Courier down under Edberg? Not for long


MELBOURNE, Australia -- It was Australia Day, a celebration of the nation's birth, but it was an all-American celebration at the Australian Open after Jim Courier won the year's first Grand Slam tournament and stood poised to become the first U.S. man since John McEnroe in 1985 to be ranked No. 1 in the world.

Courier, currently ranked second, scored a decisive 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Stefan Edberg to leave him trailing the world's No. 1 player by only 20 points on the Association of Tennis Professionals computer.

A good showing at the next ATP event, in San Francisco in two weeks, would vault Courier to No. 1 if Edberg sticks to his current plan to skip San Francisco's competition.

With his victory yesterday, Courier became the first American man since Brian Teacher in 1980 to win the Australian Open. Courier celebrated by diving with his coach, Brad Stine, into the polluted Yarra River, which flows outside the Flinders Park Stadium.

"It was really dirty," Courier said of the river, where a swimming competition was held yesterday even though the Victorian Health Department announced that pollution levels were 18 times the acceptable limit. "Brad said to me after the quarterfinals, 'If you win this, I'm going to dive in the river.' I said I would follow right behind."

Courier was smiling and why not? He is 21 and has just won his second Grand Slam event, having reached the finals in the last three. He won the French Open in June, then made it to the U.S. Open final in September, where Edberg routed him in straight sets.

"I know Stefan has better days," said Courier, accepting his winner's trophy and a $270,000 check. "He's the type of champion I hope to be one day."

Courier sneaked through the draw with little notice, getting no attention from the local news media. He doesn't mind being anonymous, however, since this, his fifth tournament victory, punctuates a remarkable climb in the last year. He began last year at No. 25.

Should Courier overtake Edberg for the top ranking, he would be the third-youngest man to become No. 1, trailing by a few months McEnroe in 1980 and Borg in 1977.

Being No. 1 would please Courier, but, he said, "If the best I can do is to be No. 2 in the world, well, then that's not so bad. The more you worry about it, the bigger headache it is. Right now I'm just smelling the roses."

Courier relies heavily on a power game that employs a two-fisted backhand and a rocket forehand. Edberg, a serve-and-volley master, had trouble finding his groove except in the second set yesterday.

"Not to take anything away from Jim, but I told Stefan that that was the worst match I've ever seen him play," said Tony Pickard, Edberg's longtime coach. "Jim played well. He had a chance and took it. That's what professional sports is all about. The way he plays, he doesn't create it, but he's a fabulous counterpuncher."

Edberg's serves and volleys lacked luster, he mistimed many shots and he sporadically lost concentration throughout the 2-hour, 53-minute confrontation. And he was having problems with the balls, which he repeatedly told referee Peter Bellenger he thought were too soft and kept him from generating any power.

Edberg is a two-time Australian Open champion, but recent times here haven't been joyous. Last year, he lost a five-set semifinal to Ivan Lendl. And in 1990, he was forced to retire to Ivan Lendl midway through the final with a stomach muscle pull.

"It wasn't a good one today," said Edberg, playing in his first event since the Paris Indoors, last November, because of tendinitis in both knees and a wrist injury. "I've been in greater shape. I'm a little weary. It's been a long tournament and I was pushing myself through this one."

As for Courier, he cruised to the final without playing a seeded player. The highest-ranked opponent Courier faced was the 35th-ranked Thomas Muster in the third round. He never even played his semifinal match, as Richard Krajicek was forced to pull out with tendinitis of his shoulder.

Except for the second set, Courier's barrage of ground strokes and passing shots kept the 26-year-old Edberg at bay.

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