The most formidable Tennis Foe Jim Courier ever faced was the wall of a handball court in Dade City, Fla. "I hated that wall," he says. "It never missed."
Next toughest was that court itself. When it was resurfaced, eight-year-old Jim broke it in. His mom, Linda, was so horrified to see the black asphalt marred with little white scuff marks from Jim's sneakers that she got some towels and a bucket of water. Mother and son spent the next hour on their hands and knees rubbing out the evidence. "My boy wasn't into cleaning," says Linda, "but he didn't want to stop until the job was done."
Unlike many of his peers, Courier never throws in the towel. "He won't quit even if he's down five-love in the final set," says Australian pro Mark Wood-forde. "No one on the tour has more tenacity or a stronger will to win."
Two weeks ago Courier clawed back from a set down to beat Derrick Rostagno in the semis of a tour tournament in San Francisco. The victory vaulted Courier over Stefan Edberg into the No. 1 spot in the ATP computer rankings, making him the first U.S. man to hold that distinction since John McEnroe in 1985. "I'm going to enjoy this," said Courier. "Don't cheat yourself out of life, that's my theory."
Courier certainly never cheats himself. Though his game is somewhat limited, he maximizes his talent. "I play to see how good I can be," he says. "To me, tennis is trench warfare. I'm constantly digging, grinding and gutsing matches out."
Ranked 25th at the start of last year, he dug and ground and gutsed his way to No. 2 by winning four titles—most notably the 1991 French and '92 Australian Opens—by making the finals of the U.S. Open and the ATP Tour World Championship, and by reaching the semis of six other tournaments. "Jim docs one thing that a lot of athletes don't do when they get to the top," says veteran pro Brad Gilbert. "He works even harder."
Courier's career is practically a hymn to the work ethic. He attacks the ball with the vigor of a lumberjack, smacking every shot as if it were his first. "He's Andre Agassi with heart," says Barry MacKay, the director of that tournament in San Francisco, who ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in 1960. MacKay thinks Courier is the most exciting U.S. male player to come along in 20 years. "McEnroe was great," says MacKay, "but you really have to be a connoisseur of the game to appreciate him." MacKay compares Mac to a place hitter who punches a single to right, steals second and wheedles his way home. Courier, he says, has power to all fields.
"If the kid reminds me of anybody, it's Jimmy Connors," says MacKay. Courier won't dismiss the comparison. In fact, he has always been called Jimbo by his parents. "I just don't know if I'll have Jimmy's longevity," says Courier, 21, who ended the amazing run of the 39-year-old Connors at last summer's U.S. Open, beating him in the semifinals before falling to Edberg in the final.
Courier plays with a white-brimmed cap pulled low and tight over his brow. "Jim doesn't go for headbands," says a fellow pro. "He's into the collegiate look." Yet Courier spurned college to turn pro. "What I miss most about not going to college is the socializing," he says. Bummed out by an opening-round defeat in Los Angeles in '89, he flew to the University of Richmond to visit an old high school buddy. "I got to his dorm on a Friday and went straight to a party and got hammered," says Courier. "I woke up late the next morning, went to a tailgate party, got hammered, went to another party and got hammered again." He awoke that Sunday at noon and, still hammered, went to the airport. "I was basically a college kid for 48 hours," he says. "That was all the taste I needed."
Though he's not in college, Courier can be plenty sophomoric—asked last year how it felt to make the quarterfinals of the French Open for the first time, he snapped. "It doesn't suck." But he can also be self-deprecating, as he was at Wimbledon in 1991, when he harangued himself for blowing a set by shouting, "I want my mommy!"