by Jason Fagone
I’m not sure if Men’s Journal is going to post my tennis piece before Wimbledon is over. So I thought I’d type up my favorite part of the story, an excerpt from a Team USA practice before the team’s first-round Davis Cup tie against Switzerland (which the U.S. eventually won):
I’m riding in a black van through the Swiss countryside, on the way to watch the first U.S. practices of the week and try to figure out how American tennis fell behind and what’s being done to catch up. Sitting behind me are the two youngest players on the team: John Isner, 26, and Ryan Harrison, 19. We pass cow pastures, creeks, and quaint towns. We see signs pointing to Basel, birthplace of Roger Federer.
Harrison asks Isner, “How do you feel out on this court? I feel like shit.”
“Courier is on my ass,” Isner says. “If I don’t groove it 100 percent, he’s on my ass.”
After several minutes, the van pulls up to a large glass-fronted building in the city of Fribourg. Inside is a 7,500-seat arena with a single red-clay tennis court. In Davis Cup, the home team picks the court surface, and the Swiss choice is intended to frustrate the Americans, who tend to lose their bearings on slower, lumpier clay. According to one tennis blog that has predicted a Swiss shutout this week, clay is “American Kryptonite.”
Two Americans are trading ground strokes: [Mardy] Fish — a wily veteran who spent most of his career in Roddick’s shadow, only to surpass him last year after losing 30 pounds — and a scrawny junior the team has brought along as a sort of whipping boy…
Between points, Fish smooths piles of clay with his feet and smacks his raquet against his shoes, sending clumps of red clay flying. He does this over and over, as if the clay were some kind of toxic pudding. After a few minutes, Fish’s young hitting partner takes a seat, and Courier walks onto the court with a cardboard box full of balls, a chair, and a racquet. Courier sets the box on top of the chair. With a swipe of his wrist, he sends a ball to Fish’s forehand. Fish rips it down the line.
“Bigger,” Courier says.
Fish unloads into a cross-court forehand.
“Left shoulder down and accelerate,” Courier says, feeding several balls in quick succession.
“You’re like Nick Bollettieri,” Fish teases, referencing the infamously hard-driving Florida tennis coach who trained a young Courier, as well as Agassi, Monica Seles, and a spate of other No. 1 players.
“I think that’s a compliment, but I’m not sure,” Courier says.
Fish grins. “Gimme a backhand.”
Courier obliges. Fish raises his racquet so high that it’s almost above his head. Then he swings through the ball with a purposeful, exaggerated awkwardness, mimicking Courier’s famously idiosyncratic bahckhand. Courier gets the joke immediately.
“You don’t have the left hand fucked up enough,” Courier says.