Photography by Jeff Gale | October 12, 2011 | People
Come All Ye Champions
In life, they are friends. On the court, they are ferocious competitors. On October 20, a match among giants heads to the United Center: Former world tennis champions John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier meet again. They’ll be competing for ranking points and a cut of $1 million in prize money in the Champions Series tennis tournament.
If it seems unusual that this tournament will be played in Chicago, it’s because there hasn’t been an event of this scale here since 1991, when the Volvo Tennis/Chicago tournament moved to Arizona after a seven-year run. Courier’s company, InsideOut Sports + Entertainment, created the 12-city tour, and he’s excited to be reunited with his former rivals. While it seems unthinkable that sworn enemies can evolve into the closest of friends, Courier says that they understand each other in a way no one else can. “We are a band of brothers,” he says. “The tennis world is a traveling circus, and we’re the performers.”
Tennis matches are legendary showdowns, and the ultimate rivalry—considered by many to be one of the all-time biggest in any sport—is the decades-old battle between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. Evenly matched as rivals, they met 14 times in tournament finals between 1978 and 1981, and each claimed victory seven times. Thirty years later, it’s still news—in June, HBO spotlighted their “war” in the special McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice, their nicknames based on McEnroe’s fiery outbursts and Borg’s cool demeanor.
Agassi and Courier’s and Borg and McEnroe’s semifinal matches—a clash of the tennis titans—will be the centerpiece of the Champions Series tournaments, and then the winners of each match will meet in the final. “I think anyone who knows me knows I play to win,” says McEnroe, who clearly hasn’t gone soft in retirement. “You want to put on a good show, obviously, but that includes hopefully winning.”
These days McEnroe says he and Borg talk regularly, although Borg lives in Stockholm and McEnroe in New York. “He was my greatest rival. We’re great friends, and certainly on the court we know what each other’s going to do. [In tournaments], it’s just sort of like you remember a little bit about the past and just have some fun, but you hope to show people you can still play.
The more than 20-year rivalry between Agassi and Courier—though perhaps not as celebrated as the Borg/McEnroe face-off—is just as explosive. They first met as teenagers when they were both students at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, where Borg also trained.
Agassi, who retired in 2006, says they first collided at the academy. “The system we lived under was designed to create tension,” he says. “It forced us to compete against each other.” Later, there was further cause for strain: “Nick Bollettieri began traveling with me exclusively, [and] Nick’s approval and attention was a valuable thing,” Agassi says. As their careers took off, “We battled each other to be number one in the world.”
Courier agrees that in many ways his career was defined by Agassi’s. “Andre and I were roommates for a spell at Bollettieri’s; we were competitors for Grand Slam titles and we were Davis Cup partners as well as teammates,” he says. “We’ve had an interesting road together. It has intersected a lot.”
Their parallel paths have continued into their retirements, first while Courier served as a commentator during Agassi’s final years as a professional tennis player, and now as they play as friendly competitors. According to Courier, after all this time “we’re able to put [the rivalries] in a healthier place.”
Agassi treasures their hardearned friendship. “Our post-tennis life has brought us close to each other in a way I wouldn’t have imagined as kids.”
Up Close and Personal with the Players
With 10,000-plus ticketed seats and a few dozen VIP experiences, the Chicago event is expected to be a sell-out. Among the offerings, the Player Clinic Experience will allow some fans to enjoy one-hour training blocks with two of the champions. “[They’ll] have that experience of feeling our serve coming at them,” says Courier. Guests can also buy tickets to the Player Backstage Experience, which Courier says is “really cool. You get to come backstage just before we go out to play... when the lights go down you’ll be walking out behind us onto the court when the dry ice goes up. It’s like walking onstage with the band.”
It’s been too long since tennis fans have been able to attend a tournament on our home turf, and Courier says this won’t be the last; he has plans in the works to make the Champion Series an annual event. “We’re coming back next year,” he promises.
ON AGASSI: Polo ($145), pants ($165) and boots ($650), John Varvatos. johnvarvatos.com
ON McENROE: Suit, Kiton ($7,900). kiton.it. Shirt, Burberry ($225). 540 N. Michigan Ave., 312-787-2500; burberry.
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