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Steve Flink: Courier Takes Command

10/27/2010 7:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

When Patrick McEnroe announced during the U.S. Open that he was stepping down as U.S. Davis Cup captain after a distinguished ten year stint, close followers of the sport knew that only a few authentic candidates would emerge in the transition process. The captaincy is a job requiring extraordinary communicative skills, leadership of the highest order, and remarkably good judgment about not only the game itself but the complexities of the people who play it. To sit in that chair and make the toughest of decisions, a captain must be a man of staunch character, a leader of vision, a clear and precise thinker. The USTA turned to the right man at the right time, brought in the most qualified individual to take over from the estimable McEnroe, made the best possible selection. They chose wisely. They are going with Jim Courier.

In many ways, Courier is tailor made for his new position. Here is a man who captured four Grand Slam singles championships over the course of a terrific career. He secured back to back French Open titles in 1991 and 1992, swept consecutive Australian Open crowns in 1992 and 1993, and made it to the finals of the U.S. Open in 1991 and Wimbledon two years later. A supreme disciplinarian who trained inordinately hard, Courier was a magnificent baseliner who built his game largely around an explosive inside-out forehand. He spent three years in a row among the company of the world’s top three, finishing 1992 as the game’s greatest tennis player. He was a front line competitor who performed with unbridled intensity and immense professionalism. He was an integral part of arguably the “Greatest Generation” in the history of American tennis, joining Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang as the keynote performers in that group.

But above all else, Jim Courier was a player who thrived and flourished most when he represented his country in Davis Cup. Courier competed in seven years of Davis Cup competition, played in 14 Ties, and was victorious in 16 of 26 singles contests in that forum. But that 16-10 record is very misleading because Courier was never better than when the stakes were highest. He was a member of the 1992 and 1995 championship American squads, clinching the U.S. triumph in the final against Switzerland in 1992.  Moreover, he set some impressive records in his time as a Davis Cup player, winning no fewer than five matches in five sets, recording the most wins ever in fifth-and-decisive matches with three. Only once in six appearances when he was in a position to clinch a tie for the U.S. did he fail to come through with a victory.

Courier was the ultimate Davis Cup competitor, and his influence was felt far beyond his individual contributions. Only once in 14 contests against other nations when Jim Courier was on the team did the Americans lose, and that was no accident. His spirit and sense of a larger cause seemed to rub off on his teammates. I saw him play numerous times in Davis Cup, and was always struck by Courier’s capacity to lift himself and his game when it counted, even when he was well past his prime.

In 1998, for instance, Courier had a lackluster year, finishing with a match record of 21-22. He concluded that campaign at No. 76 in the world. But in the first round of Davis Cup that year, Courier took on the young but dangerous Marat Safin of Russia in the fifth and decisive match in Atlanta. Safin was blazing at the outset, taking the first set 6-0, going down a break in the second. He seemed way out of sorts, and confounded about how to put together a winning formula against a gifted opponent who appeared to be in the zone. But Courier—with the help of his captain Tom Gullikson—realized that he needed to slow things down, take Safin out of his immaculate rhythm, and make the Russian think about the magnitude of the moment. Courier threw in soft sliced backhands, changed pace cleverly, stopped trying to win a slugfest, and craftily turned the match around, winning 0-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.

The following year was a better one for Courier in some respects. He concluded that campaign at No. 32 in the world. Yet the fact remained that he was not even close to the player he had once been. But that did not stop the American from celebrating his finest hour as a Davis Cup competitor. In his first match of a critical tie against Great Britain in Birmingham, England, Courier won a stirring duel against Tim Henman, prevailing 7-6 (2), 2-6, 7-6 (3), 6-7 (10), 7-5. Better yet, he took the fifth and decisive contest over Greg Rusedski by scores of 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 1-6, 8-6. Here was Courier playing in relatively fast conditions indoors on a hard court, taking on two formidable serve-and-volleyers in Henman and Rusedski, and toppling both of them with a pair of the best clutch performances of his career. At that stage, it took Davis Cup to fully rouse Courier, to allow him to play the kind of tennis that had made him a champion, to enable him to turn back the clock and produce sustained shot making of the first class when it no longer seemed possible.

Courier retired from the ATP World tour in 2000, and was inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2005. He established a company called Inside Out Sports & Entertainment, and has formed a Champions Series circuit for players 30-and-over, playing regularly on that tour and running it from the management side. For a couple of years after he retired from the men’s tour, he coached the U.S. Davis Cup team while Patrick McEnroe was serving as captain. It was apparent even then--- back in 2002—that Courier would one day be well qualified to wear the captain’s robe, and now he is right where he wants to be, doing exactly what he should be doing.

Over the 45 years I have been following tennis closely, I have known and observed a wide range of esteemed American Davis Cup captains. At the start of the Open Era—in 1968-69—Donald Dell was at the helm. Dell had never been a great player, although he had been ranked fifth in the U.S. in 1961. But it was in that role that Dell discovered his propensity to take stands and establish a base for leadership. His teams won both years he was in charge, with Arthur Ashe, Clark Graebner and Stan Smith playing the starring roles. Had Dell not moved into the field of player representation in 1970, he could well have stayed as captain for quite a long time.

Dell was replaced by former U.S.T.A. President Ed Turville, who relied heavily on the coaching of Dennis Ralston to carry his teams. Turville’s teams—led by Cliff Richey in 1970 and Stan Smith the following year—were both triumphant, but frankly I don’t believe he was an exceptional captain. Ralston was in command from 1972-75. A former No. 1 ranked player in the U.S. with an excellent worth ethic and an astute strategic mind, Ralston was a towering captain. The U.S. defeated Romania at Bucharest in 1972 3-2 in one of the most startling achievements ever for an American team as Smith won all three points to win the Cup for his country, taking two singles matches and a doubles match. But the Romanian linesmen were guilty of flagrant cheating, and there was bedlam in the stands as Ion Tiriac orchestrated the audiences and stole time with his incessant stalling.

Through it all, Ralston was astonishingly cool and mature. He established himself unequivocally as one of the great captains in U.S. Davis Cup history. Yet he was followed by two more stalwarts. Tony Trabert—former world No. 1 and American Davis Cup hero—was captain from 1976-80 during a period when the U.S. was victorious twice. Trabert was tough, dignified, and unwaveringly decent in his job as captain. He did a masterful job of managing the emotions of the highly charged John McEnroe in those seasons, and was a total professional. Trabert could not be intimidated by anything or anyone; he was unshakable and unassailable.

He was replaced by Arthur Ashe, who was captain from 1981-85. Ashe was a man of quiet dignity. Like Trabert, he had been a towering Davis Cup performer. Ashe was a superb captain because he led primarily by example and refused to put his own concerns ahead of the aspirations of his players. Ashe had his problems with the still rambunctious McEnroe, and he had to endure some difficult times with Jimmy Connors as well. Yet he managed to lead the Americans to Cup triumphs in 1981 and 1982. Ashe was as stoical as captain as he had been as a player.

The congenial Tom Gorman took over from 1986-93, and had perhaps the greatest of all American teams in 1992 when Courier and Andre Agassi were the singles players and John McEnroe and the young Pete Sampras joined forces in doubles when the U.S. beat Switzerland in the final. Gorman had a long and successful run because he was and remains affable from head to toe. Gorman was a former French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open semifinalist who rose to No. 2 in the country. He had been on the victorious 1972 American team. Gorman got along with everyone and succeeded by never taking himself too seriously. He was first rate.

Along came Tom Gullikson. He did a fine job as captain from 1994-99. Gullikson was fair-minded and clear in his convictions. His big celebratory moment was in 1995, when Sampras almost single-handedly led the Americans past Russia indoors at Moscow, winning two singles matches and the doubles alongside Todd Martin. Gullikson was a player’s captain in the best sense, making them comfortable with his presence, never overplaying his hand.

Next up was John McEnroe, who served only one year in 2000. He went into the job with the best of intentions, hoping to elevate the stature of Davis Cup, genuinely wanting to get his players energized about competing and representing their country. But he did not succeed. McEnroe realized that the job was simply not his cup of tea; his personality was too powerful for the captaincy. He knew it had been a bad fit for him and the team.

Patrick McEnroe replaced his brother and just completed a tenth year in the post, residing at the helm longer than anyone in the history of American tennis. He was probably the best captain of them all. The players knew he had their backs, but he was not afraid to provide constructive criticism whenever it was needed. He also stood up for them when there were questionable calls, but did so selectively, thus raising the level of his credibility. McEnroe was there with Agassi and Sampras in that role and both men respected him thoroughly, but it was his work with the younger generation of Andy Roddick, James Blake, Mardy Fish and the Bryan brothers that made him such an exemplary captain. The Americans won the Cup in 2007 under McEnroe—ending a 12 year drought—but he succeeded not only then but across the board as a captain of the highest order who got the most out of his players.

Now, Courier moves into a role he will surely love. At a lunch today in New York that I attended with other veteran reporters, Captain Courier conducted himself honorably. He was deeply appreciative of the honor and he clearly understands that he must check his ego at the door. “This is not about me,” he said. “It is about the players.”

I like that attitude. Courier said later, “When I think about what I might be able to bring to the team, I look at it both for the weeks of Davis Cup and also throughout the year. I’m really excited about the chance to get engaged with all of our players… I’m not going to be taking over the coaching job of anybody. I’m there in an advisory role, and certainly as captain of the team during the week of the tie I’m there to help them with on court strategy shifts in real-time. My hope is I can make these players maybe just fractionally better than they already are. That’s the goal of any top player is to get better. If I can help them throughout the year, that’s going to pay off, pay dividends for the U.S. Davis Cup [team] as well.”

Courier plans to be out there much more on the ATP World Tour in his new capacity. As he says, “I’ll be more visible. I typically have not travelled frequently to ATP tournaments other than the ones that I’ve done sparing commentary at. So I haven’t been that visible on a week to week basis. I will be more so as a result of this position. I’ll need to be. These players need to be comfortable with me and I need to be more integrated into what they’re doing on a day to day basis with their coaches to know what makes them tick. It’s going to be important for me to understand them so I say the right thing when they’re on the court.”

Courier will do just fine. He will become an outstanding captain. At 40, he is old enough to have the wisdom to speak convincingly to his players, and young enough to provide the energy, spark and encouragement to make them better players. The American Davis Cup team is in very good hands with Jim Courier as captain.

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