I will be sharing some of my favorite French Open memories between now and the start of the 2013 French Open. My first subject is Andre Agassi versus Jim Courier. Once upon a time it was rare to see the same players match-up year after year at slams in men’s events. Jim Courier and Andre Agassi went toe-to-toe in four consecutive French Opens. The two had a great deal of history and at times disliked one another. In 1989, 1990 and 1991 Courier felt he had played second fiddle to Agassi. At their 1992 match in Paris, Agassi seemed unsure of himself as Courier was piling up big wins and holding the number one ranking. Each man helped to usher in an era of taking the ball early and hitting hard. Each man saw his success on tour increase as his game rounded out beyond just blasting away. Courier upped the level of fitness on tour. Agassi’s long career impacted several generations of junior players. Agassi also brought a greater use of weight training into tennis despite initial skepticism about this move. Courier vs. Agassi was a story at Roland Garros over four years. By the end one man had established dominance in this French Open rivalry, but by 1999 the other would complete a career Grand Slam at Roland Garros.
1989 Bollettieri’s Boys
Andre Agassi had a huge 1988. He won six events, finished in the top 5 in the rankings and reached the semifinal round at both Roland Garros and the US Open. Jim Courier was unknown to casual tennis fans. Still, the two had grown up together playing at Nick Bollettieri’s tennis boot camp. Agassi entered the 1989 French Open as a contender. Courier stood in the way of Agassi reaching the round of 16. Both players were from the US, were roughly the same age and tried to take the ball early and smack big forehands. Bollettieri was faced with a choice and sat with Agassi’s camp during their showdown. Courier proceeded to overpower Agassi over two-days. The young Floridian announced his presence on tour by winning 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. Michael Chang stole Courier’s thunder by winning the event even if Sports Illustrated gave Courier some love at the midpoint of the event. Courier blew a lead in the round of 16 and left Bollettieri’s charge shortly after the event. Courier -1 Agassi – 0
1990 Strength Pays Off
Andre Agassi entered the 1990 French Open as the favorite in the eyes of many because Ivan Lendl was not playing the event and Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg seemed less imposing on red clay than they did on grass. Agassi had also embraced weight training and looked thicker than his 1988 and 1989 editions. The draw pitting Courier and Agassi against one another in the round of 16 was intriguing. It seemed that if anyone would stop Agassi in Paris in 1990 it would be Courier. Becker and Edberg lost in the first round to
some no-names named Goran Ivanisevic and Sergi Bruguera. Michael Chang couldn’t beat Andre could he? Maybe Thomas Muster could stop Agassi, but it appeared that Andre was on his way to his first Grand Slam title. Courier was the only guy with the power to maybe stem Agassi’s momentum. The match played out like two heavy hitters trading massive shots in the first set with Courier taking a tiebreak set. Agassi then bullied Courier around the court for the next three sets. Agassi was well inside the baseline and sent Courier running mercilessly from side to side. Agassi won the match 6-7, 6-1, 6-4, 6-0. Andre would beat Michael Chang in a four set quarterfinal and Jonas Svensson in a four set semifinal. He lost to Andres Gomez in, you guessed it, four sets. Agassi – 1 Courier -1
1991 Rain and Pain
If Agassi was favored at the 1990 French Open, he was a huge favorite at the 1991 event. Andre had taken two Grand Slam championship losses in 1990. Agassi was strong, he had experienced some bitter near misses, he had the ability to take the ball early and control rallies on clay. In short, experts felt it was his event to lose. Andre battered his way to his second consecutive final by roughing up Boris Becker 7-5, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 in the semifinal round. Jim Courier reached the final by taking out top seed Stefan Edberg in the quarterfinal round 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4. He beat
the never to beard of again Michael Stich 6-2, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4 to set up a third Roland Garros meeting with Agaasi.
This match was my favorite of their four French Open clashes. Courier had beaten Agassi at Indian Wells in 1991. He followed that momentum with an Indian Wells title and a title at Key Biscayne to enter the top 10 in the world. Courier had also made a nice showing at the 1991 Australian Open by pushing Stefan Edberg to five tough sets. Agassi was still the favorite as he had won four of their six professional meetings to that point and was seeded fourth to Courier’s ninth. The dynamic of each man growing up together and not liking each other very much was still present.
Agassi took the first set in what looked like a continuation of their 1990 match. Courier was good, but Agassi’s ability to see the ball so well and take the ball so early looked to be too much for Courier. Agassi jumped to an early break lead in the second set. Rain delays and coaching made a big difference in this match. Andre Agassi claimed in his autobiography Open that Bollettieri said nothing during the rain delays. Courier’s coach Jose Higueres, who worked with Michael Chang in 1989, advised his charge to stand further back during serve returns to make sure he placed a deep return of serve and pushed Andre Agassi deeper into the court. Higueres had also worked with Courier on mixing placements and spins and not simply trying hit the ball as hard as possible on every point. Courier managed to win the match 3-6, 6-4, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4. Popular perception saw Courier’s fitness regiment, his growing sense of tennis strategy and his professionalism as superior to Agassi’s emphasis on weight training, eating who knows what and Bollettieri inspired blast away mentality. This trope proved to not be completely accurate, but it was how the rivalry was cast over the next two years. Courier -2 Agassi-1
1992 Courier in Command
Both men worked their way to the semifinal round of the 1992 French Open to see the other in his path. Courier followed up his 1991 French Open title with a US Open runner-up finish and 1992 Australian Open title. Courier achieved the #1 ranking and held two Grand Slam titles entering this match. Agassi had yet to win a major and whispers were growing that he might never win a major. Courier struggled a bit with the pressures of being number one in the early portions of 1992, but he was firmly number one after winning three consecutive events entering the 1992 French Open. Courier’s 1992 run to the title included wins over an impressive array of opponents. He beat Andrei Medvedev, Aleberto Mancini, Thomas Muster, Goran Ivanisevic, Andre Agassi and Petr Korda in succession to take the title. Agassi entered this match with a lot of talent, but not a lot of confidence. Courier hammered Agassi 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 in a match that failed to live up to the hype. Anyone watching saw a player with a bigger serve, greater fitness, a better grasp of strategy, and a higher level of mental fortitude methodically take apart his opponent. Agassi would of course take his first Grand Slam title one month later at Wimbledon. Courier then beat Agassi in a testy four set US Open quarterfinal in 1992 in a match featuring the two Grand Slam champions to that point in 1992. Courier – 3 Agassi 1
Courier and Agassi are now friends who play exhibitions on a frequent basis. The notions that Courier would be another Jimmy Connors playing deep into his thirties never materialized. Agassi’s superior hand-eye coordination along with his growing sense of tennis strategy and tactics led to him having the longer career of the two. Nick Bollettieri also shed the image that he knew nothing about tennis and could not coach by guiding a myriad of players to success.
I rooted for Courier in all four of these clashes. I was thrilled to see Courier breakthrough in 1989 (I had heard of him prior to this match), to see him rally in 1991 and to see him dominate Agassi in 1992. I also watched in horor as Agassi laid a beating on Courier in 1990. The great thing about a rivalry that produces a lot of matches is that a fan can pick a side and enjoy. I also played junior tennis during the height of this rivalry so I got to see how average players embraced aspects of Agassi and Courier’s games and habits. I have never seen as many baseball caps on a tennis court as I did at the 1991 Joe Creason USTA Southern qualifying event in Louisville, Kentucky that took place at the same time as the 1991 French Open.