My role as Davis Cup captain adds to my credibility as the head of the national development effort. Young players are focused on the here and now; as familiar as the names Sampras, Evert, or Connors might be, they're names from the past. Kids don't connect any more immediately or naturally with them than they do with Willie Mays, Ronald Reagan, or B. B. King. But it probably helps when they see me high fiving with a James Blake, or huddling with Andy Roddick during a Davis Cup match.
I learned many valuable things growing up with and playing alongside and against John, but great training was not one of them. One time while I was still on the tour John asked to join Jared Palmer and me in one of our regular practice sessions. I told him we had an indoor court booked at 10 in the morning, and he said he'd come an hour later. That was fine, it would give Jared and me time to do our drills and get in a good hit.
John showed up a little on the early side, and stood watching us through the big glass window overlooking the courts. When he came down to play, he was shaking his head: "What the hell were you guys doing?"
He warmed up for five minutes, max, and suggested that we get it going. We took turns playing points, sometimes going two-on-one. After John had enough, he showered up, took up his place by the window again, and watched us doing various drills. Finally he came back down to the court and said, "Let's get out of here, man."
"What?" I said.
"This is the biggest waste of time."
"What do you mean?"
"Tell me, when are you ever gonna hit balls like that in a match?"
He was right, at least partially. You never play a match in which you assume that the next twenty balls you hit will all be crosscourt backhands. But John was like a genius of improvisational jazz denigrating musicians who spent a lot of time rehearsing published scores. And the art of drilling has changed, dramatically, in the span of a few years. I'd seen and learned things in Europe that I thought we in the U.S. could really incorporate into our plan to get back up to speed as a tennis power.
Jim Courier, one member of that golden Sampras generation, understood what I wanted to do, because he knew the man I had quietly sized up as the right person to lead the charge, Jose Higueras. Jim's decision to hire Higueras as his coach early in his career was prescient. It came about almost by accident, when Jim realized that he couldn't get the support he needed from his coach at the time, Nick Bollettieri. Nick was too wrapped up in another of his protégés, Andre Agassi.
The wisdom of Jim's decision was manifest in the French Open final of 1991. Andre was the odds-on favorite to win Roland Garros; he had beaten Jim en route to the final the previous year, which Andre then lost in a shocking upset to thirty-year-old veteran Andrés Gómez of Ecuador, a first-time Grand Slam finalist.