Publish date:

Inside Tennis

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

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."

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

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

Hair Apparent

The future of Belgian men's tennis is an 18-year-old butcher's
son who calls himself X-Man and hopes to become the sport's
Dennis Rodman. "I like the Worm," says Xavier Malisse, who has
dyed his hair electric plum, persimmon and avocado, among other
subtle shades. "It's cool how Rodman changes the color of his
hair and gets in players' minds."

In his ATP debut, in Philadelphia in February, Malisse got in the
mind of the world's No. 1 player. Though he was as green as
Belgian endive, X-Man came within two points of beating Sampras
before falling 4-6, 6-3, 7-5. "I guess I got overconfident," says
the world's No. 423.

Growing up in the town of Kortrijk, Malisse worked in his dad's
beenhouwerij, but he did not hone his stroke hacking brisket. "My
father never let me cut meat," he says. "He thought it was too
dangerous. I just prepared the salads."

Last summer, Malisse enrolled at Nick Bollettieri's academy in
Bradenton, Fla., where he hit one day with Marcelo Rios, who
offered this assessment: "I've never seen a forehand that big."

His hair can be equally startling. Malisse, who says he started
tinting it this year "just to do something crazy," played Davis
Cup doubles in a hue he calls super blond. (He and Johan Van
Herck lost to Courier and Todd Martin.) "Next year at Wimbledon,
my hair may be green and purple," he warns. "There are lots of
colors in the supermarket."

Mahwah Mix-up

As she continues her steady climb up the rankings, Fang Li might
want to invest in a daily planner. Li, perhaps the best tennis
player ever from mainland China, had to be reminded by the WTA
that she was in the singles as well as the doubles of a USTA
Challenger tournament in Mahwah, N.J. "When they told me I was
in the singles draw, it was O.K. with me," said Li, who two
years ago moved from Hunan province to Queens less than an hour
from Mahwah. "It's good because I can go home every day."

Relying on penetrating ground strokes and a deceptively strong
serve, Li, 25, cruised through her half of the draw then got
another surprise: The winner of last Friday's final between Li
and Amy Frazier would receive an automatic spot in the A&P
Classic, an exhibition tournament also going on in Mahwah (and
featuring players such as Steffi Graf and Jana Novotna, who had
been lured to the event with six-figure appearance fees). "No
one told me," Li said. "Well, it's good practice."

Li's confusion about her schedule continued. Thinking that her
match with Frazier was at 2:30 p.m., instead of 11:30 a.m., Li
arrived at 1, by which time tournament officials had declared
Frazier the winner. When Li was given the news, she began
screaming and crying. "Maybe my English is not good," she said.
"I don't know who made the mistake."

The situation grew even more preposterous. Frazier said that she,
too, hadn't realized that the winner of the Challenger tournament
was supposed to advance to the exhibition; citing a "bad hand,"
she declined to move on.

"It's not like we said the tournament winner had to walk across
the George Washington Bridge naked," said John Korff, the
tournament director, who was already exasperated by the
withdrawals of Anna Kournikova and Mirjana Lucic. "The winner
got a chance to play Steffi Graf in a sold-out stadium and make
a bunch of extra money. It sounds like a pretty good deal to me."

Li got the call and this time she not only was punctual but also
won the first set, 6-3, displaying the savvy shotmaking that has
helped her reach No. 42 in the rankings. Graf won the match, but
Li pocketed $5,000 and was thankful for the chance. "It was
good, because I had never played her," Li said. "But maybe I was
a little tired because it was such a crazy week." --L. Jon

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG Lord Jim The U.S. is 12-0 in Davis Cup ties in which the ever-ready Courier has played. [Jim Courier playing tennis]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG Blond ambition A dyed-and-true Rodman fan, Malisse went platinum in Indianapolis. [Xavier Malisse serving]