In Indianapolis on Dec. 10 to promote the PowerShares Series, U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier spoke to the crowd ahead of the Indiana Pacers–Miami Heat game downtown. He then greeted tennis enthusiasts at a sports club, dished about John McEnroe's PowerShares Series showing to come here ("I can assure you he will get angry, and he will mean it"), and found a perch for 20 minutes to talk about American tennis at all levels, from 10-and-under growth to the pro game.
Jonathan Scott: I talked to Bob and Mike Bryan a couple weeks ago, just before Thanksgiving. They were talking about the red clay in San Diego. First of all, what do you think about playing in this baseball park?
Jim Courier: I think it’s going to be amazing. I think it’ll be one of the most interesting places to play tennis. Certainly it’ll be one of the most interesting I’ve ever seen and among the most interesting that anyone has ever played in.
You know, I played one tournament in a baseball park. One year they had an indoor tournament in Toronto where the Blue Jays play. And they built four courts on the field there. But that was AstroTurf, and that was covered. So this will be pretty unique to play open air, left field, particularly on red clay on what effectively is a warning track. So we’re playing on the warning track with warning-track material. I think it’s gonna be a unique experience for everyone involved. I think it’ll be electric in there.
JS: Whose decision ultimately to play on the red dirt? Yours? Obviously you didn’t hate it in your playing days.
JC: This was a total team decision.
JS: Did you guys vote?
JC: Effectively. I put it out to the likely players, which are Bob and Mike and John [Isner] and Sam [Querrey], and I said, “Look, here’s what we have, here’s who we play. We’re playing at home. What scenario would you guys like to have?”
JS: Against the Brits.
JC: Yeah, and it became a unanimous decision—we thought that outdoors, at sea level, which pretty much rules out about 80 percent of the country in February. So you’re looking at basically Florida, California, Texas, maybe Arizona, although Arizona still has a little bit of altitude in most cities. And then we went to surface, and then you get to minutiae like ball and stuff like that, just trying to provide the best atmosphere because we have control of it, and that’s not always the case. And not everyone was demanding red clay, but once it was floated by a couple guys, then everyone was saying that sounds great.
JS: They all have pretty good results on it—Isner the first one to take [Rafael] Nadal to five [sets] at the French Open. Are you going to have Jack Sock and Ryan Harrison there as hitting partners?
JC: I don’t know yet. Actually, Jay Berger is the coach of the team, and Jay and I work together on who the hitting partners are. There’s certainly a chance that they will be, but I think that chance is probably small given where their rankings are and given where they’re going to want to be playing. There’s a Challenger [event] in Hawaii in the second week of the Australian Open. It’s possible that those guys, if they don’t go deep in Australia, would want to play there and get ready for some other events.
But you never know. Last year, we played our first round in the same week in Jacksonville we had some injury issues. John’s knee was not good in Australia. We ended up bringing Jack there. We also brought in Ryan, and we had Mardy Fish there. We had an amazing amount of players, just trying to make sure that we had all of our bases covered. So we’ll see. We’ll find out who is available first, and we’ll go from there. And you also want players who play a little bit similarly to your opposition, and we don’t know exactly who that’s going to be.
JS: Don’t know if it’s Murray.
JC: We won’t know until after the Australian Open. We won’t know. I have a pretty good feeling that Dan Evans would be there second singles player, given how well he played at the U.S. Open. James Ward is probably their second option behind him. So I don’t really know who has better results over the years on clay. I’ve seen their results in the past year, and it seems that they prefer the harder surfaces.
JS: A question now from a Twitter follower, as before this interview, I kind of crowd-sourced, asked if anyone had questions.
JC: Perfect. I’m going to start doing that for the Australian Open.
JS: A follower, @ultm8swfans, asks, as the Davis Cup tie is going to be played outdoors on red clay, is Jim Courier going to wear not a suit but athletic gear on the court?
JC: [laughs] No. No, I probably won’t wear a full suit because, when we play outside, I typically don’t. I typically wear just slacks and a shirt and a hat ‘cause I don’t want to get … burned. I doubt I’ll be wearing a suit out there.
JS: Where in general, though, do you get your suits, or what was the inspiration?
JC: I started thinking about the reality of potentially being a Davis Cup captain a few years after I retired, and I worked as the assistant for Patrick [McEnroe] when he was the captain. I just thought to myself that I really like the way NBA coaches look, I like the way they’re attired, the way that they look like they have authority. And I preferred the way that they look to, let’s say, baseball managers, who dress the same as their players.
JS: Or NFL coaches like Bill Belichick, wearing cut-off hoodies.
JC: Yeah, I probably prefer the way Tom Landry looks on the sidelines to Bill Belichick, but it certainly works for Bill just fine. But it’s a personal choice, and I had to ask Jim Curly at the USTA, effectively, for permission to do it when they offered me the job.
JS: “Can I dress up?”
JC: I said, “Jim, this is great. By the way, would you mind if I wore a suit on the sides? I don’t want to wear a track suit. I don’t want to look like I think I’m going to go play. I want people to know the difference between the captain and the players.” And Jim said, “Yeah, under these conditions, you can do it.”
JS: How do you feel wearing a suit there?
JC: I feel comfortable, I feel very comfortable in it, and I’d like to see more captains do it. Just because of my personal preference, not because I think I’m right and they’re wrong. I just think it looks classy on a tennis court when you do that. It almost harkens back to the era when players played in long pants. So in a way it’s connected to the past there.
JS: Billie Jean King, when I talked to her in Chicago a week ago—she was being inducted into the USTA Midwest Hall of Fame—she was talking about what she called a crisis. The numbers she had were that the average tennis player in the U.S. is 50 years old, and the average coach is 50 years old. Do you see that as a crisis, or what do you see needing to be done?
JC: What I see is that 10-and-under tennis is effective, and that’s bringing more kids into the game. I don’t have a problem with the average player being 50, and the average coach being 50. From a coaching standpoint, that’s probably a good thing, to have some people with that experience. As long as the numbers are high, as long as the total people playing are high, I’m not worried what the ages look like. You just want to make sure that you have enough kids picking up racquets under the age of 10 so that they fall in love with the sport, and make it the sport of their lifetime as well.
From a selfish standpoint, as someone who follows the pro game constantly, you’d love to see more of those juniors transfer in their junior success to professional success. And you just need numbers. You need a bigger pool to jump into the funnel, and eventually some great ones are going to come out of there. Great athletes who excel at many sports are likely to excel at tennis if they start early enough.
JS: That’s what she was talking about, pulling athletes away from the other sports—in a positive manner—toward tennis. And how to retain them, if they do.
JC: Yeah, it has always been about the families from my standpoint. And in some cases, there are people who are pied pipes, who really engage the kids and bring stickiness to the early stages of tennis. It’s a tough game to learn how to play because there are so many elements to it. That’s why I love 10-and-under tennis, to get more people into it. And then whenever they’re ready to go to the regular ball, let them go to it. If they need to go to a regular ball at the age of 6 because they’re already past it, fine. But a 5-year-old, 4-year-old, 7-year-old kid, learning to play with the soft balls, they’re going to feel better about themselves.
The comparison that I like to make is, almost any kid can stand in front of a soccer net and kick a ball into the net and pretend they just scored a big goal for the U.S. National Team. And that’s the first time they ever saw a soccer net. It’s much harder for a player to stand up at the service line and hit an overhead or stand at the baseline and hit a serve in the court when they first start. Not with the equipment that adults use.
Part II of this interview—in which Courier discusses rising young players, preparing for the PowerShares Series and the additions of James Blake and Andy Roddick to the senior circuit—will be posted tomorrow.