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Patriot Games

In the Davis Cup, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier find a reason to play on

by Franz Lidz

Posted: Wed July 22, 1998

Sports Illustrated A couple of antique Davis Cuppers went to Indianapolis last week to bask in the sun like old lions. Lately the former top cats, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi, have been roaring ineffectually on the ATP tour. But in Davis Cup, they're still kings of the jungle. On the hard courts of the Indianapolis Tennis Center, Courier and Agassi demolished a pair of Belgian clay courters to help the U.S. win 4-1 and move to a semifinal in September against Italy. "Davis Cup is like a tournament in which you go straight to the finals," said Courier after beating Filip Dewulf 6-3, 7-6, 2-6, 6-3 in the opening singles match last Friday. "Winning gives you a euphoric feeling that can carry over to the regular season."

TEN072702.JPG Lord Jim The U.S. is 12-0 in Davis Cup ties in which the ever-ready Courier has played.    (David Walberg)
That's not likely for Courier. Since surrendering his No. 1 ranking in 1993, he has been hampered by shoulder, arm and knee injuries. He hasn't made the finals of a Grand Slam tournament since Wimbledon in '93 and is ranked 47th.

Yet Courier, 27, is not going gentle into his sunset years. As tenacious as ever, he has metamorphosed into America's foremost Davis Cup patriot. His most recent heroics came three months ago in Stone Mountain, Ga., when he stepped onto the court with the U.S. and Russia tied 2-2. After dropping the first eight games of the deciding match, Courier spared his country the shame of an opening-round defeat by outlasting Marat Safin 0-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. The U.S. has never lost a Davis Cup tie in which Courier has played, going 12-0. "I have nothing to say about that," says Courier. "You don't talk about a no-hitter when you're in the dugout."

The fade of the 28-year-old Agassi has been more dramatic. Ranked No. 1 for 30 weeks in '95 and briefly in early '96, he won only 12 matches and no titles in '97. By last November his ranking had plunged to 141. "Andre would just stay in the middle of the court and try to slap winners," says Courier. "If a ball was two feet to the right or left, he'd just stand there." Embarrassed by his ponderous play, Agassi lost 18 pounds and found his stroke by dropping down to the Challenger circuit, the tennis equivalent of Triple A. He made the final of the first event he entered, in November, and won the second the following month.

Revitalized, Agassi sailed through an ATP tournament in February, brutalizing Pete Sampras in the final, 6-2, 6-4. In March he won again, this time in Scottsdale. But after losing in the finals of the Lipton and in Munich, Agassi's sizzle fizzled. He lost in the first round at the French Open and in the second round at Wimbledon. His ranking seems stuck at 18.

"Is Andre conditioned enough to win a tournament of five-setters?" asks John McEnroe, whose last great victories came in Davis Cup. "Best-of-three matches, he can get away with. But in best-of-five you have to contend with fatigue, both physical and mental. The older you get, the tougher it is to stay focused." Davis Cup matches are five-setters, but a singles player faces no more than two of them. As for focus, Agassi had plenty last Friday to rout Christophe Van Garsse in straight sets. The awestruck Belgian had nearly as many double faults (14) as Agassi had unforced errors (16) and actually thanked Agassi for giving him such a sound thrashing.

How many lives are left in these big cats? "If Courier is happy being 45th or 50th in the world, he can continue indefinitely," says McEnroe. "But Jim has enormous pride, and that may stand in his way."

Money may be what keeps Agassi going. Despite his skid, Agassi makes more in endorsements—$14 million annually—than anyone else in tennis, $6 million more than Sampras. "It's hard to quit when you're making that much dough," McEnroe says. "Maybe it's also hard to keep motivated, but Pete figured out how this year at Wimbledon."

Issue date: July 27, 1998

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