Face of tennis holds court

FOR Jim Courier, January has long dawned with one certainty: he'll escape the chill of the northern winter and jet to Melbourne, resuming a conversation with Australia that began when he was just a few months past his 18th birthday.

''January anywhere but Australia would seem a little bit weird,'' he says, looking back on 24 years of summers that have made him a fixture on our televisions as a player and as one of the faces of Channel Seven's Australian Open commentary team.

Since his first visit in 1989, Courier estimates, he has missed perhaps two Januarys in Melbourne. ''It's freezing cold in New York right now.''

Melbourne has proved a happy hunting ground for Courier, the place where he won his first of four grand slam events (two of them Australian titles) and which he credits with having helped him build a thriving second career interpreting the sport he loves for television audiences.

It can be a tough gig at times. Courier acknowledges that when you're present in viewers' living rooms for 14 days and nights, you'll never please everybody.

As a player, he couldn't bear to listen to most tennis commentary.

''I think by and large players don't really like commentators because it's the commentator's job to critique. Speaking from my own experience, I just had to turn the volume down when I was watching tennis when I was a player because I would get too agitated when I heard people basically guessing what I or another player was thinking or feeling,'' he says.

''But I certainly understand it. I've never had any run-ins - or haven't had too many run-ins - with players disagreeing with my commentary or taking issue with it. But it's not unusual for that to happen. It's just the nature of the beast.'' Courier's most prominent role for Seven is as the official post-match, on-court interviewer, a job he finds the greatest challenge. He calls it a performance, ''live without a net''.

''I'd never done post-match interviews before I came to work for Channel Seven. It was a very unsettling thing to be asked to do … I'm a part-time commentator. I'm not a journalist; I don't pretend to be,'' he says.

''I've certainly made it my own style because it's the only style I have. I'm sure it irritates some, I'm sure it pleases some, but as long as they keep asking me to do it, it'll be my job and I'll do it. If it went away … put it this way, it's not the most enjoyable thing that I do when I work for Channel Seven. I much prefer the commentary.''

In that regard, he loves talking for Australian audiences. A veteran of booths in London, Paris and New York, Courier says producers have different expectations in each. For the Brits, ''a really sparse commentary''; for the Americans, ''a lot more chatter''. The Australian approach is ''somewhere in the middle'', he says, noting that local familiarity with the sport makes a difference. ''You don't have to dumb your commentary down to a novice. You can keep it fairly sophisticated without going overboard. Tennis is a big sport in Australia. It's much different doing the US Open for a US audience on network television.''

Next week Courier will pick up where he left off a year ago, when an astounding 2.4 million people sat up until 2am on a Monday for the epic men's final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. It was a match that highlighted the inevitable commentator's dilemma: when to let the drama speak for itself. ''You could watch that with no commentary and it would be a brilliant piece of television,'' Courier says.

That final showed why tennis is such a perfect television sport for delivering intense emotion to viewers.

''You can get very close with the cameras into the players' space and because there are only two athletes on the field, on camera up close a lot of the time, you really get to know the players, or at least you think you do,'' he says.

''Television is a very powerful medium for tennis players and it's so personality-driven, with someone such as Lleyton Hewitt or Roger Federer or Serena Williams - these players who are constantly on television. During the course of two weeks at the Australian Open, it really does feed into the public's consciousness.''

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