Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
Years played: 1988-2000
Major titles: 4 (1992, 1993 Australian Open; 1991, 1992 French Open)*
By the latter half of the 1980s, U.S. tennis fans had begun to get restless. Where were the male stars that were going to replace John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors at the top of the rankings? As if on cue, they began to appear, one by one, with each passing season: In 1988, Andre Agassi reached the semifinals at the US Open; in ’89, Michael Chang won at Roland Garros; in ’90, Pete Sampras won the US Open; and in ’91, Jim Courier made the first of his two consecutive title runs at the French Open.
Courier was the last of this foursome to break through and, at least initially, was the most surprising. As a junior at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, his profile hadn’t been as high as Agassi’s, and in his first three years on tour Courier had failed to make it past the fourth round at a major. But that all changed at the ’91 French. Seeded ninth, Courier upset No. 1 Stefan Edberg in the quarterfinals; in the final, he faced Agassi, who had beaten him at Roland Garros the previous two years. This time, Courier came back from two sets to one down to win in five sets.
Suddenly, this fair-skinned, red-haired, baseball-cap-wearing kid wasn’t just the next American hope; he was, for much of the next two years, the best player in the world and the face of the game. Later in 1991, he reached the US Open final. In ’92, he won the Australian Open, repeated at Roland Garros and clinched the Davis Cup for the States. In 1993, Courier repeated in Australia and reached the finals at the French and Wimbledon. In ’92 and ’93, he would spend 58 weeks at No. 1.
During that time, Courier was the foremost exemplar of the Bollettieri school. Nicknamed “Rock,” he went to work with his cap pulled low, and won with a rock-solid baseline game that was virtually impenetrable in Paris. Courier’s innovation was his inside-out forehand. More than most players before him, he looked to use his strength as often as possible, in doing so, he helped turn that shot into the point-winning weapon that it remains for so many top players today.
Defining Moment: He had labored in his shadows at Nick Bollettieri’s academy, he had lost to him the previous two years in Paris, and now, in the 1991 French Open final, he trailed Andre Agassi, his more famous and flamboyant rival, two sets to one. But Courier won the last two sets for his first major title. He fell to the clay, and his game took flight from there.
Watch: Jim Courier beats Andre Agassi in 1991 French Open final