Playing Up

by: Steve Tignor | November 23, 2012

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“I’m really glad we’re doing this,” Jim Courier said to me as we walked on court at Madison Square Garden a few weeks ago before one of his PowerShares Series events. “I want to see what you’ve got.” His smile was a little wide, and his eyes a little bright, for my comfort.

What did I have, anyway? A wonky two-handed backhand, a makeshift one-handed slice, and a forehand designed for the rallies of the 1980s; think Wilander vs. Pernfors on red clay and you’ve got an idea of my pace. These shots had been briefly tested a few times against the pros—once in a racquet-company-sponsored hitting session with Andy Murray, another at a Forest Hills event with Jimmy Connors, a third time in some hit-and-giggle doubles with Cliff Drysdale 10 years ago. But none of those had taken place at the Garden, with four other former No. 1s, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, and Pat Rafter, all watching from up close. The only thing I knew I had as I hit the first ball to Courier was a very solid case of nerves.

What’s the first thing you notice when you warm-up with a four-time Grand Slam winner? The ball will never bounce twice before it gets to you. No matter how low or even slow Courier hit the ball, it always had the force to get to me at the baseline. He seemed incapable of a weak shot. As for me, in this setting I could rally tolerably with Jim. My forehand worked fine, though I was late on my backhand. At first, I didn’t have the gut to break out my funky two-hander—who knew where the ball might end up? When I finally did, Jim immediately noticed its resemblance to his own baseball-hitter’s technique.

“You’re like me,” he said, rather generously, “you have to go to the slice because you’re backhand it so crazy.”

“It tends to break down a lot,” I said.

“Tell me about it.”

I didn’t notice many breakdowns from Jim’s backhand. Like his forehand, it seemed to pick up speed as it crossed the net, and it pushed me back a little when I swung. I know he had once described it as “plug ugly,” but compared to the shots I usually see on the other side of the court from me, it looked like a thing of beauty.

The plan had been for Courier and I to warm-up and play a few games, but this also happened to be the only few minutes when Jim’s fellow champions—Sampras, Agassi, Courier, and McEnroe—could warm up for their matches. Soon Pat Rafter had joined Courier on the other side of the net, and the two of them were hitting against me. Pat hit softly, but he was still the same physical specimen he was as a pro, and still much taller and stronger than he seemed to be on TV.

Presumably bored, or perhaps afraid that my shots might, within a couple of minutes, ruin his Hall of Fame game, Rafter walked off. He was replaced by someone much less intimidating: Pete Sampras. With his 10-day scruff and his gray T-shirt, Sampras looked looser and more low-key than ever. He seemed more comfortable in his own skin than I remember. And he still makes for a perfect polar opposite to Agassi, who, now that he’s selling a line of gym equipment, is buffer than ever and enjoys showing that fact off. As far as his shots went, Pete’s come through lower and quicker than the others’, and while his topspin backhand can look a little funky—he originally had a two-hander—it got to me in a hurry and didn’t come up.

Jim called us off so Pete and Pat could warm-up for their match later that night. When they were done, we went back on with yet one more legend, Andre Agassi. Hitting with Andre for just a few minutes, I understood what his opponents meant when they talked about how he wore them down to exhaustion. Returning his bullets, which he took early and repeated with the same machine-like accuracy he always did, I immediately began to sweat. Agassi worked my forehand over, until he had finally enough. He let loose with a real-deal cross-court backhand that I could only watch.

“Vamos!” he yelled.

Agassi took a few serves, and I backed away to let him play out a couple of points with Courier. I’ve heard people say that you can’t understand what football is all about unless you’re down on the field, and there may be some truth to that with pro tennis as well. From my vantage point on the court, there was a savagery to the way Agassi played these few practice points, about the way he moved and belted the ball. After all of these years, and after all of his very public growing up, there’s still something untamed about the guy. I could understand why Sampras once said of Andre, “He scared me.” (It should be noted that Agassi, whom I essentially warmed up for his match, went on to lose to McEnroe that night. I’m going to say there was no connection between those two things.)

Finally, Courier and I played a tiebreaker. I don’t know whether he was technically “going all out,” but he wasn’t pushing the ball at me. I won two points, but I think I got more of a thrill out of the inside-out forehand winner he drilled past me. There it was, the famous shot I’d seen so many times, the shot that he had popularized and made, for a time, the biggest weapon in tennis. Like Agassi’s full-extension two-handed backhand, and Sampras’ ominous high takeback on his forehand, the trademarks of Courier’s forehand will never fade away. The great players signature shots are just that, signatures, calling cards. For tennis lovers like me, seeing them is like seeing an old friend.

Now Jim Courier had used his his inside-out forehand to win a point from me. I was honored.

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