As Jim Courier reflected on his 1991 and 1992 Roland Garros triumphs last Friday, he lamented the fact that he was not on his way to Paris to do commentary at the 2020 French Open.
“I would be flying tonight to get there tomorrow and be ready to go on Sunday,” Courier says. “I am gutted that I am not on a plane tonight. I hope we will get a chance to go later this year. Paris is a special place for me. I love going back there.”
Courier’s sentiments are shared by many, though he is one of the few to know the feeling of not simply taking the world’s premier clay-court title once, but also successfully defending the crown. This American, with a singularly potent inside-out forehand, a sturdy disposition and a work ethic second to none, was and remains a pillar of professionalism.
Although Courier did not win a clay-court tournament leading up to the 1991 French Open, he was bolstered by being victorious that spring at Indian Wells and Miami.
“Those were catalysts for me to believe I could go deeper in a Slam than I had before,” he says. “I had been to the fourth round of the last couple of French Opens, but never past that in a Slam. But I felt different psychologically going into the 1991 French Open. I knew I was in better shape than I had ever been in. I didn’t expect to win the tournament, but thought I had a chance to go deep.”
Yet Courier had to fight ferociously to overcome explosive Swede Magnus Larsson in the third round after trailing two sets to one.
“Magnus was a very dangerous player,” says Courier. “He was up a break in the fourth set and even had break points for a two-break lead. He had me dead to rights. But somehow I slithered out of that fourth set and was able to run away with the fifth. That was my danger match. Once I got through it, I had that cat-with-nine-lives feeling.”
Having survived that precarious confrontation, Courier took apart Todd Martin in straight sets before ousting 1989 finalist Stefan Edberg and Germany’s Michael Stich, who would make the final five years later. He took each of those encounters in four sets.
“I was used to playing them more on speedier surfaces, so it was nice to get them on something that favored me,” Courier asserts. “I was in my first Slam quarterfinal against Edberg. He was a great player but I had beaten Stefan in a few key matches and played him close in a few.
"Both Stich and myself had never been in a semifinal at a major. I was extremely nervous going into that match. Michael was a very good clay-court player and a great player in general. I was glad to get through that one. The locker room was cleared out by then. You could see the finish line.”
Now the No. 9 seed collided with countryman and No. 4 seed Andre Agassi. They had both been groomed by Nick Bollettieri and knew each other’s games inside out. Agassi had been in the final of both the French and US Opens in 1990. He was the favorite, but Courier was cautiously optimistic.
“The moment is massive and I didn’t know how I was going to react,” he reflects. “The final felt different for me than the quarters or semis, and I played like it early in the match. My coach, Jose Higueras, would describe it as me playing a little frozen. But trying to put my hands on that trophy meant so much to me. I struggled to get things going until the rain delay broke the ice for me.”
Courier was at Agassi’s mercy until then, trailing by a set and falling behind 3-1 in the second. But during the break, Higueras told Courier to move back a few feet on his return of serve when play resumed. That advice was critical, as was the chance to clear his head in the locker room. Which mattered more?
“I would think equal measures,” says Courier. “The return-of-serve tactic was essential to give myself a chance to buy time and get neutral in the rally. Andre was hitting a lot of serve-plus-one winners with my returns coming up short. The points were going too quickly. That favored him. I needed to make it more of a track meet and less about ball striking.”
Courier rallied to take the second set, but dropped the third swiftly.
“I was one set from the exit, “he says. “I was trying to extend the rallies and he was doing his level best to do the opposite. It was a tussle. I was able to turn it around and get up in the fourth set, and run through it 6-1.”
That set the stage for a hard-fought fifth set, with both players in full pursuit of a first major.
“I thought I was getting more free points on my first serve than he was,” Courier recalls. “But we traded breaks. I then got the final break at 4-4, and had the longest 90 seconds of my career changing ends. I was playing the greatest returner of my time, but I went out there and put together a pretty good service game to close it out.”
Courier had come through, 3-6, 6-4, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, out-competing Agassi down the stretch. Was he relieved or exhilarated?
“There was a lot of emotion in the moment,” he says. “I certainly recall not believing I had actually done it, and realizing that all of the hard work I had put in had come to fruition. Being a Grand Slam champion travels with you for the rest of your days.”
Courier did not rest on his laurels. He reached the final of the US Open and finished the 1991 season at No. 2 in the world. Did it reaffirm for him that he belonged?
“It certainly did,” says Courier. “Jose Higueras, Brad Stine and Pat Etcheberry—my coaching and conditioning team—were great at keeping me focused on the big picture. Instead of thinking about what you have achieved, try to achieve more. There was no feeling that I was a one-hit wonder. I finished the year strongly and felt good about it.”
Courier’s 1992 campaign was magnificent. He won his first Australian Open in style and then was unstoppable en route to Roland Garros over the spring, winning Tokyo, Hong Kong and Rome in succession.
“In '91 I came into Roland Garros as a player on the rise. In '92 I came in as the No. 1 player in the world," he says. "I had won those three titles in a row and ran through Rome on the clay. I was feeling very confident coming in—until I saw the draw.
"I was in a brutal section with Thomas Muster and Alberto Mancini—two of the great clay-court players of that time—in my second and third round potentially. I was super confident but knew I could not just ease my way into the tournament. That seemed to be more of a blessing than a curse. I got off to a good start and never looked back.”
Courier handled Muster, Mancini and the very capable Andrei Medvedev easily, and lost only one set on his way to the semifinals—to the burdensome left-hander Goran Ivanisevic.
“Goran was very comfortable on the clay. His movement was good and he could take the racquet out of my hand with his dangerous serve. When I won that match 7-5 in the fourth set, I was relieved. That was a really big scare.”
Beating Ivanisevic carried Courier into a semifinal appointment with Agassi. He proceeded to play what I regard as the single greatest match of his career. Courier was letter perfect, romping 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
“You never expect to beat someone like Andre easily,” says Courier. “You always expect it to be a war. I remember being incredibly surprised at that scoreline. But the experience of playing the final in ‘91 had given me the idea of how to manage to get to neutral in the rallies, instead of the bang-bang tennis that was more to his liking. It all came together for me. That was the culmination of all the factors playing out, and me being supremely confident that I could execute time and again. That may have been one of the best matches I ever put together.”
That uplifting triumph left Courier in good stead for his final with Petr Korda, a sporadically brilliant left-hander who would later win the 1998 Australian Open. Korda was a sparkling shotmaker, but the more reliable American was victorious, 7-5, 6-2, 6-1.
“I was very confident going into that match,” Courier comments. “But I had a healthy dose of respect for Petr’s shotmaking ability. When he was hot he was almost unbeatable, but the clay gave me time to track his shots down and extend the rallies. I was going to make it very difficult for him, given that I could cover the court pretty well and get the ball up high to his backhand to give me control of the rallies.”
Courier was on top of the world, and halfway to the Grand Slam as the holder of the Australian and French Open titles. How rewarding was it to retain his crown in Paris?
“It’s a different feeling to win a title for the second time,” says Courier. “It is more of a feeling of satisfaction and less of shock, which was part of the emotion of being a surprise winner in ‘91. I felt super confident coming out of it in ‘92. I was on the best streak of my career, winning four tournaments in a row. That was an amazing period for me.”
He finished that year at No. 1 and added another prestigious prize to his collection at the end of the season by leading the Americans to victory in the Davis Cup as they defeated Switzerland in the final. He had reached his zenith.
“It was my signature season," he says. “I played pretty well the whole year and finished on a real high by winning the last point for the U.S. against Jakob Hlasek in the Davis Cup final. I took a break and was ready to go at the ‘93 Australian Open and played arguably my best tennis there as well from the quarters on [defeating Korda, Stich and Edberg at the cost of only one set]. That was as clean as my tennis could get when I won the ‘93 Australian.”
But his bid for a Roland Garros hat trick fell narrowly short. Courier reached the final and led 2-0 in the fifth set against the rugged Spaniard Sergi Bruguera before losing a bruising battle.
“I was very proud to make three French finals in a row,” he says. “It was obviously hugely disappointing to have a lead in the fifth set of the final and not get it done, but I was grateful to have another run at that title. Sergi was a tremendous player. I just ran out of gas physically, and Sergi did his part in taking my legs out.”
Courier will always cherish his memories of Roland Garros.
“It was where it all started,” he says. “I had a good feeling there and even won the junior doubles back in the day. It was a tournament where I was consistently in the mix for a lot of years. Roland Garros was the linchpin for me.”