Courier At No. 1: 25 Years On...
On 10 February 1992, Jim Courier rose to No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. The American speaks exclusively to ATPWorldTour.com 25 years on about his memories of reaching the summit of men’s professional tennis.
Jim Courier was bouncing the ball ahead of his fourth match point, his ever-present white-brimmed cap was pulled low and tight over his brow. A strong serve down the line gave Courier the initiative to attack the net and the resulting backhand volley landed out of the reach of Derrick Rostagno to complete a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 semi-final victory. At that very moment, on 8 February 1992, in the illuminated downtown auditorium in San Francisco, the 21-year-old American was assured of becoming the 10th player in Emirates ATP Rankings history (since 1973) to reach the summit of men’s professional tennis. He dropped to his knees and raised his hands to the sky.
It wasn’t immediately obvious growing up that Courier would become a champion as he pummelled groundstrokes against the wall of a handball court in Dade City, Florida. “Tennis was a fun thing to do with my family and I didn’t dream too far in the future in the early days,” Courier told ATPWorldTour.com. “We watched some tennis on television, but it wasn’t something that I had an early idea of pursuing as a profession. I wasn’t one of those kids pretending to hit a shot to “Win Wimbledon” on the wall like you hear about.”
His parents, Jim Sr. and Linda, always ensured that his brother Kris, and sister, Audra, had equal opportunities. ”Becoming No. 1 was an amazing feat, but it was never the reason I worked hard or the reason my family had made sacrifices on my behalf," said Courier. "I worked hard from an early age because I had been taught to do so and I wanted to see how good I could be.”
Thoughtful and intense, it was Courier's tenacity, tremendous work ethic and will to win that ensured he maximised his talent to ultimately usurp Stefan Edberg at No. 1 on 10 February 1992.
Having enlisted the services of Jose Higueras, then working with the U.S. Tennis Association player development program, in November 1990, Courier started the 1991 season ranked at No. 25. Higueras began to address mental and physical aspects and Courier went on to grind his way to No. 2 by winning four titles – including 1991 Roland Garros and the 1992 Australian Open, reaching the ATP Finals and the semi-finals of six other tournaments. “I didn’t start to think too much about reaching No. 1 until it was within my grasp,” admitted Courier. “At the end of 1991, I knew I had a chance to get there if I had a good start to ‘92 and that was exactly what happened with a win at the Australian Open [beating Edberg], which put me on the precipice."
Courier earned tough wins over a trio of Australians - Mark Woodforde, Jason Stoltenberg and Wally Masur - in San Francisco, as the weight of what he was trying to achieve begun to hang heavily. “I was stressed out about it,” said Courier. “I was very aware of the situation. I just wanted to get there for one week. Derrick was a tricky, dangerous fast-court player and I had to grind my way through that match to get to No. 1. I was battling Derrick as well as the ranking and it was as much of a relief as it was a thrill to win the last point and get to the top of the rankings mountain…
"I remember going down to my knees, saying to myself: ‘This is it, this is the moment [and] they can never take it away from me.'”
Courier was the first American at World No. 1 in six-and-a-half years, following in the footsteps of John McEnroe, who was last there on 26 August 1985. Courier idolised Bjorn Borg as a youngster, admitting, “I tried to emulate his game style and attitude and failed miserably at both, but it worked out in the end."
Although Courier lost to Michael Chang the next day, in the San Francisco final, he experienced a novel adventure as the Florida-based ATP computer officially listed him as the new No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. Having missed an overnight flight to London, Courier caught a red-eye to New York in order to fly onto the English capital by Concorde, and then onto Brussels to fulfil a corporate commitment and play at his next tournament.
”We were on Concorde, heading to the runway but we backed up, the nose wheel wouldn’t turn and so the flight was cancelled,” remembers Courier. “So I spent my first full day at the No. 1 player ordering pizza, sitting in an airport lounge with strangers, with my agent and girlfriend."
Aged 21 and five months, Courier’s hold on No. 1 was never secure and in the space of 18 months he had exchanged the position with Edberg and his fellow American Pete Sampras. “I enjoyed the battle to get to and try to stay at No. 1, as well as simply trying to get better as a player at the same time. It was a wonderful experience.” Courier spent a total of 58 weeks at No. 1, over four different stints, and eventually retired in May 2000 with 23 titles - including four majors and five ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crowns.
”There are a few things that are mentioned when I am introduced at an event and No. 1 is something that is part of my bio,” says Courier.
“It’s a badge of honour I am proud to wear.”