By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
Jim Courier is a former world No. 1 player who won four Grand Slam singles titles during his illustrious Hall of Fame tennis career. He retired from the professional game in 2000 and is still actively involved in the sport on a variety of different levels.
In 2004, he co-founded InsideOut Sports and Entertainment, a New York City-based independent producer of events and promotions, along with Jon Venison. A year later, amongst its other events, InsideOut launched the Champions Series, a group of tournaments featuring some of the best players in tennis history over the age of 30, including Courier himself.
The Champions Series now has a new look for 2011, as it will feature one-night tournaments in 12 different U.S. cities over five weekends from Sept. 22-Oct. 22 and just seven stars. In the past, the Champions Series tournaments had been multi-day tournaments with more matches and players.
This year, fans in cities from Boston to Seattle will get an opportunity to see Courier, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Michael Chang in their hometowns. Four of the seven players will compete in every tournament, with two guaranteed to be either Courier, Sampras, Agassi or McEnroe. Each tournament will feature two one-set semifinals, with the two winners meeting in an eight-game, pro-set championship match.
The players compete for the No. 1 ranking on the Champion Series with $1 million of bonus pool money on the line for the top three finishers at the end of the season.
USTA Members have access to a 2011 Champions Series ticket presale through Sunday, May 8 at 10 p.m. ET. Tickets go on sale to the general public May 9 at 10 a.m. ET. Click here to buy tickets and for more information on the Champions Series.
Before the 2011 Champions Series begins, Courier, in his first year as the U.S. Davis Cup captain, will be leading his team against Spain in the Davis Cup Quarterfinals in Andy Roddick’s hometown of Austin, Texas, from July 8-10 at the Frank Erwin Tennis Center.
In between his busy schedule, Courier took some time to answer questions for USTA.com.
USTA.com: You redesigned the Champions Series this year with one-day events in each city and a fewer number of players, as opposed to multi-day tournaments and more matches. Why did you guys feel this year was a good time to change?
Jim Courier: I think we really looked around at what works best and what we have been doing with the Champions Series, and doing multi-day tournaments for the past six years, we noticed that there tended to be certain days and sessions that were really powerful and really impactful with the local audiences but there would be other sessions that would be less impactful. We wanted to make sure each tournament was a high-impact, high-energy, successful, fun event for fans to watch, and we wanted to be able to get to more cities. So we combined the ability to play one-day tournaments with our players’ desires not to be on the road that much. We said, ‘Let’s maximize everyone’s time and maximize what the tour can be by scaling these to bigger events on one night and getting to more cities than we have in the past.’
USTA.com: Do you feel like with the new format that the Champions Series this year will be the best it has ever been?
Jim Courier: I think we all have such overscheduled lives that it is great if you can provide something that is a no-brainer for people to go to. It is one night, here are the four players you get to see, you know all of them, they are all great players, and they are great names. It is a three-hour tournament. You can think, ‘I can pull my children out of soccer practice that night and take them to see tennis because it is just one night in the whole year.’ We looked at trying to make it as special for the fans and also as easy for them to go.
USTA.com: Is the revised format of 12 cities over just five weekends more conducive to all the players’ busy schedules, as well as generating more fan interest and giving fans high-quality tennis?
Jim Courier: I think one of the real keys is that we have compressed the schedule this year. We have not only compressed the tournaments to be one-day tournaments, but we have compressed the season to be a five-week season, and we are only playing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. It is five weekends of tennis. I think it makes it easier for fans to follow, for media to follow, and it makes it very easy for players, speaking as one myself, to be able to focus on being fit and being prepared and being energized for it and do it in a short burst without compromising the time that all of us require and need to commit to our family and daily lives. It is different than when we were 20 years old and we were a little more single minded and on the road every week. It is not the same for us at this time in our lives.
This is the perfect vehicle for us to play, which is why you see Andre playing, you see Pete playing, you see Mac playing, Bjorn, Michael, Mats. The players we have are the best players you can have for what we are doing. I think that speaks exactly to how it is custom fit for the players, and I think we will see it is custom fit for the fans with their response, too.
USTA.com: What players can fans expect to see from tournament to tournament?
Jim Courier: Two of the four (Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe, Courier) will play every night in each of the 12 markets. It is a strong field. What I am also really happy about is that of the 12 tournaments we are playing, we don’t repeat the same lineup very often. No tournament has the same field more than twice. If there is a field of Agassi, Sampras, Courier, Chang that happens twice on the tour, it does not happen three, four or five times in other cities. There is a lot of variety in these 12 tournaments, even though there are just seven players. We do mix it up all the way around.
USTA.com: The Champions Series is now visiting more cities and bringing top players to cities that may never have had top-level professional tournaments. How important a factor in the revised format was being able to expose more fans to some of the best players in the game’s history?
Jim Courier: Some of the cities picked us when we had sponsors that wanted to be in specific markets, and other cities we chose because there was an opportunity to provide something that was missing in that region. There is an unfortunate lack of ATP and WTA tennis in America in a lot of great cities, so for us to be able to play and be the only tournament of note in Boston, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Seattle, Surprise, Buffalo is great. These are major markets, and we are the only game in town if you are a tennis fan.
USTA.com: Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe and Ivan Lendl played an exhibition at Madison Square Garden in February, and the place was almost filled to capacity. Do you hope that translates well to the Champions Series this fall and shows how much of an interest there still is in the old rivalries?
Jim Courier: We have been working on this for well over a year. We have been in the champions tennis business since 2005. We have certainly been in the space, and we are very happy to see that event at the Garden do so well since we had already committed to it in May 2010 that this was the direction we were going in for 2011. It was very heartwarming to see that concept be proved on the big stage.
USTA.com: Besides generating interest in some of tennis’ greatest rivalries, what are some other goals of the Champions Series?
Jim Courier: We are really excited to work with the USTA on this project, as well. We are going to so many markets, and we are working closely with all of the USTA’s 17 sections. We really plan to highlight the USTA initiatives of 10 and Under Tennis, featuring the QuickStart Tennis play format, with our tournaments and try to make sure there is an amplification on top of what we are doing there for all the USTA initiatives. One goal is to try to get racquets in people’s hands and to create more interest in tennis. This tour will work on a lot of different levels. From a player perspective, it will be fun to compete, and from an overall tennis perspective, we are hoping this helps grow the sport. We are working lock step with the USTA on its initiatives along the road this tour. We are excited. It is going to be excellent.
USTA.com: During September and October, there are not ATP and WTA tournaments in the U.S. at that time post-US Open. Does that make it the perfect time for the Champions Series?
Jim Courier: One of the things about the way the tennis tour is now is that once the Olympus US Open Series and the US Open are gone, you don’t have professional tennis outside of Davis Cup or Fed Cup in the U.S. after that. We are really extending the US Open season by picking up another five weeks of tennis all over the U.S. There is a very specific reason why we are playing when we are playing, and that is certainly it.
USTA.com: Tickets for the Davis Cup Quarterfinal against Spain sold out in minutes. The U.S. has not played a home tie since 2009, and now this one is in Andy Roddick’s hometown. How much are you looking forward to your first home tie as captain, and how pleased are you with the buzz/interest from the fans?
Jim Courier: I think it is incredible. It is a testament to what Andy means to tennis in this country and also to the testament to the power of Rafa (Nadal) coming in. The fans are hungry for big events, and when you have the U.S. team going up against the Spanish team, which is by ranking the best team in the world right now, you are going to have something really powerful and something meaningful. It is going to be incredible for my first home tie to have that kind of environment because it does happen, but that is not always the case. I don’t know that anything has ever sold out as quickly as that one did, so it is pretty remarkable.