Courier brings home French Open crown Agassi loses final for 2nd straight year

June 10, 1991|By Thomas Bonk | Thomas Bonk,Los Angeles Times

PARIS -- In the swirling wind of Roland Garros Stadium early yesterday evening, a new French Open champion blew across Center Court, dropped an ace on the line at match point and then flopped backward, covering himself in red clay.

This is how Jim Courier, a 20-year-old from Dade City, Fla., celebrated winning his first Grand Slam final on his first try, with a special communion between victor and battlefield.

As shadows began to creep across the court, Courier worked his way into French Open history and kept Andre Agassi out of it with a 3-6, 6-4, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory.

It was a 3-hour, 19-minute spectacle of rain delays, blowing dirt, blown chances, realized promise and unfulfilled expectations.

For Courier, it was victory in the first Grand Slam in which he had advanced past the fourth round.

For Agassi, it was something entirely different. The favorite coming in, Agassi lost his third Grand Slam final in 12 months, following the 1990 French Open final and 1990 U.S. Open.

There was not much of a margin of victory, Courier said.

"It's really just a roll of the dice," he said. "Somebody's got to win, somebody's got to lose. I'm glad I didn't have to wait."

Agassi's wait continues. The turning point for the 21-year-old from Las Vegas began not with a roll of the dice, but with a rain delay. After winning the first set, Agassi led, 3-1, in the second when a shower stopped play.

Jose Higueras, the former Spanish Davis Cup player and Courier's clay court coach, was relieved for the delay so he could make one vital change of strategy that would alter the course of the match.

Higueras decided to move Courier back about 10 feet behind the baseline to return serve. The idea was to give Courier a good swing at Agassi's serve, return the ball deep and work his way into the points.

"He was playing right into Andre's hands," said Higueras, who also coached Michael Chang to the 1989 French Open title. "Then Jim started playing a little more confident and took a little more time. After the rain delay, I was very confident."

Said Courier: "Well, Jose's 2-for-2 now coaching guys at the French Open, so I guess that says a lot for his coaching abilities."

For reasons not even Agassi could explain, he never really responded.

"I feel like if it had never rained, I would have kept my momentum," Agassi said. "But who knows how long that would have lasted?"

The changes in Courier were quickly evident. He saved two break points to hold for 2-3 in the first rain-delayed game after the strategy session, broke Agassi at love for 3-3, saved two more break points and held for 4-3 after one more rain delay.

When Courier broke Agassi again at 15-40 with a scorching backhand service return down the line, the match was deadlocked at one set all.

So instead of Agassi speeding ahead unchallenged, Courier pulled even because it rained. Of such a fragile circumstance, a championship was won, Courier said. If there had been no delay, there would have been no time for coaching and no change in strategy.

"That really was a turnaround for me," Courier said. "That was the match there, probably. That got me into the match. That wasn't the end of the match, but it was the beginning of it for me."

Agassi once again seemed to take control by closing out the third set in 32 minutes. He lost his advantage even quicker. In the fourth set, Courier broke Agassi at love in the second game, saved a break point for 4-1, broke Agassi again for 5-1 when Agassi batted a forehand wide and finished the set in 27 minutes as Agassi's backhand sailed beyond the line.

Time moved swiftly, Agassi said.

"It goes pretty quickly when everything is working against you for a period of time," he said.

Now into the fifth set, the wind began to bluster during play and kick up red dust behind the baseline, swirling it into the players' eyes and making each shot an adventure.

"I can control how hard I try, my effort, my focus and my concentration," Agassi said. "I can't control the wind.

"It just happened that way," he said. "I wish I knew why. The conditions were so screwy, it was tough to be exercising too much strategy out there."

For Courier, a former Little League pitcher, the feeling was sort of familiar.

"It was like facing the Niekro brothers out there," Courier said.

Courier took the lead and went up a break to 4-3 when he took one step back to receive serve and powered a forehand cross-court into the corner. Agassi countered by breaking Courier's serve to 4-4, cashing in with a forehand winner.

But Agassi was having his own problems serving. He was broken again when, at 15-40, Courier sent back a lob that Agassi smashed wide.

"The whole point of that game was to make him hit another shot," Courier said. "Keep grinding. He missed the overhead, but the point is, I got the lob back in the court. In that kind of wind, anything can happen, and it did."

As he prepared to serve for the match, Courier reminded himself to play just as if it were the first game of the match. He moved out quickly to 40-15, then rifled his seventh and final ace down the middle to end it.

Soon, it was Courier lifting the trophy high above his head in the post-match ceremony. Agassi stood silent to the side, wondering whether his chance ever will come.

"Who knows how many shots you have, you know?" Agassi said. "I've been fortunate to have three. I have a lot to be thankful for. But it's disappointing.

"It's rare when someone's got that moment in time."

Courier's moment was secure, rolled in red clay and held high above his head for everyone to see.

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