The Number Ones

Jim Courier: 'You Have To Be Extreme To Be Exceptional'

The powerful baseliner used supreme fitness to reach the top spot
June 25, 2020
Jim Courier held the No. 1 spot in the PIF ATP Rankings for 58 weeks.
Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images
Jim Courier held the No. 1 spot in the PIF ATP Rankings for 58 weeks. By McCarton Ackerman

As a part of a series highlighting all players to reach World No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings, looks back on the career of Jim Courier. View Full List

First Week at No. 1: 10 February 1992
Total weeks at No. 1: 58
Year-end No. 1: 1992

Grand Slam Highlights
Courier lifted four Grand Slam titles and reached the final of all four majors by age 22. He defeated former roommate Andre Agassi in an epic five-set battle to capture his maiden major at 1991 Roland Garros and successfully defended his crown the following year with a straight-sets rout of Petr Korda. The American also won back-to-back titles at the Australian Open (1992-1993) by defeating Stefan Edberg in four-set thrillers.

The Florida native naturally thrived on home soil and was always a crowd favourite at the US Open. He reached the final in 1991, but lost to a red-hot Edberg in a match that the Swede still believes is the greatest performance of his career. And while Courier wasn't shy to say that grass was his least preferred surface, he still reached the 1993 Wimbledon final and pushed Pete Sampras in a four-set defeat.

Nitto ATP Finals Highlights
Courier made four appearances at the season-ending championships, finishing runner-up in his first two outings to Frankfurt (1991-1992). It took inspired showings from Sampras (1991) and Becker (1992) to halt his title bids. He held a career 7-9 record in the eight-man tournament and would go on to qualify twice more (1993, 1995).

ATP Masters 1000 Highlights
The American won all five ATP Masters 1000 finals that he contested. Courier became the first man to complete the “Sunshine Double” in 1991 by prevailing at the BNP Paribas Open and Miami Open presented by Itau. He outlasted Guy Forget in a fifth-set tie-break in their Indian Wells final, then returned shortly after to take the doubles title with Javier Frana. Two weeks later, he showed his endurance by rallying to defeat fellow American David Wheaton in the Miami final.

Another Indian Wells triumph followed in 1993 as he blitzed Wayne Ferriera in the championship match. Courier also scored consecutive titles at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in 1992 (d. C. Costa) and 1993 (d. Ivanisevic).

Overall Match Win-Loss Record: 506-237
Overall Titles/Finals Record: 23-13

Although his ATP Head2Head rivalry with Sampras was one-sided on paper (4-16), Courier made his victories count. Three of them came in Grand Slams and the Nitto ATP Finals.

But it’s their quarter-final clash at the 1995 Australian Open that remains one of the most memorable matches in history. Prior to taking the court, Sampras’ coach and friend, Tim Gullikson, had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Despite the heavy news, Sampras matched Courier in a classic baseline slugfest and fought back from two sets down to force a decider. The emotional toll briefly became too much for Sampras in the fifth set as he openly wept on court, but he recovered to complete an astounding comeback.

Sampras would repeat his efforts by rallying from two sets down to defeat Courier in the 1996 Roland Garros quarter-finals, but Courier picked up his final win against his longtime rival the following year in Rome.

Courier also shared entertaining rivalries with other top American players including Michael Chang (12-12) and Andre Agassi (7-5). His ATP Head2Head series with Chang was one of the most prolific of the '90s, with all but one of their matches taking place that decade. Although Chang surprisingly held the edge indoors (6-2), Courier had the upper hand in their clay (2-0) and outdoor hard court (8-6) battles.

Courier’s baseball-swing backhand and flame-thrower forehand may have lacked aesthetic beauty, but the American made up for it with bludgeoning power. His aggressive baseline game and supreme fitness wore down opponents on all surfaces, enabling him to spend 58 weeks as World No. 1 and become one of seven men in the Open Era to reach the final of all four Grand Slams. Courier was fittingly inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2005.

Sampras On Courier
“There are no free points. He doesn’t miss much. He doesn’t have any mental letdowns. He’s a fighter and that’s the way he plays.”

Courier On Courier

“You have to be extreme to be exceptional. I couldn’t revel in being No. 1. I had to get to zero. When my fitness was at its peak, I was intimidating. I made guys cave in. They'd be dejected in the locker room after matches and I'd go out for a run, as if it wasn't enough. I'd rub it in their faces. I meant to do that."


Broadcaster/Journalist Graeme Agars
Jim Courier won 23 tournaments, including four Grand Slams, slugging his way to victory with a powerful off-forehand and a baseline game that was relentless. He was the ultimate competitor, willing to run his opponents into the ground and happy to stay on court for as long as it took to secure victory.

By the age of just 22 he had reached the finals of all four Slams – still a record – and between 1991 and 1993 he had reached six Slam finals, winning back to back in Melbourne at the Australian Open in 1992 and 1993 and securing consecutive wins in Paris at the French Open in 1991 and 1992.

He surprised many people by plunging into the somewhat murky Yarra River in Melbourne after his first Australian Open win, prompting one British tennis writer to wonder if he would follow up by going “insane” (in Seine) if he won the French Open again later that year. He didn’t take the plunge, although his victory speeches in fluent French impressed more than just the Parisians.

He also attracted attention by somewhat bizarrely reading a book during the change of ends during one indoor tournament match but perhaps his literary interests contributed to his well-founded reputation as an insightful TV commentator and interviewer in his post competitive career.

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