Tennis stars put on show for Dallas area

Swede Thomas Enqvist returns a ball to Aaron Krickstein Friday night during the Stanford Championships held at the Turpin Tennis Center. (Casey Lee)

Hidden behind helmets and often appearing no larger than ants on the court, the majority of fans never experience the opportunity to interact with some of the greatest athletes in the world on a personal basis.

However, as some of the most prestigious names in men’s tennis took to the court at the Stanford Champions Series, fans found themselves sitting courtside to some of their favorite athletes.

For example, you would never see an NFL star or NBA hotshot hand the ball over to a young ball boy on the sideline and let him play out one point as Jimmy Arias did in his downfall to Aaron Krickstein on Saturday afternoon.

“When you’re watching a sporting event and get pulled into the action by one of the athletes I think it makes you even more interested,” said crowd favorite Jim Courier. “Ultimately you want your fans to be interested in what they’re seeing and I think interacting with them added a little personal touch.

Part of the eight tournaments included in the Outback Champions Series, Courier and Arias were on the Southern Methodist University campus along with American tennis legends Aaron Krickstein, Justin Gimelstob and Todd Martin and foreign greats Thomas Enqvist, Karel Novacek and defending series champion Wayne Ferreira.

Held on the brand-new SMU Turpin Tennis Center courts, the new facility hosted it’s first national tournament after construction wrapped up last spring.

Dating back to 2005, the Outback Champions Series consistently hosts the eight best names in men’s tennis from the past 25 years.

In order to be eligible for the series, players must have reached at least one major singles final, and achieved a top five ranking in the world or played singles on a championship Davis Cup Team and be over the age of 30.

Courier sealed his third win off 2008 and sixth win in the Outback Champions Series after defeating Thomas Enqvist in a 3-6, 6-4 and 10-8 tiebreaker in the Champions Match on Sunday afternoon.

“It may not have been easy, but it’s a win,” said Courier. “If you’re A game isn’t working you have to find another way and that’s what I did today. The thing about this sport is you just have to better than the other guy and I was just hanging on there by my fingernails.”

The player known for his inside-out forehand dominated all four of his matches, including a first night 6-3, 6-1 match point over Karel Novacek. Courier’s second win came in a tiebreaker win over Justin Gimelstob on Friday evening. Win number three in the round-robin play format resulted in a 6-2, 4-6 1-9 tie-breaker win against Ferriera on Saturday, along with a doubles exhibition paired with Anna Kournikova.

“If I take myself out of playing and think about what the crowd saw, I think they saw some really good tennis,” said Courier.

The current leader with a total of 3,800 points received $54,000 in prize money for his first place win and undefeated record, along with the bonus prize of $100,000 to the overall winner. With three series remaining in the tournament, Martin has one win, Courier has two wins and John McEnroe has one. The next tournament will be in Surprise, Arizona on November 5-9.

The former No.1 singles player in the world, Courier and Gimelstob relied on the crowd for energy during the 19-point tiebreaker. Feeding off the crowd’s exuberance, Gimelstob even altered the scoreboard in his favor when Courier started to pull ahead.

While Courier admits he was always the one to break the rules, he was quoted as saying, “I was never a great student, but I was a great student at tennis.”

Turing pro at the age of 18, Courier decided to go forgo college and continue playing tennis instead. Reminiscing on his days of trying to decide between college and tennis, Courier at one point did contemplate becoming a Mustang.

“The coach at the time I came to visit the campus, the [tennis] coach was very well respected, as the one now is,” explained Courier. “If I hadn’t chosen to go professional I would have come to school here.”

Courier’s natural talent to the sport served him well as he quickly became one of the most well-respected names in tennis after winning 29 career titles – 23 of which came in singles. In 1991, Courier defeated Andre Agassi at the French Open, opening the door to ATP Tour player of the year honors in 1992.

Upon retiring, Courier continued playing tennis, and even became the creator of the Outback Champions Series. While winning is still a top priority to each athlete, the men have taken a new appreciation to being able to come together and put on a show for the crowd.

“Now we’re in place where we love to compete. I love to win; I’m not here to finish in second place. But I’m not going to wake up if have a bad loss I’m certainly not going to carry it with me,” said Courier.

Pioneering the Stanford Series, Courier’s main focus now is getting children involved in the sport. The crowd favorite, Courier was seen interacting with opponents and fans alike, keeping the matches serious but entertaining.

“What it is for us is a wonderful combination now where we’ll play hard when the ball is in the air, but we also feel comfortable enough in our own skin to where to be able to communicate with the crowd and other players,” explained Courier. “It’s one of those things that when you mature in life you put things in the proper perspective you can maybe take things too personally.”

Coming in at second was Enqvist, the female’s favorite, as Kournikova was to the men. Pulling off his first win of the tournament in a 6-3 and 6-2 set over Jimmy Arias, Enqvist went on to also crush Krickstein 6-1 in both sets on Friday night.

While the power server from Monte Carlo, Monaco defeated Courier 6-3 in the first set, he surrendered the second set and tie breaker in a valiant effort to pull off his first championship win in the tournament.

“I think I was just too amateur,” said Enqvist. “[Courier’s] probably one of the toughest competitors we have in the game. It’s not the first time he pulled off this kind of victory. He always stays in the game and tries to find a way to win it. That’s one of his biggest strengths. I think I played well though, and it was fun.”

Posting a perfect 3-0 in Dallas, Enqvist never faltered in his way to the championship match. One of the more reserved players on the court, Enqvist was the only player to never be heard blaming himself for a missed shot or poor serve.

“I haven’t showed any big emotions, like throwing a racket,” joked Enqvist. “You’re out there for different reasons now. However, sharing the will to win of every players out there, Enqvist did say that while he wants to have a good time all the players are very good and he will definitely have to play very well to win.

“It’s all good players here,” said Enqvist following his Saturday night win over Todd Martin. “You never really know what to expect when you’re going out there. You just have fun. You have to play really relaxed, and you don’t put very much pressure on yourself. You miss it, and it’s fun to get the adrenaline again.”

One of the youngest players in Dallas for the event, 34 year-old Enqvist, was the No.1 Junior in the world at 17 years old. With a child of his own, Enqvist hopes to inspire and give back to the kids what his mentors provided him to as he matured.

“I think it’s always important for the young kids to have people to give back to them and hopefully we can get some of those young kids to play tennis.

As Wayne Ferreira and Aaron Krickstein battled it out for third place, the Florida native, Krickstein, came away with the third place title after defeating Ferreira 6-2 in the first set and 6-4 in the second match.

“I lost my concentration a bit and was kind of trying to feel it out,” explained Krickstein. “Wayne was making a few mistakes and I think was putting some pressure on him hitting it pretty deep and I think that went to my advantage. I got a break here and there and once I got the break back I felt pretty good about my chances.”

Krickstein started off strong, defeating Todd Martin on the first night 7-6, followed by a loss to second place finisher Thomas Enqvist on Friday. Krickstein sealed a spot on the third place match in a 6-1 first match and 6-1 second match victory over Arias on Saturday evening.

“I’m getting closer [to winning], but I still haven’t reached the pinnacle yet,” said Krickstein. “The court was the fastest court we played on this tour, but it certainly wasn’t bad for me with my back swing. The facilities were great and it was great having the crowd out here.”

Wayne Ferreira, the world record holder with 56 Grand Slam appearances in a row, racked up two wins in the five-day series, his first one in a 6-2, 7-6 match over Justin Gimelstob on Thursday night. The first South African to ever finish in the Top 10 in consecutive years in the history of the Association of Tennis Professionals Rankings defeated Justin Gimelstob in his first round-robin match of the tournament in a 6-2, 7-6 (4) win.

“The tennis level is still pretty high but everyone is having fun while doing it,” said Ferreira. “I think the most important thing is to have fun and enjoy yourself but obviously to play well.”

With so many high school and youth programs packing the bleachers, Ferreira made it a point to involve the crowd as much as he could in each of his matches.

“I think the thing that you lose the perspective of when you’re younger is you take it too seriously. I think people need to realize, or try and learn at a very young age, that you can play the game at a very high level but enjoy yourself. I realized that later in my career and wish I had learned it earlier.”

The former No.1 doubles player in the world and fan favorite among the men, Anna Kournikova, was on site Saturday to participate in two mixed doubles exhibition matches along with paired SMU graduate student Tara Snyder and Luis Herrera and Courier and Enqvist.

With temperatures reaching the upper 70’s, fans from all over the Dallas area packed into the temporarily modified 2,200 stadium-seat Turpin Tennis Center to witness the blonde bombshell participate in an exhibition double match with the men of the tournament.

“Here you come out and try to play your best tennis, and you want to give the public a great match,” said Kournikova. “Enqvist was a really, really nice guy. He’s too nice.”

More focused on entertaining the crowd than announcing a winner, announcer Wayne Bryant took it upon himself to joke with Kournikova and bash Courier as the duo played against Snyder and Ferreira.

“[Wayne Bryant] is what a real true tennis enthusiast looks like,” explained Kournikova. “The crowd is awesome. We had a great turn out. I actually just got really tired from laughing during the match.”

Having played with Courier on many occasions, the pair already had the experience and chemistry needed to win the exhibition match. All jokes aside, the pair almost fell to Ferriera and Snyder, but with the help of Courier’s strong serves and Kournikova’s sharp reflexes, the pair pulled off a 7-5 win on Saturday.

“I’ve played with Jim many time before, and I think it was my first time playing with Wayne so that was really cool,” said Kournikova. “Wayne’s an amazing doubles players. It was really great it was a great experience, Jim really knows how to run these events so he’s great to play with.”

SMU students came out on Saturday to watch Kournikova and some of their other favorite tennis stars. Many being former or current players themselves, the students all expressed the same enthusiasm in seeing some of their idols play on campus.

“This is the first tournament that I’ve been privileged enough to be 15 feet away watching Legends like Jim Courier and Todd Martin play incredibly intense tennis,” said senior Ryan Conlin.

A competitive tennis player for eight years and SMU summer tennis camp counselor for six, Conlin was one of the many fans given the opportunity to meet some of the players after their matches.

“Getting a picture with “The Jim Courier” after his Saturday match was such a trip!” said Conlin. “[I] can’t wait till this tournament happens again!”

Many fans were expecting Boris Becker to play, but a back injury prevented the 1991 No.1 player in the world from traveling to Dallas. Replaced by the youngest player in the Stanford Champions Series Justin Gimelstob at the last minute, fans still got to see some amazing matches.

“I originally wanted to see Becker play and was a little disappointed when he dropped out, but it’s still been incredible,” said Conlin. “The match last night with Courier and Gimelstob was great. I want to come back every year.”

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