Some time in the near future at an International Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Newport, RI, Jim Courier steps up to the microphone to speak.
Those who started watching tennis after the turn of the century might only know me as Jim Courier, tennis analyst and TV color commentator. Maybe you know me as Jim Courier, the long-haired would-be musician, or as the player on senior tour events.
You probably wouldn’t recognize me as I was seen in the early ‘90s. Back then, I was Jim Courier, the Next Big Forehand. I won three out of five majors from the spring of 1991 to the spring on 1992. Brad Gilbert was calling me Terminator II, saying that I was Ivan Lendl’s successor.
Nike was filming ads with me doing sprints with a tire tied around my waist, since I was the fittest player in the world.
Many an article in Tennis magazine has speculated about when things began to change for me. Rather than spend my time wondering why wasn’t able to stay at the top, I’m now able to look at it from the perspective that I spurred a period of great change. I caused more talented players like Pete and Andre to pay more attention to their fitness, giving them what they needed to dominate on the fast surfaces.
I spurred the development of the heavy forehand and practically-limitless stamina that would come to dominate the clay courts, and soon guys like Bruguera and Muster were the dominant forces there.
By the latter half of the decade, my serve and my net play had actually made me a more complete player, but there were all these Kafelnikovs and Enqvists, Moyas, and Kuertens running around, and I no longer had a niche to fill. I have no regrets, though. I saw my opportunities, and I made the most of them.
A few others know what I’m talking about. By 1996, Michael Chang had harder groundstrokes, a more powerful serve, and better volleys than he did when he won his 1989 Roland Garros title. But he was outmatched by the Samprases and the Beckers on hard courts, and by the Musters on clay.
Martina Hingis was fitter and probably hit harder when she returned to the tour in 2006 than in 1997, but still could not hit as hard as the Williams sisters. Last year’s inductee, Lleyton Hewitt, played some of the best tennis of his life in 2004-'05but lost in the latter rounds of five majors to Roger Federer. Before Roger found his stride, Lleyton could outlast him—but once Rog could match his consistency, there wasn’t much Lleyton could do.
Together, Martina, Michael, Lleyton, and I make up what I call the Hall of Fame’s Good While it Lasted Wing. We all made the most of the opportunities we had, but then the game outgrows you. Today, we induct a new member into the Hall, and he fits in at this wing as well as anyone.
In fact, I probably identify more with Andy Roddick than with any other member. Between 2001-2004, Andy had one of the most massive forehands on tour. Like with me and Pete, there was never really any doubt as to whether Roger had more talent than Andy, but for a time, it looked like Andy might make a rivalry of it anyway, thanks to his serve, his love of the contest, and his excellent taste in coaches.
We all expected Roger to be good, but who knew who great he’d turn out to be? I broke through about two years before Pete came into his own, but Roger and Andy came up together. Also, whereas I was really strong on clay, a surface where Pete struggled, Roger left Andy with no surface to take refuge on. It would have been easy for Andy to throw up his arms and surrender.
But he never did. The reason for all those coaches was because Andy was always trying to get better. And he did—by 2007 he was volleying and hitting the backhand a lot sharper. It’s just that by then the expression "big forehand" became about as meaningful in men’s tennis as "corruption in Washington."
There was a new breed of athletes on top of the men’s game who could equal or exceed the pace of his groundstrokes and move even better.
But unlike me, Andy didn’t fade away. He reached three more Grand Slam finals, won about 30 titles, and—this might surprise you—by the end of 2008, he had finished in the top 10 seven years in a row. That tied him with Mats Wilander and put him one behind Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe.
Those who belittle his accomplishments and call him a "one-slam wonder" miss the point: one slam, in an era when Roger and Rafael Nadal were hoarding them away, is an enormous achievement. Besides, what other player with one major can match Andy’s achievements?
A lot of it is because of that serve—the biggest in the top 10 during that decade, the hardest ever hit, and one of the most reliable ever.
The other reason was because Andy loved the game.
We saw it from the moment he refused to quit against Michael in the second round of Roland Garros in 2001, despite severe cramps. He won that match, and put a scare into Lleyton in the next round, until injury forced him out.
We saw him shed tears that day, not so much because he didn’t win, but because it meant he couldn’t keep playing. His love for the game carried him to a major title at the U.S. Open in 2003 and helped him finish ranked No. 1 for that year.
I’m sure it hurt for him to have to leave the game when he did, but we’re glad to have him in the Hall, and we’ll be glad to have him on the seniors’ tour. I know I am—I can’t wait to test my forehand against his.
Until then, join me in welcoming Andy Roddick to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
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