Jim Courier, all of 18 years old, hadn’t been on tour a full year when he found himself across the net from John McEnroe for the first time in the quarterfinals of an indoor tournament in Detroit in late 1988.
McEnroe, the lithe, fiery left-hander, was ranked 14th in the world, three years removed from his last standing as world No. 1. Courier was at the beginning of a career that would include four major titles and an ascent to the No. 1 ranking in 1992 – the first by a U.S. men’s player since McEnroe.
Now 43, Courier recalls a fair amount of publicity and energy surrounding that Friday night match, and McEnroe “came out fired up.” The veteran claimed a 6-2, 6-4 victory over the rookie and, Courier said, “intimidated the heck out of me.”
“John has an aura about him, a force field about him, and that’s still there today,” Courier said this week. “It’s unavoidable when you’re young and impressionable.”
These days neither can claim the former, while Courier shed any labels of the latter by beating McEnroe in their only other two meetings on tour. Tonight, they will meet again for a one-set match indoors on the PowerShares Series circuit, which visits Sleep Train Arenaat 7 p.m.
Sacramento is the eighth stop of the 12-city circuit, which features former ATP Tour stars competing in one-night, four-player tournaments. Pete Sampras will play James Blake in tonight’s other semifinal, with the winner facing Courier or McEnroe in a one-set championship match.
Courier and McEnroe have played regularly in these “champions” events, and Courier, speaking by phone from Salt Lake City, said that for him the years have not dulled the excitement of their head-to-head meetings.
“It was a thrill to play him (in 1988); it’s a thrill to play him now,” Courier said. “I love the fact he’s highly competitive and energetic and all the things he is. I love that we still want to beat each other to death.”
For Courier, who retired from the ATP Tour in 2000, the PowerShares Series now marks the bulk of his competitive play. He’s fresh off captaining the U.S. team in the Davis Cup – the Americans lost in the first round to Great Britain in San Diego earlier this month – and still travels throughout the year working as a TV analyst.
Courier said he plays five days a week – TV work at bigger tournaments provides plenty of potential hitting partners – and that his shot-making and selection aren’t far from their sharpness at his peak. What he battles most is his footwork.
“I’m not as quick on the court as I once was,” Courier said. “There’s no one at 43 who would be. Time waits for nobody.”
Still, Courier said he retains much of the power on the serve and forehand he rode to two French Open and two Australian Open titles in the early 1990s. By the age of 22, he had reached the singles final of all four majors and ended every year from 1991 to 1995 ranked in the top 10.
One thing he has noticed playing in champions events, both of himself and his opponents, is that the strengths and weaknesses do not change. McEnroe, for example, still “moves wonderfully well. His serve is an incredible weapon, so hard to read. And his anticipation is unparalleled as far as I’m concerned. He knows where the ball’s going to be and shows up in advance most of the time.”
Courier, meanwhile, may not move like the nascent teenager who lost to McEnroe – the seven-time singles and 10-time doubles champion in Grand Slams – in 1988. But, Courier said, “I think I can cover that up with power.”
“I’ll try and overpower him as much as I can (tonight),” Courier said, adding that, after more than 25 years, he isn’t exactly worried about tipping his hand. “There are no secrets between us as far as who’s going to do what.”
Call The Bee’s Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015.