all watched John’s epic Wimbledon win. He obviously held his nerve and loved the battle. But I think it’s going to be a learning curve for me to figure out the role I’ll need to play, if any. Hopefully, a lot of that will be innate and I’ll be there to help them if they have any questions.

IT: What about the generation of competition that Roger’s faced? Some argue that it doesn’t stand up to your generation, with Sampras, Agassi, Becker and Edberg, or to the era of Mac, Borg and Connors.

JC: He’s faced as tough a competition as anyone ever has. Start with the depth of field. That means you have to be on your game every day and the speed of the sport, the fact that he’s been able to stay healthy, even playing through his injuries and illnesses with unbelievable results. It’s mind blowing — and it will only get more so in the rearview mirror once Roger’s gone.

IT: And what about Novak Djokovic?

JC: Novak is the best tennis player in the world as of today. That could change in the next two to three weeks, but he was without a doubt the best player in Australia. He’s really turned pro in the last year. His forehand’s gotten better, his serve’s gotten better. More than anything his mentality has gotten better, his approach to the sport. He’s for real.

IT: You and Agassi certainly had some problems early on and then a reconciliation. His book talked about a lot of different things, but he went after you, to a degree. Talking about your ‘91 French Open win, he says you looked over, glared at him and pumped your fists, and then went out for a run as if you hadn’t burned enough calories.

JC: Andre and I have become very close. In fact, I’ll probably be talking to him later today. He read chapters to me over the phone to make sure I was comfortable with them before it went into print. That’s the kind of relationship we have and what I respect and like about him. He didn’t try to cover up anything. He tried to relive it as best as he could remember, and put in all his doubts, insecurities, neuroses — all the things that we all live through in our darkest moments when we try to lie to ourselves and say that we’re better than that. The way that he was looking at that situation is the way that I looked at many situations in my career as far as exaggerating what reality was, because it’s a funhouse of mirrors, living in the tennis world and growing up in the public eye, and we certainly had our moments in the early stages of our careers before either one of us won a major. It was a tug-of-war, because he was always a much better junior than I was. I was late to the party in the pros. And then I managed to get a couple of wins on him, which clearly irked him. He wrote about it. I don’t blame him for that. I don’t blame him for what his thoughts were on me. He wasn’t aware that I went out running after every match, because that’s just part of my cool-down process. It wasn’t anything personal.

IT: You almost ran me down one day in Paris.

JC: I thought Andre’s book was incredibly written and generous with what it’s like to live that life. And it was ballsy, man.

IT: We’ve talked about how federations don’t produce champions. Yet so many champions have gone through Nick Bollettieri’s academy. Still, Andre described it as a kind of “Lord of the Flies,” a prison.

JC: The academy was a place I chose. I was given a great opportunity by Nick, and that opened up the world. I was in a place where I couldn’t get good practice, it was stressful on my family to drive me all over the place. Now I had it all in one spot and I was surrounded by the best players in the world. So it was a real opportunity that I grabbed with both hands. It was the opposite of Andre’s experience, where he was forced to leave home.

IT: Still, you cried the first five, six times when you were dropped off…

JC: I was 14 years old, and to get dropped off into a new environment — even though I wanted to be there – was unsettling. But once I found my niche, I didn’t cry anymore. It’s like any boarding school — it’s a different experience for everyone.

IT: One of your greatest moments came at the ‘91 French Open, when, on match point, you aced Andre to win your first Slam. What went through your mind?

JC: I’d never been past the fourth round of a major before. Being in the semis was a new experience, let alone the final. So I was in a state of denial when I got to the end, trying to not think about what that moment might mean and just trying to play it point by point. After I get to 40-15, I was joking with myself, bouncing my head back and forth, trying to stay as relaxed as possible. I hit a great serve up the middle and it was an ace and all hell broke loose inside my body. It was an adrenaline rush like you can never imagine. It wasn’t about Andre at that point. It wasn’t about anything. It was about a life-changing experience.

IT: And what did [your coach] José Higueras tell you during the rain delay?

JC: It was very tactical. He said, “We need to get you in some rallies, because right now the rallies are too fast, you’re returning too close to the baseline, setting up short balls and he’s just burying you with 1-2 combinations. So you’ve got to back up and try to engage him in longer rallies, because he’s going to beat you with his better hands if you get into a punching contest. You need to draw it out into more of a boxing match.

IT: What would be a successful tenure for Jim Courier the U.S. Davis Cup captain?

JC: There are things we can’t control — like the wins and the losses. To have the commitment of the team, which I do, and to have everyone feeling good about being a part of Davis Cup and continuing in the fashion that Patrick [McEnroe] created. And us going out there and performing our best. That’s how I define success. I’m not going to define it for us by the wins and the losses as much as by the effort and how we handle ourselves.

IT: If you could change one thing about Davis Cup…

JC: The first thing I would do is create one office that controlled all of pro tennis so you had one central voice that spoke for tennis. Central governance is something that’s really held the sport back and will continue to do so. You can look directly at the NFL and see how successful they’ve become because they have central control, central voice, and it doesn’t mean that the owners don’t have a say, but the commissioner runs it, and he’s the one who speaks for them when they go out and do commercial deals. And then I’d say you need to look to make a cohesive calendar that makes sense and helps elongate the careers of your players as opposed to shorten them inadvertently.

IT: Is tennis poorly marketed?

JC: When you lack cohesion, it becomes difficult to have a clear marketing strategy. When your four biggest tournaments all operate relatively independently, and the ATP and WTA tour operate independently, and you have Davis Cup and Fed Cup that operate independently, it makes it a tough message. But tennis is still very successful in spite of itself.