O Captain! My Captain!

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60824834In the late ’90s, as pundits were debating the future of America’s Davis Cup leadership, it was said that the dream captain would be called the fictitious Jim McGully.  In other words, someone who could combine the best talents of previous skipper Tom Gullikson (decency, loyalty, understanding), Davis Cup loyalist John McEnroe (passion, will to win, high-profile, knowledge of the game) and Jim Courier (youth and guts). More than a decade later, Gullikson’s 10-year captaincy is in the rear-view mirror, and not one but two McEnroes have taken their turn in the captain’s chair.  Now it’s Courier’s day.

In a way, the choice for a new U.S. Davis Cup captain (following Patrick McEnroe‘s resignation at the U.S. Open) was a no-brainer.

Sure, the savvy Todd Martin had a fine Davis Cup career, has long had intimate links with the USTA, and has coached the likes of Novak Djokovic and Mardy Fish. Yes, fiery and intense Brad Gilbert mentored both of America’s most recent No. 1s, Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi, as well as Britain’s best player, Andy Murray. Both candidates have strong resumes, but from the get go, Courier was the frontrunner.

Almost before PMac could finish his farewell speech, Courier confided, “Davis Cup means the world to me. And at some point in my life I certainly hope to have that seat. I am definitely interested in the job, so hopefully they’ll give me a call.”  Makes sense. Courier was a member of the greatest generation of American players, but he was far from the greatest of the greats. It was said that he was the equivalent of Ringo when it came to the Fab Four (Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang), not so much Lennon, McCartney or Harrison. After all, neither Courier or Starr were the most talented of the lot, but both were long-haired, overachieving go-getters who loved to play the drums, partied with the best of ’em and easily gained popularity with their appealing, down-to-earth personalities.

Critics, including Agassi, once dismissed Courier for his lack of truly great strokes, but Courier shot back, “There are many different talents, besides hitting a tennis ball. Having guts on the court is a talent. Having desire is a talent. Having courage to go for a shot when you’re down Love-40 is a talent.”

And nowhere else did Courier’s guts show more than in Davis Cup, be it in Holland on a makeshift court on a pier, in Brazil before a nasty mob that threatened to kill his mother, or winning an incredible (8-6 in the fifth) battle against Greg Rusedski before 9,000 screaming Brits in Birmingham in ’99.  Courier was a Davis Cup force to be reckoned with, although his Cup record was a seemingly unremarkable 16-10. He helped lead the U.S to titles in ’92 and ’95, and the team had an incredible 13-1 record when he was on the squad. Just win, baby.  He won a record-tying seven five-set matches and was 5-1 in matches in clinching situations and a perfect 3-0 in decisive fifth matches. But to most fans, the Floridian was the eclectic essence of American sass and free-form unpredictability. Quirky and inventive, he’d go for long Parisian jogs after beating his most feisty foes at Roland Garros.  He jumped into Melbourne’s Yarra River after one triumph, and delighted ever-skeptical Parisians by giving his acceptance speech in French after winning his title in ’92. Bored during one ATP Championship match, he actually read the Armistead Maupin novel “Maybe the Moon” during a changeover.  All the while his comments, whether as a player or commentator, were the essence of spit and vinegar.

Now the four-time Slam champ, like Pat McEnroe before him, will have a chance to shape the next generation of Davis Cup performers.  An authentic FOA (Friend Of Andy), Courier says he’s brought Roddick back into the DC fold after he Texan had taken a year off to concentrate on the Slams.  And he signaled that the Bryan Bros. – who were left off the roster for McEnroe’s final tie in Colombia — will return, too.  But there’s no mistaking it — Courier arrives at a time of transition.  Roddick, 28, isn’t getting any younger, and the Bryans are now 32.  A slimmed-down, refocused Fish is enjoying a heady resurgence, but, like A-Rod, he’s pushing 30.  And the slumping James Blake has all but dropped out of sight.  There are surely a few more ties in this bunch, which brought the Cup back to U.S. soil after a 12-year absence in ’07, but Courier will undoubtedly be forced to call on some new blood.

“The core team who has been really representing the United States with Andy and with James and the Bryan brothers, it looks like there’s going to be some space now for some other players,” said Courier.  “You have other guys who are coming into the team like Sam Querrey and John Isner who are really hitting their strides and I think will be a big part of the team going forward. You have a younger group led by Ryan Harrison and, hopefully, Donald Young Jr.

Roddick, who, moments after Courier’s appointment was announced, Tweeted, “jim courier new davis cup captain….great choice!” may have given the USTA execs his stamp of approval, but he may be increasingly reluctant to travel to distant shores to play many away-on-clay ties.  In March, the U.S. will return to South America, which will mark the first time the U.S. has played four straight ties on clay in enemy territory since ’73.  But the Chileans will be playing without the injured power-forehander Fernando Gonzalez.

“I would have really enjoyed our team having to play against Fernando,” said Courier of his upcoming debut.  “Obviously, he’s been the best player in recent years for Chile.  That certainly helps our chances. But we will not be underestimating the Chilean team by any means. I’ve played plenty of away Davis Cup ties when the United States has been favored on paper and we had to go into serious battle. I expect the Chilean team to put up a strong fight. We’re going to have to bring up our very best players and very best tennis to win that tie.”

In the end, Pat McEnroe’s legacy was his foresight, his ability to grab young talent while the grabbing was good, bringing in Roddick, Blake and the Bryan Bros., and creating a feel-good, frat-house team atmosphere.  In doing so, he all but reinvented the Davis Cup concept in the U.S., where infighting and tie-after-tie snubs had tarnished the sterling silver of Dwight’s Pot for years.  Will Courier stick around long enough to stamp is own brand on the U.S. team?  Despite his duties in the CBS booth, with Channel 7 at the Aussie Open and with his senior tour, he says he won’t pull a one-and-done the way Johnny Mac did back in ’00.  No, Jimbo says he’s in it for the long haul.

Of course, if Courier infuses captaincy with even a measure of the ferociousness he brought to the court as a player, the U.S. Davis Cuppers could soon be reaching for new new heights. The sky’s the limit.  Who knows, maybe the moon.

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