- Sandra Harwitt
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For 40-year-old Aaron Krickstein, a former top-10 ATP Tour player who never formally announced his retirement, the senior Outback Champions Series is the perfect vehicle to ensnare his competitive drive.
The 2008 Outback Champions Series commenced Wednesday at the Oliver Group Champions Cup in Naples, Fla. Krickstein, a finalist at the tournament last year, lost his opening-round match Wednesday night versus Jim Courier 6-1, 3-6, 10-6.
Owned and operated by InsideOut Sports & Entertainment, a company in which former world No. 1 Courier is a stakeholder, the Outback Champions Series is entering its fourth season and has grown to an eight-event tour -- Naples; Grand Cayman; Boston; Newport, R.I.; Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas; Surprise, Ariz.; and Dubai.
For Krickstein, who won nine career titles and reached the final of 10 others as a baseline battler, the beauty of this senior tour is that it provides a venue for players who are still aching to play without the cutthroat wrapping that naturally exists at ATP events.
"Speaking for myself and listening to the other guys, if it wasn't competitive and we didn't want to win, the tour wouldn't last," said Krickstein, who played his last ATP Tour-level match during a first-round loss at the Miami tournament in March 1996.
"I think what Jim [Courier] is trying to do is with the prize money make it mean something, not that the money is going to change any of our lives. I think it's important that the public know we're playing for something and trying to be in good shape. We're trying to compete hard and it matters to all of us whether we win or lose.
"I feel fortunate that there is a tour for me to play. It gives me a chance to stay in shape, play some matches where I normally wouldn't get to, and to be in front of people and entertain which is a nice feeling."
Although he still approaches the matches he plays as serious business, Krickstein says he no longer is consumed by defeats as if they are a matter of life-and-death.
"The losses certainly don't hurt as bad as they used to when we were on the regular tour, where we'd go crazy and want to hit serves or want to practice right after a match," Krickstein said. "I used to be devastated after I lost a match until I won my next one."
As someone who briefly worked away from tennis with his brother-in-law and then owned an aquarium business, Krickstein understands that having a constantly evolving list of high-profile names joining the Outback Champions Series is the key to the tour's ability to thrive. He said that Pete Sampras' arrival last season offered a big boost to the senior tour, which boasts a laundry list of former Grand Slam champions such as Courier, John McEnroe, Goran Ivanisevic, Mats Wilander, Michael Stich, Richard Krajicek, Pat Cash, Thomas Muster and Sergi Bruguera .
The self-effacing Krickstein, well aware that he only won one match in six against Sampras when on the tour, was hoping that Sampras would've added his name to the Naples event this week. He even humorously postured that maybe Sampras, who owns a record 14-time Grand Slam titles, might have avoided the possibility of facing him again in another match.
"The main thing the tour needs is to get new blood in every year," he said.
Krickstein jokingly added: "I think they like seeing [Jimmy] Arias and Krickstein occasionally, but they might want more. … For the tour to have success long-term you have to keep getting some big names that people can relate to and will bring the people out.
"For the tour to get Pete last year was huge -- marketability-wise, for people to get excited about it. Obviously, people wanted to watch him play and he wanted to play again. Maybe he was bored. There's only so long you can play golf."
Krickstein -- who lives with his wife, Bianca, and four-year-old daughter, Jade, in Boca Raton, where he has been the Director of Tennis at the tony St. Andrews Country Club the past seven years -- downplays his role as a top draw on the tour. Courier, on the other hand, said that spectators continue to ask to see the former teen prodigy in action, which makes him a valuable commodity to the Outback Series.
"Aaron is a fantastic player who the fans tend to gravitate towards," said Courier, who jokingly suggested that "maybe it's his boyish looks" that are the draw. "He's a consummate professional both on and off of the court. The Outback Champions Series events include a lot of interaction between the players and the corporate partners of the circuit and Aaron is terrific in the clinics, pro-am's and parties that all of the players attend at each event."
Having made his debut on the ATP Tour as a 16-year-old, Krickstein rewrote the history books at the time by becoming the youngest player to win a title, which he did at the now defunct Tel Aviv event. That victory came a month after he upset the late Vitas Gerulaitis to reach the fourth round at the 1983 U.S. Open, his first Grand Slam tournament. He considers the Gerulaitis victory one of the highlights of his career along with upsetting reigning Wimbledon champion Stefan Edberg in the fourth round of the 1988 U.S. Open.
But Krickstein's recollections of his most important career moments don't quite jibe with the most prevalent memory fans have of him. Tennis devotees usually think of Krickstein and conjure up an image of the 1991 U.S. Open match he lost. The scene was under the lights at Flushing Meadows versus Jimmy Connors -- who happened to also be celebrating his 39th birthday. Krickstein lost that fourth-round thriller 3-6, 7-6 (8), 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) -- he never beat Connors in seven matches against him.
"The one day everyone wants to hear about and talk about is the Jimmy Connors match," said Krickstein.
"People don't believe it, but I've actually never watched the match. If I had won that match you wouldn't have seen it on TV and people wouldn't be talking about it, I can tell you that. It was who I played, where I played him and that I lost -- factor all that in and it's a famous match."
These days Krickstein has actually become as famous for his connection to golf as much as for being a former tennis star. Top-flight LPGA player Morgan Pressel is his niece. Pressel is the daughter of Krickstein's late sister, Kathy, who succumbed to breast cancer at age 43.
Krickstein's father, Herb, a retired pathologist, orchestrated Pressel's golf career in the same way that he led his son to reach a career high No. 6 ranking.
"According to my dad, I never saw it, but he said he took Morgan on the tennis court when she was, maybe 7, and she didn't want to move," Krickstein said. "He just took her off the court and took her out on the golf course. He says she had a good swing right away; it was natural. So that was her last and only tennis lesson with my dad.
"Ironically, she is taking tennis lessons of all things," Krickstein added, laughing. "She told me that last week in Hawaii she took another tennis lesson and I said, 'Yeah, they must have a cute tennis pro.'"
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance sportswriter who spends much of her year covering tennis around the world.