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The Big Bang Theory

Forsaking finesse, two young Americans boomed into the Lipton finals

The billed caps took over men's tennis last week. The guys who wore them had big, flat, hard American games, aggressively dull clothing and little to say. Jim Courier, wielding his racket like a cast-iron skillet, won the Lipton International Players Championship and his second consecutive tournament by defeating David Wheaton 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, while Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Andre Agassi seemed distracted by the beckoning weather and pastel shades of Key Biscayne, Fla.

There seemed to be a sense of complicity among Courier, Wheaton, Richey Reneberg and Patrick McEnroe, a group of Americans in their early to mid-20's who overran the 10-day event with their compact two-handed backhands and self-deprecating manners. As six of the top eight seeds failed to reach the quarterfinals, this second tier of Americans showed why no fewer than eight U.S. players are ranked among the top 25 in the world.

Courier, 20, is an inelegant former Little Leaguer who, for most of his three years on the circuit, has labored hard with little recognition. Two weeks ago, in Indian Wells, Calif., he prevailed over a field nearly as deep as the Lipton's. His record now demands that he be considered a leading American player, along with Agassi, Michael Chang and U.S. Open champ Pete Sampras, all of whom have struggled this year and all of whom failed to reach the Lipton quarters. His record demands respect, but Courier doesn't. "I don't need to be termed the greatest thing since sliced bread," he said last week.

Courier is getting his due in other ways. He received word during the tournament that he had been selected to play Davis Cup against Mexico this weekend in Mexico City. And shortly after defeating Wheaton, Courier discovered that he would jump from No. 18 to No. 9 in the rankings, his first foray into the top 10. Those bulletins appeared to enliven him only slightly more than the Upton's $179,000 first-place check, which he accepted with typical impassiveness. "I'm just going to put it in the bank and let it roll over," he said.

Courier and Wheaton, 21, are adherents of the Big Bang theory of tennis. They both lived at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., in 1986 and '87, and they remain friends, though because of their power, their practice sessions often turn into slugfests. "We have frustrating, screaming workouts," said Wheaton. "There's a lot of ducking in the stands on the back courts."

Sunday's final was alternately explosive and desultory, with rarely more than a two-or three-ball exchange, causing one spectator to yell impatiently, "Play some tennis out there!" Wheaton double-faulted seven times, including a hopeless delivery into the middle of the net that gave Courier the match's decisive service break, at 3-3 in the final set.

For reliability, not to mention suspense and glamour, it was necessary to turn to the women's draw. Monica Seles consolidated her two-week-old No. 1 ranking, but only after winning a marathon quarterfinal struggle with 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, and beating Gabriela Sabatini 6-3, 7-5 for the title. The second set of Saturday's final was a stream of exhausting rallies in which Sabatini held six set points and saved four match points. The 17-year-old Seles left the court, heaving for air.

Sabatini's toughest test before the final came in the semis against Steffi Graf, who won the first set 6-0 but dropped the next two, 7-6, 6-1. It was Graf's fourth straight loss to the fourth-ranked Sabatini, who remarked that Graf has lost the confidence that goes with being No. 1. "How would she know?" Graf said sharply.

The intensity of the women's play notwithstanding, there is a lulling quality to the Lipton, which is staged against the aquamarine backdrop of Biscayne Bay, in sleepy yellow sunlight and distracting breezes. The tournament is famous for its upsets, and it has a particularly narcotic effect on Becker, who has never advanced beyond the third round. "I'm always a little too loose here," he said. "I go more to the beach than the tennis court."

This year McEnroe, 24, overwhelmed him 6-1, 6-4 in the third round. Afterward, Becker observed of the rapidly improving McEnroe, "The question is whether he can put it there tomorrow." McEnroe promptly lost 7-6, 6-1 to a talented young Swiss, Marc Rosset, who went out to Reneberg. That win put Rene-berg, 25, a solid but unimposing player from Houston, into the semis, where he lost 6-4, 6-3 to the 13th-seeded Courier.

On his way to the finals, Wheaton upset Agassi 6-0, 7-5 and Edberg 6-3, 6-4. A wholesome-looking son of Lake Minnetonka, Minn., with a 6'4" Gumby-like build and an incendiary serve-and-volley game, Wheaton spent a year at Stanford before turning pro. His current move up in the rankings—his Lipton performance will raise him from No. 46 to 23—comes as a relief, because he began 1990 with four first-round losses.

The tournament ultimately belonged to Courier because he showed a measure of consistency to go along with his power. His longtime aim has been to make his game more discerning and cerebral. He is working with two coaches who want him to be more than a low-percentage baseline bludgeoner. The work is paying off.

Courier is as rough-edged as Dade City, a company town of 6,000, some 30 miles from Tampa. Most everybody there is employed by the Lykes Pasco orange-juice company, including Courier's father, who's a sales executive. What Courier does to celebrate things like his Lipton victory is go over to George & Gladys' Barbecue and eat lunch.

"You work so hard for so long and you don't see many results," said the kid from the working-class town. "All of a sudden, it comes."



Courier's power served him well, lifting him past Wheaton and into the world's top 10.