Jim Courier, an American in Paris

May 17, 2022, 6:00:00 AM | by Steven Oliveira

Jim Courier
Surprise winner of the 1991 French Open, Jim Courier went at the Porte d'Auteuil a year later with the dual status of defending champion and new world number one. That didn't weigh too heavily on the 21-year-old Sanford native's shoulders, who retained his title by smashing the competition, losing just one set over the fortnight. Thirty years later, it was worth to looking back.

It seems that Americans don't like clay courts. The figures prove it. Since the beginning of the Open era, United States has only won four men's titles at the French Open (Michael Chang in 1989, Jim Courier in 1991 and 1992, Andre Agassi in 1999) compared to fourteen at the Australian Open, fifteen at Wimbledon and nineteen at the US Open. Born and trained in Florida, Jim Courier, armed with his cap and his super-powerful right arm, had, at the beginning, no reason to depart from this rule. But, over the course of his career, the American has managed to forge a special relationship with the French clay court and not just because he speaks French. This love affair with the Parisian ochre began in 1987, when he won the junior French Open in doubles with Jonathan Stark, with whom Courier also won the Davis Cup eight years later. Then, it got stronger in 1989, the year of his first victory over a top 10 (Andre Agassi, beaten in the third round). Like Jim Courier, the Las Vegas Kid trained at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy and got his revenge in the last 16 in 1990 before a great victory in the 1991 final, when Courier surprisingly won in his first Grand Slam. The last one? No: the beginning of a two-year domination of world tennis, culminating with a second Porte d'Auteuil title in 1992, won after a bulldozer-like tournament (only one set lost and Agassi devoured in the final). Look back on a special fortnight.

A stratospheric start to the year

When Jim Courier arrived in Paris to play his opening match in the spring of 1992, he quickly realised that his popularity had risen with a Parisian public that had seemed to discover him a year earlier. It was logical: "The Rock" was the defending champion and had just snatched the world number one spot from Stefan Edberg, whom he had dominated a few weeks earlier in the final of the Australian Open. The fortnight in Melbourne was only a foretaste: 1992 was to be the year of the great Jim. Atomised in the round of 16 in Australia, Marc Rosset remembers: "I got my ass kicked. He wasn't unplayable that year because I beat him in the Davis Cup and the Olympic Games, but in Australia he was much stronger than me, that's for sure. I liked playing against him. I liked the challenge he gave me. He hit hard. In Australia, I remember in the warm-up, when I was at the net, he was hitting me hard. You could tell he was there." The Swiss can rest assured that he was not the only one to suffer from Courier, who lost only two sets at the Australian Open before going on to retain his title on the clay court in Rome. So it was a confident man, unbeaten in 16 consecutive matches, who came to France to defend his title.

A lost set to retain his crown

A Grand Slam first round is never an easy task, even when the opponent - in this case Nicklas Kroon - has just come out of the qualifiers. Although Jim Courier is playing his first French Open as a favourite, the pressure is only felt in the first set when the Swede pushes the American to a tie-break. Courier won the tie-break before finishing off his opponent in three sets. Kroon didn't know it yet, but he was the only one to take "The Rock" to the tie-break during this 1992 edition. The rest was a walk in the park for the Sanford native: from Thomas Muster - semi-finalist in 1990 and winner of Monte Carlo a few weeks earlier - to Andrei Medvedev - winner in the junior category a year earlier - to Alberto Mancini, everyone fell to the blows of a wild Courier. Only Goran Ivanišević was able to (very) slightly shake the beast in the quarter-finals. Even the semi-final against Andre Agassi was a formality, while the Tennis world was waiting for a battle. But what about the final? The suspense was short-lived against Petr Korda (7-5, 6-2, 6-1). 

So where does Jim Courier's success fit in? First of all, the American is not the only player who has achieved an Australian Open-Roland Garros double in the same year in the Open era, as Rod Laver also did it in 1969, as did Mats Wilander in 1988. Novak Djokovic has also did it twice (2016, 2021). "The Rock" is not the only player to have managed the feat of completing his fortnight with only one small set dropped either, as Björn Borg (1978, 1980), Ilie Năstase (1973) and Rafael Nadal (2008, 2010, 2017, 2020) have even done better by not dropping a set at Porte d'Auteuil. However, the 1992 French Open will always be remembered for the fact that Courier managed to knock out seven opponents who weighed in at 32 Masters 1000s and 11 Grand Slam tournaments by the end of their careers. 

An early end to his career

Behind this major success, Courier experienced a slight dip in form during the summer with a third-round elimination at Wimbledon and a round-of-16 loss to Marc Rosset at the Barcelona Olympics. Then, the American started to move forward again with a semi-final at the US Open, a sign of another promising year. The proof was in the pudding with another great series: victory at the Australian Open, final at Roland Garros, final at Wimbledon. What Jim Courier did not know, however, was that this was his last Grand Slam success. This was due to the emergence of Sergi Bruguera and the rise of Pete Sampras. However, the man with the red hair did not lose his smile off the court, as his friend Marc Rosset confirms: "We often met at his hotel. He never gave his name when he booked. He was always under names based on Quentin Tarantino's film, Reservoir Dogs. It was Mr. Pink or Mr. Brown. It was nice. He spoke French as well because he had a French girlfriend at the time. I also remember a discussion at the Barcelona Olympics while waiting for transport. It was fun."

This smiling, personable character contrasts with the one on the wall throwing chocolates and gloomy looks around the court. "Everyone wanted to win, he had a strong character and was a sore loser, but I had no problems with him on the court," says the man who beat Roger Federer in the final of the Marseille tournament in 2000. "He was still a fair player. I don't mind someone who has a personality, who wants to win and who makes you feel it. On the contrary, it makes for good fights." Despite being 23 years old in 1993, Jim Courier already seemed to be on the decline. Physically, already, his game based on power and mines from the back of the court hurting his opponents less, but also mentally, the American seemed to lose his motivation, as in this match against Andrei Medvedev at the 1993 Masters, where Courier read a book at each change of side. Not a surprise for Marc Rosset: "I sometimes had the impression that it was taking a lot out of him. That's why he maybe didn't last as long as a Sampras. He was really focused on tennis, but he also had other interests in life. On the court he was a machine and a steamroller, but off the court he played drums, guitar, read. There was more to him than tennis.

An heir who is slow to arrive

Retired since May 2000, Jim Courier remains the only American to have won the French Open twice in the Open era. A status that he should keep for many years to come, despite a new American generation arriving on the ATP circuit (Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Sebastian Korda, Jenson Brooksby, Tommy Paul, Brandon Nakashima). A far, far cry from the one that dominated world tennis in the 1990s. "When we lost the 1992 Davis Cup final to the United States, there were Sampras, Agassi, Courier and McEnroe," recalls Marc Rosset. "Michael Chang was not taken and Sampras only played doubles. It was the Dream Team, it was unplayable." However, if the man who was the US Davis Cup coach between 2011 and 2018 will perhaps not find his heir in Uncle Sam's country, many players have been inspired by his game, according to Marc Rosset: "There are more and more backcourt hitters now. There are players who can match his style of play, there are a few, but the aura he had, the character he was, it's harder to find." Now a commentator, Jim Courier, who no longer wears his cap, has not given up on tennis even though he has never played in the famous Legends Trophy at Roland Garros. This does not prevent him from being a true legend at Porte d'Auteuil.