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The Dust Settles Early for a 'Pathetic' Courier

Tennis: Former champion loses in first round of French Open for first time, falling to Magnus Larsson.


PARIS — For many years Jim Courier has carried the dusty standard for American men around the clay courts of Europe. He has been sliding across baselines and wiping grit from his eyes for a decade with only occasional help from Michael Chang, who, like Courier, has won the French Open title.

Courier has even learned French, a language that will serve him well as he makes airline reservations to wing his way back to Florida after losing in the first round of the French Open on Tuesday. Magnus Larsson of Sweden, seeded No. 39, defeated the 22nd-seeded Courier, 6-1, 6-2, 4-6, 1-6, 6-4.

Courier--who won here in 1991 and 1992 and was the runner-up in 1993--has never lost in the first round at Roland Garros, where he has a 38-7 record. It's only the third time he has been knocked out in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament.

Courier's reputation as a hard-working grinder on court receded somewhat with his performance on a sunny, breezy day. He gave off conflicting signals of inattention and intensity, but it was his inconsistency that was most glaring.

"I was surprised how pathetic I was out there," Courier said. "That's surprising. Usually I get a good week of preparation, which I had this week in Paris. I should feel good on the court.

"Today, I felt like an alien out there. It was like I was out of my skin. I haven't felt like that in a long time in a big tournament. There's no logical explanation for me to play that pathetically."

Courier had been playing well on the surface that suits his style. He beat Pete Sampras in the first round of the Italian Open two weeks ago and pronounced himself ready to return to his previous form.

His play Tuesday had little hint of Courier's former assurance. The match was so odd that neither player was able to control the match for a sustained period. Larsson looked good for two sets, Courier did for two sets, and the fifth set was unchartable.

"I've been in some pretty weird [matches], that's for sure," Courier said. "The way I felt out there, it was as weird as they come."

Larsson had his way in the first two sets and looked as if he had taken control again in the fourth as he forged to a 4-0 lead. But a determined Courier fought back, aided by Larsson's double fault on set point.

The decisive fifth set almost wasn't decisive. Even Larsson's break in the third game was less an advantage gained than chance lost by Courier. The American was serving at 40-15 but let his lead slip. It was his turn to slam an ignominious double fault, at break point.

Larsson's two service winners in the tenth game sealed the match.

Afterward, Courier was philosophical, but the former No. 1 strained to find a silver lining.

"You know, it's one bad match," he said. "The sun is going to rise again tomorrow for sure. I'll be on a plane following it."

Courier, 26, may be facing the inevitable prospect that the sun is setting on his career. It's not his age, it's the mileage he has got on him in his 11th year on the tour.

Not every year has been like this one. Courier began the year by winning the first tournament on the schedule in Doha, Qatar. Then he embarked on a harrowing schedule that sent him to five continents over 50,000 miles in nine weeks.

Because of his loyalty to Davis Cup, Courier included an inconvenient swing to Brazil in his travels, a trip that, "Threw a whammy into my schedule," Courier acknowledged.

It's a wonder he could shoehorn Davis Cup into his jammed schedule: Courier played 46 matches in all of 1996, so far this year he's played 33.

It's nothing new. Courier has always been a workhorse and shows no signs of changing that approach to tennis. The only thing that's changed is the winning.

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