By Mike McIntyre
If it’s true that life begins at forty then Jim Courier was blessed with quite a head start. Not many professional tennis players get to reap the rewards that Courier achieved during his illustrious career. Before he retired from the ATP Tour in 2000, the American had captured 4 Grand Slams, been the number-one player in the world for 58 weeks, won a total of 23 singles titles, 6 more in doubles and a Davis Cup championship with the United States as well.
After retirement Courier stayed closely involved with the sport and has turned himself into a well-respected broadcaster while also promoting and playing on the Champions Tour through his company Inside-Out Sports and Entertainment.
I had the good fortune of catching up with Courier in May while he was in Hamilton to play an exhibition match against John McEnroe. I found Courier to be incredibly articulate and passionate regarding the issues that tennis faces in the 21st century and what needs to be done both in Canada and abroad to properly promote the sport.
Here is the revealing Q&A that ensued.
PTF: What’s it like to be north of the border and maybe why Tennis Canada and Canadian tennis players can’t seem to crack into the top one hundred?
Courier: Hmmm. Well first of all it’s great to be back here playing. I’ve never played in Hamilton I’ve never been here before so it’s a beautiful arena, I’m really looking forward to playing tonight and getting another crack at Johnny Mac is a blast. I look forward to all the activities we have here today.
To answer the second part of your question as to why Tennis Canada doesn’t have as many players in the top hundred as you would like - I think that’s a question that a lot of nations including my own are asking. Britain is asking that question, Australia is asking that question. Frankly in men’s tennis the only countries not asking that question are probably Argentina, France and Spain. So those are where the real power centres are from a depth perspective right now and it’s a question that I can’t answer. I’m not involved in player development I don’t know what it really takes out of them. What I’ve experienced from a political level, from a planning level, there are a lot of passionate, smart people going after it in my country and I’m sure it’s the same here and some of it comes down to, when you boil down to just the pure numbers, you need to get the athletes playing your sport and a lot of it can come down to how many of the best athletes in Canada are being introduced to tennis early enough to fall in love with the sport and really dedicate themselves to it. You can answer that one maybe, I can’t.
PTF: A lot of hockey players up here I guess.
Courier: Yeah I think that’s a struggle that a lot of nations that tennis isn’t the number one or number two sport will face.
PTF: So how do you feel in the U.S., I mean in the 90s in the heyday with you and Chang and Sampras and Agassi thing were really rolling along. Now with Roddick approaching thirty, the Bryan brothers are getting older, the Williams sisters are around thirty as well, who’s coming up or do you feel that there is that fear that the U.S. sort of falls into the category of other nations that we just spoke about?
Courier: I couldn’t say that there’s a fear there. I’m sure there’s a concern there. I know the USTA has been committing a lot of resources they have been now for years to try and assist with player development. But if you’re trying to find the silver bullet it doesn’t really exist because I didn’t start playing tennis because of the Federation. John McEnroe to my knowledge didn’t start playing tennis because of the USTA. I know Andre, I know Pete, I know Michael, I know Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters – we all became involved in tennis because our families pushed us into it or opened up that avenue for us. To some extent it’s a really challenging question because the USTA, Tennis Canada, their role in my mind is to really facilitate once a player gets to a certain level to facilitate their transition into professionals and be there to give them the assistance, the coaching, the final support that it would require to move into the next phase but to think from the outside that it’s the role of Tennis Canada to develop and create a champion is probably a very myopic view that’s not rooted in reality.
PTF: Looking at the tour these days the Grand Slams are still being mostly won by Federer and Nadal. It seemed like last year Andy Murray might challenge them and win that first one and instead it looks like he’s taken a step back perhaps?
Courier: Well he’s been close, I just think that mentally it was tough for him to come so close in Australia, he played so beautifully there. Then came up a little short against Roger which shouldn’t be a disappointment. It should be understandable at the very least - of course it’s disappointing not to win.
PTF: What about Novak Djokvic – is he turning into the next Marat Safin or does he have the goods?
Courier: I think Novak is as talented as Marat is as well and Marat certainly had his time when he won a couple of majors and I think Novak will be very strong eventually. I think having a coaching transition where he and Todd Martin are no longer working together that may take a little bit of time for him to absorb and come back from but ultimately his skills are intact and it’s a question of just putting it all together. He’s obviously extremely gifted.
PTF: If Jim Courier was commissioner of the ATP Tour, if such a position existed, what kind of changes might you make to the way the game is being played and marketed at the moment?
Courier: Well, commissioner of the ATP Tour does exist, it’s a CEO job, but that job is one of many leadership roles in tennis and what you need to really affect any change is be the major domo of tennis and not have to worry about the political implications and also to have the freedom to manipulate the schedule to the point where the financial implications of that wouldn’t be on you. So if you wipe tournaments off you can’t be sued by them. There are a lot of political reasons why the calendar - which is I think the number one issue in tennis and the way it’s organized as well – there are a lot of political issues and scheduling and contractual issues that make it impractical to make a clean slate and say we’re going to build a logical tennis season for the fans to follow, for the players to follow and have a true off season which will increase the longevity of their careers and for a media package to be sold which funds everything. That’s what you need. There’s no one position that would enable someone to do that right now with impunity. But if you could be that person for a day you’d wipe the schedule completely clean.
PTF: Just blow it up and start brand new?
Courier: Blow the whole thing wide open and say this is where it makes sense for the majors to be positioned, this is where it makes sense for the major ATP and WTA events to be positioned, this is how Davis Cup and Fed Cup make sense – they don’t make sense at all right now – they are a wildly undervalued asset in tennis. How do we make this better from a fan and media perspective because that’s what funds the sport. They are the revenue streams, your sponsors, your television and your fan base - those are your meal tickets so how do you keep them as interested as they can possibly be. Sounds easy right? Well it’s unbelievably complicated and that’s why thing nothing really changes. It’s not because there aren’t people who don’t want it to be better, it’s because there are so many different factors and factions in there that have a financial stake and have invested in it. I mean, how would Tennis Canada feel? They put the money - they’ve gone out and raised the money, I don’t know how they’ve funded building these beautiful stadiums and they’ve got cherry positions on the calendar, they’ve got great fields here. How would they feel if they just got wiped away and were told, “you know what, Canada doesn’t make any sense in our schedule, we’re gonna shrink the tour, we’re not coming to Canada anymore. You can have an exhibition in November and December and pay the players to come then but it just doesn’t make sense, we just need to have a couple of key events in bigger markets in America we don’t want to be in Canada.” And that’s realistically what we would be talking about doing, and then Tennis Canada would be holding the bag going wait, we’ve been here we’ve been supporting tennis for thirty years and you’re telling us to piss off. Well that’s what you’d need to have the freedom to do. So that’s just a small example of why it’s so easy to talk about it and why it’s so challenging in reality to really make it work.
PTF: Are you ever interested in getting into that aspect of growing the game or are you quite content with the broadcasting that you’re doing and these types of events as well like the Champions Tour?
Courier: Well, I mean I’ve put my money where my mouth is. My company owns and operates the Champions series. So I started the Champions Tour and have run it and played on it for the last five years with my business partner and my company. I’ve been involved in some of those types of scenarios, so I’ve got a little bit of a view clearly on what the business of tennis looks like now that I didn’t have that before. If there was a way to stay involved in the game and be impactful and do something that I think can help the sport I’m certainly interested in it. I’ve committed myself to being involved in the sport of tennis as much as possible so far in my life and I see no reason why that would change.
PTF: If I could ask you just one more question about your own career. What would you consider your greatest career accomplishment and who would you have considered your greatest rival or competitor while you were playing?
Courier: I think as I look at the body of work I’ve compiled in tennis probably my greatest achievement is getting to number one in the world. That’s the ultimate mountain to climb, to get to the top of your profession and it’s clear in tennis when you get there. It’s impartial, it’s not a judgement by media or fans or anything like that, it’s what the computer says based on results. I’m very proud of that. As far as my biggest challenge, my biggest competition of my career, Sampras was the guy that we all had to compare ourselves to and in the 90s he was the best player in our era as far as results go and you know, is one of the all-time greats without a doubt and he was the measuring stick and he was a big challenge.