- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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NEW YORK -- Jim Courier, his trademark shaggy reddish-blond hair aswirl, talked about the challenges that lie ahead.
"It's about testing ourselves," he intoned with typical moxie, "in the heat of battle."
Three days ago, Courier lost a straight-sets final to Mark Philippoussis in Arizona, on the Champions Series he founded and owns. On Wednesday, in a Midtown steakhouse, Courier, 40, was introduced as the 40th U.S. Davis Cup captain.
His two goals, he said: "To help make our players as good as they can be, and win this title as many times as possible."
In a statement, Andre Agassi called Courier "an inspired choice."
The captain's job is technically an appointment by the USTA president, in this case, Lucy Garvin. But this was a three-person decision by Garvin, U.S. Open tournament director Jim Curley and USTA chief operating officer Gordon Smith. The group interviewed five candidates by phone: Courier, plus fellow former pros MaliVai Washington, Todd Martin, Brad Gilbert and Larry Stefanki -- better known today as the coach of Andy Roddick.
Courier was the only one who ever won a Grand Slam singles title -- four, all told. In fact, in one torrid stretch from 1991 to '93, he advanced to the final in seven of 10 majors. Courier, quite simply, was the most decorated former Davis Cup player to throw his hat in the ring; Pete Sampras, a contemporary with 14 major titles, wasn't interested.
Courier openly lobbied for the job, saying in September that "Davis Cup means the world to me." He played in 14 ties, produced an overall record of 17-10 and was part of championship teams in 1992 and 1995. He served as a Davis Cup coach for two years early in predecessor Patrick McEnroe's tenure and has signed a multyear deal.
This is a good time for Courier to take this largely ceremonial job. He, not so much the players, will be the center of attention.
Courier is smart and charismatic. He will be an engaged and entertaining front man while he waits for another young, talented nucleus to form. One question that comes to mind: Will what Garvin termed Courier's "unprecedented competitive spirit" serve him outside of the few dozen hours he's sitting on that Davis Cup bench?
Moreover, will he have the patience for, the sublimation of ego necessary to do, the due diligence the job requires?
"Thanks for coming," he said to a group of writers as he moved to a second table.
Congratulated on his ability to smoothly schmooze, he laughed.
"I'm used to it on the Champions Series," he said. "I'm a small-talk wizard."
Seriously, can he check his said-to-be-considerable ego at the door?
"It's a valid question," he said thoughtfully. "I'm not saying I don't have an ego, but I know its address. I can beat it down if I have to.
"I've learned a lot since we began InsideOut [Sports and Entertainment, the company behind the Champions Series]. Yes, I can. I certainly can subjugate myself for the greater good."
In retrospect, Patrick McEnroe's sense of timing was exquisite -- both coming in and going out.
After his older brother John resigned after a 14-month tenure in 2000, Patrick was the perfect fit. He didn't win seven majors or rise to the No. 1 ranking like John did, but he had the genial personality and grasp of the subtle you might expect from a guy whose singles record was below .500 and whose highest ATP ranking was No. 28. He was a consensus builder who created a team-first environment.
When Patrick signed on, James Blake was only 20 years old and ranked No. 214. Andy Roddick was a stripling of 18 and ranked No. 325. Bob and Mike Bryan were only 22 and just learning to play doubles. Seven years later, of course, they were ready. Roddick, Blake and the Bryans were at the top of their games when they won the Davis Cup trophy, 4-1 over Russia in Portland, Ore., for America's record 32nd title. McEnroe leaves as the longest-tenured U.S. Davis Cup captain ever.
Although Blake, now 30, is said to be contemplating retirement, Roddick should have a few more productive years. The Bryans probably can win that doubles point for another four or five years. Mardy Fish, who turns 29 in December, is still a viable player, as he proved with a hand in three points in the World Group playoffs at Colombia.
The reality? The United States doesn't appear to be positioned to compete with Spain, Argentina, Serbia and France for the Davis Cup title.
John Isner and Sam Querrey would seem to represent the present and immediate future. And although they are ranked No. 19 and No. 22, respectively, they may or may not become top-10 players. Isner is already 25 and Querrey 23 -- middle age by the daunting standards of elite tennis.
Will Courier still be around when 18-year-olds Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock, who played so well at the recent U.S. Open, are ready to carry the flag? Or will that fall to someone like Todd Martin, who seems to be next in line?
Ultimately, McEnroe chose to spend more time with his wife and three young daughters while building the program for the USTA. What began as an ambassadorship evolved into something much more. Like Bill Parcells, McEnroe wanted to spend less time cooking and more time shopping for the ingredients. Now he'll be exclusively concerned with the emerging 10-, 12- and 14-year-olds on the boys' and girls' sides at the national training centers.
Courier will write the lineup card with names from McEnroe's finishing school. His first assignment will be Chile in the first round of the 2011 Davis Cup in March.
It's a good sign that, even more than a week before Courier was announced, he was calling the younger players, such as Harrison and Donald Young, and that Patrick McEnroe pledged to help the process of their development.
"He spent some time away from the game," McEnroe said. "I don't think he was quite ready then. Now, he has a better sense of the bigger picture. I'm excited to start working with him."
What's Courier's take on the transitional state of the player lineup? The wizard of small talk had a good answer.
"It's a great opportunity to really integrate [young and old]," he said. "We have some really nice options, lots of great choices.
"It'll be fascinating."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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