Sunday, 27 December 2009

Being Open about ‘Open’: The Summer of Revenge

[You are reading the seventh in a series on Andre Agassi's 'Open'. Click here to start at the very beginning]

I didn’t mention the Agassi/Becker ‘rivalry’ in my last post.

Maybe that’s because I don’t think that’s quite the right word to use (and because I think it deserves it’s own post).


Besides, referring to your opponent with phrases more laden with expletives than they are with anything else, is crossing into hatred pure and simple.

Not that Agassi wouldn’t have believed he had good reason to.

Jumping back to Wimbledon 1995 for the moment, Agassi’s playing Becker and not having a good time of it. To make matters worse he’s spotted a tanner-than-tanned “prime rib coloured” Bollettieri in Becker’s box, whom Boris has recently begun working with.

Andre snaps and loses the match.

I’m guessing it’s the presence of Nick together with a bad experience he once had playing Becker in a Davis Cup match held in Munich, that conspire together to push Agassi over the edge.

Sure, Becker rubs him up the wrong way, but “the most devastating loss of his life”?

And that’s before he’s even heard of what Becker had to say about him in the post match presser.

Becker took umbrage at the propensity of the major events to, as he put it, “kiss his [Agassi’s] ass”, to bend over backwards for him , and to go out of their way to schedule his matches on Centre Court (or it’s equivalent).

He then went on a tirade about how Agassi was “elitist”, and how he didn’t associate with other players.

This is not the first time I’ve heard of sentiments similar to those Becker aired in relation to the way tournaments afford top tier players certain privileges.

I’ve heard of the very same objections being raised in relation to Federer and Nadal. The women’s tour is however, a different story. Take it from Jelena.

I don’t always agree with it, but like any other business staging big events, tournament directors rely on “bums on seats” - that most lauded of metrics, that economist's tax efficient wet dream.

Federer, Nadal and Andre (during his time) were and are box office material – the quickest and most assured means of ensuring the right quota of bums.

Not everyone will be happy with this, but Becker perhaps represents the sentiment at it’s most extreme.

Whatever you might say about Becker’s pop at tournament organisers, that second tirade on how Agassi was perceived in the locker room was clearly personal, and suggests that not only has he no compunction about which way he’s rubbing Agassi, but that rubbing him is rather the point of the exercise.

Anyway the offending quotes are quickly brought to Agassi’s attention by a fuming Brad Gilbert who demands Agassi “take this f****r out”. Those aren’t incidentally, the only expletives he uses.

But he also calls Becker "B.B .Socrates" because he “tries come off as an intellectual” – when in fact he’s “just an overgrown farm boy”.

People usually use expletives for emphasis, especially when they suffer from a limited vocabulary (not suggesting Brad does), but I forgot’n forgave all of Brad’s worst verbal malfunctions in an instant, after hearing that priceless gem of a moniker.

Thus, post-Wimbledon 1995 quickly turned into “The Summer of Revenge”.

Gilbert has his share of critics, and other coaches may have handled the entire affair very differently, but he almost makes you feel that it’s his own integrity that’s come under fire.

This appears to be exactly the kind of response his charge needs to get fired up.

It takes a particularly astute coach to recognise quite what their charge needs to function effectively, and to then reconcile that with what they’ll respond favourably to; and an even more courageous one to then pass over a distilled version of that wisdom to them during their most painful moments of crisis.

Any coach that can come close to seemingly perfecting this most imperfect of art forms is truly indispensable. Maybe that’s what Brad came close to being for Andre during those troubled years.

Boris and Andre meet up again in the semis of Flushing that year. Agassi has (with Brad’s assistance) been blindly focused on reaching this point. It’s clear that winning this single match matters more than winning the entire tournament itself, and Andre refers to his opponents en route to it, as “mere road cones”.

Waiting in the tunnel to enter on to Arthur Ashe, Agassi ensures security obscures his vision of Becker, “I don't want this f***ing German in my sight”.

Not just a moment of anger, its ALL about anger, and Agassi is religious in ensuring it doesn’t spill over prematurely.

Agassi goes two sets up before Becker would carry out the tennis equivalent of throwing a handful of sand into his opponents eyes, by blowing kisses to Brooke in Agassi’s box.

Agassi takes the bait and drops the next set.

He rescues himself with a tip that seems gleaned straight from Nick Bollettieri’s Hustlers Handbook: that Becker, for a split second before coming over on to his serve, sticks his tongue out in the direction he intends to strike it.

Genius, only I was under the impression that bit of trivia had been in the public domain since the early nineties.

I may have my timeline a little tangled, but I even remember commentators of that period having a rather cruel joke about it at Becker’s expense.

Whatever the case, it enabled Agassi to gain a near perfect read on his serve, position himself with all the time in the world, and send a winner screaming past Becker – though less loudly than the primeval one emitted by Agassi himself.

Agassi claims he would never strike a ball as cleanly and perfectly as this ever again. Sobering thought.

If this was a Hollywood movie, the tagline would be “There will be blood”.

Agassi obliges us not with blood, but by keeping Becker waiting at the net and with the perfunctory handshake that ends with Agassi snatching his hand back.

Agassi put all his energy into winning this match and was unable to follow up against Sampras in the final, which puts him into what he describes as a “bottomless gloom”.

His aversion to losing was now almost assuming a bipolar tendency.


Friday, 25 December 2009

Being Open about ‘Open’: Into the Eye of the Storm

[You are reading the sixth in a series on Andre Agassi's 'Open'. Click here to start at the very beginning]

1995 is nothing if not eventful.

It’s also a time where the rather separate but parallel war Agassi’s waging both in search of his true identity, and in spite of his “assumed identity”, comes to a head.

To begin with, he follows up on Flushing in some style by winning the Aussie Open with what many describe as his best Slam performance yet, taking out Sampras in the final – Agassi (encouraged by Brooke to shave his head) prefers to remember it as his “Bald Slam”.


The shedding of his locks no doubt liberating, but not the monumental gear shift you might believe it to be, and still leaving him uncertain of who the guy staring back at him from the mirror really is. "Not me but maybe I'll have an easier time being this guy"

Soon afterwards he acquires the #1 ranking, an achievement that should warm his very soul, but instead leaves him stone cold; having never actively sought it, that’s perhaps not the greatest of surprises, but the sense of vacancy that engulfs him, hints to something more.

Agassi appears to be undergoing what can only be described as a form of Tennis Nihilism. He would win Cincinnati a year later having entered the event expecting nothing and with his head all but in a funk – only adding to his implacable sense of ambivalence, that this tennis racket (pardon the pun) is “all a joke”.

Having seemingly achieved everything he set out to do, and still feeling like he’s come up short, he even sets himself the personal goal of winning the French Open (and thereby a Career Slam) in a desperate effort at bringing about some meaning and order to his increasingly chaotic existence. A torn hip flexor soon puts paid to that.

I couldn’t but help imagining however, what might have been had fate not struck in the way it did. Suppose for the moment that he did win Roland Garros that year and achieve the career Slam only three years after winning his first.

Would such a personal victory really have given him the sense of order and equilibrium he so desperately sought?

Maybe for the short term.

Would a more anchored Andre Agassi have emerged, one with more vision and a sounder understanding of life and it’s artefacts that surrounded him, and of his place within it?

I personally think not; if ‘Open’ tells us anything, it’s that Agassi’s existential issues were not likely to be resolved by anything as trivial as winning a tennis match.

I prefer to view this as pandering to the short term need of wanting to win in order to avoid facing up to his hatred of losing – which somewhat paradoxically is what keeps him trapped in an existence within which he’s unable to truly engage with the sport on his own terms.

Would he still have unravelled and plummeted as violently as he did not two years later?

Would his relationship with Brooke have traversed a less rocky path, or would anchored-Andre have called an end to it sooner instead of clutching on to it in a devoted bid at averting the latest in a spate of ill-fated two-year relationships?

Would he still have taken up Slim’s offer to ‘powder his nose’?

Again, I actually feel that hitting rock bottom as he did in 1997 might paradoxically have better served his longer term interests.

Had he won RG it might have cushioned the fall; but might it also have given rise to a false dawn of security? When in fact the tangled spiritual mess he found himself in 1997 was anything but.


Though there are no fractures evident in the early stages of their relationship, it’s clear that Brooke and Andre are not always on the same page, and that being the case, it’s not difficult to imagine their respective metaphysical visions of life being poles apart.

Such an occasion presents itself when Agassi helps out Frankie, the owner of a restaurant introduced to him by Brooke, by presenting him with a nest egg of Nike stock he can in the years to come, use to help with tuition fees for his young children.


‘Open’ presents this as a profoundly moving experience for Agassi,one that leaves him feeling “more connected and alive than anything else that happens in 1996”. Not exactly the subtlest nod towards the philanthropy that would one day be his calling, but a pivotal moment nonetheless.

Brooke’s indifferent reaction is not the first sign that they’re not communicating well. “Just as I start to enjoy something she casts it aside”.

They buy a house together which Agassi describes as “sterile” - “the ideal house for a couple that plan to spend lots of time in different rooms”

When you’re drowning in such a congealed and messy existential soup it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.

Agassi claims he didn’t want to marry, but reconciles himself to his disordered state by noting that what he wanted was never a “good index” on life, and goes through with a shaky proposal that is as ill thought out as it is uncertain.

All that’s missing from this account of the relationship in it’s early stages is Brooke’s own take on things.

And that’s fine – this is Agassi’s stream of consciousness gushing through our airways after all.

I haven’t yet reached the moments of post-marital discord, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that her own stream of consciousness, ran at cross purposes to Andre’s (much like their careers), like some wormhole into a very different reality.


I know I said I only partially expected it, but ‘Open’ would be glaringly incomplete and open to criticism if Mike Agassi’s image as the ‘Big, Bad Daddy-Wolf’ of tennis wasn’t tempered somewhat.

There’s nothing to ‘put right’ of course, no ‘records to be set straight’ - Mike Agassi is what he is, and as Agassi himself observes, “my father is nothing if not consistent”.


But he’s also a person, one that may be unpalatable to many of us, but probably also one that’s several orders more complex than fits comfortably into the tapestry of Andre Fandom.

Such moments need to be handled delicately, without diminishing the significance of formative life experiences, but also without being weighed down with unnecessarily overt sentimentality.

On the whole, the brisk pace of the book ensures that brushes with melodrama are kept to an absolute minimum.

We hear of the moment when Andre phoned Mike right after winning his first Slam at Wimbledon: Mike’s unable to speak (emotions are not his forte). Then there’s the very vulnerable image of Mike undergoing open heart surgery hooked up via tubes to a machine Andre likens to “the dragon” – yet still stubbornly urging Agassi (via a pad and paper) to pound Sampras’ backhand.

A tad sentimental certainly, but also quintessentially Mike.

There’s even a sense of coming full circle when Agassi wins Gold at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, an achievement Mike describes as Agassi managing “ to reclaim something taken from him [Mike] years ago" (Mike represented Iran as a Boxer in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics)

Again, clearly a moment laden with emotional energy, but also an unquestionably honest one.

Whatever else Agassi might be trying to achieve here with his very ‘Open’ confessions, and tales of smoke-belching dragons, this is at it’s heart still a tale about overcoming the odds.

Instead of boring us with dull platitudes of rags-to-riches, we hear of the rather more richer, complex struggle for survival in the eye of the storm, after being forcibly thrust into it.

I like it that Andre found it appropriate to highlight something about his father that he learned to appreciate. You could argue that Mike risked untold damage to young Andre, and we may continue to raise strong objections about his ambition. But it would have been remiss of Agassi not to have treated this side of Mike with the same brand of emotional honesty we see present throughout the rest of the book.

In one of ‘Open’s’ many candid moments, Agassi (seeing his father in hospital) speaks of “an overpowering urge to forgive”.

“My father is what he is, and always will be, and though he can’t help himself, though he can't tell the difference between loving me and loving tennis, it’s love all the same. Few of us are granted the grace to know ourselves, and until we do, maybe the best we can do is be consistent. My father is nothing if not consistent."

-- ‘Open’ An Autobiography


Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Being Open about ‘Open’: Team Agassi

[You are reading the fifth in a series on Andre Agassi's 'Open'. Click here to start at the very beginning]

I’m in the last third of the book now, and I love it’s pace.

Match granularity is sufficiently detailed, without getting stifling or turgid.

Significant events are recounted, with the emotional responses noted without dwelling unnecessarily for effect; there seems at times a conscious effort being made to ensure nothing affects the tempo and flow of the narrative.

If I have but one criticism, it’s that it occasionally borders on being too clinical.

Emotions are messy, and the events that provoke them are usually overwrought affairs that often involve getting more than just your hands dirty.

I actually think that ‘Open’ got the balance right for the most part – any ‘kinkier’ though, and we’d be back in Raymond Chandler territory.

You might have expected Agassi to emerge from winning his first Slam a more focused, confident figure – and to a large extent this is true.

Concerns about win/loss relativism aside, the team was beginning to take shape.

Another turning point.

The team also suffered two, not entirely unexpected casualties: Wendy, Agassi’s two year girlfriend, with whom he somewhat appropriately shares what she describes as an ‘Open’ relationship (which basically means he’s allowed to have a thing for Steffi Graf’s legs) , announces her intention to call it quits, and the need to “discover herself”. Understandable enough, given that Agassi himself is embroiled in the same struggle.

The other loss, Bollettieri, is perhaps more expected; though the way in which the news is delivered is anything but. Agassi ends up reading about it in the Press.

Bollettieri seems to be taking what Agassi heaps upon him, on the chin.

Bollettieri said that was "one of the biggest mistakes" he has made, adding that "I should have gotten on a plane."

"Andre is right — I didn't know my ass from my elbow," said Bollettieri, a failed paratrooper who dropped out of law school and only started playing tennis in high school. "But I knew people. You don't make the record I have without knowing something."

Bollettieri took umbrage at the characterization that he feeds off his players' success, saying he never made a penny from the likes of Jim Courier and Monica Seles, who like Agassi were on scholarship at his Florida academy.

"I wish I had all the money Andre made," he continued, adding, "I don't have to defend myself. I think Andre has to defend himself now."

(USA Today)

Much of it on the chin, I should say. And I still have a hard time with those that take exception at him making money from what is after all, a business.


Step in Brook n’ Brad.

Brook first.

Andre is introduced to Brook by the spouse of a friend, and the match up seems destined given Perry predicted the pairing many years back.

The two initially communicate via faxes, as she is in the middle of filming somewhere in Africa.

Although the medium is impersonal, the two quickly move from “flirting” to “fondness” to “intimacy”.

The trend continues when they meet in person, though Agassi describes the interplay as more nuanced, with “subtext” with “body language”.

They even share a fondness for “Shadowlands”, you know, that film where Anthony Hopkins plays C.S. Lewis, the stuffy but brilliant Oxford Don, and as the film would have you believe, with the emotional intelligence of a Dormouse, until Debra Winger’s Joyce Gresham puts him right.

You might find this section difficult to deal with given what we know about how ill-fated the match up was, but it’s all very innocent and honest; we might all recognise the starry-eyed, euphoric interchanges of a relationship in it’s infancy.

The other addition is Brad Gilbert with whom Agassi is already familiar, having played him so many times, the recent author of “Winning Ugly”, which tells you all you need to know about his playing style, and whom Agassi terms “the consummate overachiever” to Agassi’s “classic underachiever”.

Brad is taken on after giving a straight-talkin’ critique of Agassi’s game which essentially amounts to the need for Agassi to strive for, and be more content with, less perfection in his game.

He puts forth his philosophy on tennis using colourful, almost Bruce Lee like expressions such as, “be like gravity”, and tapping into Andre’s Vegas connection “the house always wins, be the house”.

It’s difficult to discern how much of Brad’s evangelism Agassi actually agreed with – I personally think he was drawn more to his personality and straight talk – the tennis equivalent of what Perry and JP were doing for his heart and soul.

I’m also unsure of just how conservative the post-Brad Agassi was in comparison to the one that won Wimbledon. Agassi was one of the best shotmakers that’s ever lived – and though he may have striven for too much, there was always a sense of urgency about his tennis, an urgency that I don’t believe went away post-Brad.

Whatever the case, the partnership obviously worked – though not straight away - “Good things are about to happen”, Brad assures him gently over a run of losses during 1994.

Good things happened that year in Flushing when it all came together and Agassi took the title - the last unseeded men’s champion was Frank Shields in 1966, grandfather to the lady sitting in Andre’s box.


Sunday, 20 December 2009

Being Open about ‘Open’: Bad Hair Days and Win/Loss Relativism

[You are reading the fourth in a series on Andre Agassi's 'Open'. Click here to start at the very beginning]

JP’s pep talks prove invaluable, pointing out in particular that the angry voices raging in Agassi’s head are his fathers, not God’s. God’s not nearly that hard on you. Andre is nearly hypnotized; it’s as if someone has spontaneously instilled reason and coherence in the latent anguish that has until this day remained largely misunderstood.

I’m not sure how interested in God a young Agassi really was (seems more like a life coaching set up to me), but the unpretentious voice of reason clearly struck a chord.

However it wasn’t until the appointment of one Gil Reyes as his fitness coach, that he began to make the finals of Slams.

Agassi was having fitness issues: possessing all the talent in the world would be of no benefit at all if you were unable to stay the course and knock your opponent out. It’d happened once too often and it was time to make a change.

He was clearly in awe of Gil from the moment he set eyes on him at the University of Las Vegas (probably as much to do with his imposing stature as it did with anything else), preferring instead to send in Pat (his trainer at the time) to do the negotiating.

You can never truly hope to understand the innermost workings of someone’s mind, an unfathomable sanctum shaped by memories and experiences of past and present; but Agassi seemed hungry, ravenous even, for the kind of stability afforded to him by these mentor–cum-father figure types: the type of role JP specifically insisted he was not interested in providing, the type of support Agassi would likely never have actively sought from Mike.

Perhaps more tellingly though, the kind of support he appeared not to be receiving from Nick, his coach at the time.

Agassi first encountered Sampras professionally at Rome in 1989. What he saw didn’t impress him much. His backhand appeared to have been “tinkered with”, and not in a good way. It was single handed, “which was new” (?).

He was also shockingly inconsistent. Agassi went on to routine him in straights, feeling bad at the time for a guy he thought of as “a good soul”, but not one he expected to see very much on tour.

Fast forward to Flushing 1990.

Agassi entered the event with a confidence he’d likely never felt before.

He’d spent the year working with Gil, packing on pounds of muscle, and all his fitness complaints were seemingly behind him.

He had also resolved all his hairpiece issues of Roland Garros (the night before the final an unfortunate incident with hotel conditioner had left him relying on bobby pins to keep it in place) with the simple ploy of not having one. He would now sport a “thicker headband with brightly coloured highlights”.

Nothing was about to stop him now.

His opponent in the final was Pete Sampras, but not the one he knew. Gone were the inconsistencies and shoddiness and in it’s place a resolute focus, a B-52 first serve and a backhand that sang.

Agassi lost, and the experience must have left him only a little less disillusioned than when he was floundering away matches and not knowing what to change.

Now that he’d changed everything under his control, he’d still come out second best.

Sampras was the better man on the day, and for a clear-thinking Andre that would probably have been the end of it. I somehow suspect though, that the experience affected Agassi more than he lets on in writing: that a guy that had taken to burning things in hotel rooms in order to cope with periods of heightened stress, would need more than just a friendly pep talk to see him right.

Fast forward two years.

It’s 1992, and he finds himself in the final of Wimbledon facing Goran Ivanisevic.

It’s been a see saw affair, and Goran is serving 4-5 down in the final set.

We all know what happened, but I think it’s telling how differently Agassi approached those last few fateful points.

He’s keen not to repeat the mistakes that have cost him two Slam finals, preferring instead to swing and miss rather than wait for Goran to make the mistake. There then follows a collection of his thoughts on how no one else knows better than him “what coming apart looks like”, which Goran seems to be doing right about now.

I understand what he means, and it is but a phrase, but I simply don’t think he’s any more uniquely qualified to elaborate on the agonies of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory than Goran or anyone else – that unfortunately, is something most players learn to live with -- something akin to the loneliness of the long-distance runner –- not even unique to our sport.

The funny thing about this final was I was always a bigger fan of Goran’s than of Agassi – who seemed an agreeable enough chap, but who made it difficult to invest oneself too heavily in.

It wasn’t that I thought of him as the “punkrocker” the tabloids would have you believe he was - there just seemed to be too much happening in his life off-court; and though Agassi conquered his fears (and apparently his hair issues), the abiding image of a tired but still very fresh faced Goran consoling the tearful Agassi is the one that’s remained with me ever since.

“Congratulations Wimbledon Champ, you deserved it today”

Knowing what I know now though, with all the internal conflict Agassi had to overcome to reach this point, certainly puts a different complexion on things.

I confess I even had another look at a youtube clip of those last couple of points of that final with the thoughts that I now know were racing through Agassi’s mind, still fresh in my mind.

With a Slam finally under his belt come the accolades and a retraction of the “punkrocker” image for whom “image is everything”. Andre’s the real deal.

But with it comes another more unsettling realisation, that only a select few are privy to: Winning doesn’t feel as good as losing feels bad.

Why does that not surprise me?

Knowing what I know about his relationship with tennis, and the way he’s built, my thesis on his dislike of losing subsuming his hatred of tennis is taking shape.

I also stand by what I said a moment ago about Agassi’s experiences with defeat not being unique to him. Tthey do however uniquely qualify him to talk about his own reaction to the losses, which I suspect would probably be different to those of Sampras or Lendl.

And it’s the same with victory – it may not have been the case with Andre, but I strongly suspect there’s a sizeable proportion of players for whom winning is a more intensely felt moment of euphoria than the agonies suffered after a loss.


Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Being Open about ‘Open’: ‘Lord of the Flies’ (with Forehands) and Teen Angst

[You are reading the third in a series on Andre Agassi's 'Open'. Click here to start at the very beginning]

I had my opinions on Bollettieri’s Academy prior to reading ‘Open’, and though the IMG monolith has obviously moved on from the “glorified prison camp” in the 80s that Agassi speaks of, my initial impressions weren’t far off the mark.

Just for the record, no I don’t always appreciate the “factory farmed” approach to tennis development, that I feel has in some cases, stunted it’s growth.

You even see it’s effects here in the UK, with a new-age regimented emphasis on ‘drills’, and kids being taught to hit two handed backhands, before they’ve even become familiar with the weight and dynamics of a racquet as it travels through the air.

Sure, I’m a biased, stuffy single hander – what else would I say?

But it’s not so much the choice of playing with two hands, one hand or no hands that gets up my nose, it’s the stifling of creativity.

Everyone’s built differently and – provided of course they have some kind of innate ball sense – will, left to they’re own devices settle into the natural rhythms of what works for them.

Sure, they still need to be coached on what they’re clearly doing wrong, and more often than not, it’s still the coach that knows best.

But that’s an altogether different proposition than taking on a kid and getting them to fit a preordained mould of whatever latest straitjacket the trend setters are insisting you need to wear.

All that being said, it’s also true that tennis is now, wholly baseline centric, and has been moving in that direction since the late 90s.

That’s just natural evolution taking place.

I have no time for grumpy bedwetters that continue to bemoan the loss of serve and volley according to some distant, cherished and idealised notion of how the game ought to be played, that is neither practical nor always desirable.

With the levels of fitness and shotmaking that an increased nutritional emphasis, souped-up fitness regimes and enhanced equipment technology have made possible, is it any wonder more and more rallies are played at an unimaginable pace from the baseline?

Give the Incredible Hulk a Light Sabre, and he’ll likely saw you in half with about as much thought and subtlety as Robin Soderling’s forehand – what you probably won’t see him do is dart around artfully like some fleet-footed, French Fencer.

And THATS OK. We have plenty of examples of artfully constructed points played from the back of the court, and it's not as if serve-volley was always the enriching experience it's made out to be.

Whatever else you might think about Bollettieri, there’s no denying that he was quick to capitalise on this trend, and is clearly doing something right with the amount of Champions he’s churned out over the years.

Tommy Haas, one of my favourite players for the precise reason that he does have a more varied game, is also ex-Bollettieri.

My objection was, and remains however, that not everyone plays like Andre Agassi.

In Agassi, Nick was receiving a talent custom built for the baseline; one that had already been primed to hit the ball early like no one else in history. By a smoke-belching dragon, of all things.

That’s talent, together with an extraordinarily unique set of circumstances. We probably won’t see that again for a very long time.

Grafting that baseline-centric approach on every one else however, leads in my opinion to a two-tiered system that churns out big hitters like Sharapova, and a bunch of also-rans you don’t normally get to hear of, who may have reached greater heights had they been allowed to do their thing.

This was meant to be about Agassi’s time in Bradenton, and ended up a discussion on the rights and wrongs of baseline tennis.

I make no apologies for that. It’s a subject I have strong feelings on.

But I also think Bollettieri is himself sometimes unfairly cast as an opportunist.

Agassi never clearly gives us his own impressions of Nick directly, choosing instead to go into his conversations with the other inmates, sorry students, in which Nick is described as “a hustler” with an obsession for “sun tans and marriage”, a guy who flunked the navy pilot exams, and dropped out of law school, before “landing on the idea of teaching tennis”, “something he doesn’t know all that well”.

Readers are then, rather deliberately I felt, left to draw their own conclusions.

My impression is unchanged, but felt a bit disappointed by Agassi’s reluctance to tackle the issue head on.

There’s nothing that revelatory, and I daresay no one would have thought he was rocking the boat quite that much anyway.

Besides, what on earth is suddenly so wrong with being a hustler anyway? In 80s America? Lesser individuals have been canonized for what’s usually (and somewhat euphemistically) described as “entrepreneurial spirit”.

Anyway, no prizes for guessing that Agassi didn’t take to Bradenton, an experience he calls “Lord of the Flies with Forehands” - an atmosphere he brings to light with a particularly stomach churning incident involving two boys and a bucket – the type of thing you might normally expect to find in a gritty drama about Borstal life set in the late 60s.

The long and the short of it is it doesn’t take too much time for Agassi’s abilities to get noticed by Nick who quickly takes him on permanently without him having to pay so much as a cent (Mike Agassi had only initially managed to gather enough cash for three months).

Agassi senses that Nick needs him to further the standing and prestige of the Academy, and in a curious incident that involves haggling over the price of a toy Panda, uses this leverage to buy his way out of school (which aside from a certain aptitude for English, he sucks at) and for wildcards at events.

He even manages to ship over his best friend Perry Rogers to Bradenton, a kindred spirit if ever Agassi saw and heard of one, who’s in the habit of wearing sucky polo shirts, but who quickly becomes indispensable in making sense of all the oddities, or “Winchell’s locks” present in Agassi’s life (a Winchell’s doughnut vendor the two once came across had a curious habit of maintaining locks on a van that was manned 24/7 – go figure).

I’m almost certain there was much more to it than arguing over the price of a cuddly toy, but there it is.

Not soon after, Agassi’s professional career takes off, and so begins a wonderfully col0urful though occasionally sketchy account of life on the tour – as we don’t know it.

It’s one of the portions of the book I enjoyed most, precisely because it’s packed full of anecdotes of what goes on behind the doors of locker rooms and of what players can really be like.

Agassi’s first Slam is at the US Open in 1986. He’s playing Jeremy Bates on an outside court. It’s tennis – but not as he knows it.

The pace and intensity of Grand Slam Tennis is relentless and unforgiving, and Agassi has experienced nothing like it. He goes out in four sets. Tough break, but interesting nonetheless for the images of a young Jeremy Bates playing at “warp speed”, which is a bit like finding out that Gordon Brown is an adept roller-blader.

Jim Courier, who clearly had an edge to him I was a little late to pick up on, makes a special point of lacing up in full view of everyone in the changing rooms every time he defeats Agassi – the message being that a win over Agassi doesn’t provide enough cardio.

Michael Chang, seems to assert a God given right to win by pointing upwards after his victories, which perhaps gets under the young Agassi’s skin more than anything else.

But the image I found most riveting was that of Ivan Lendl parading around in the changing rooms in nothing but tennis shoes, in advance of Agassi’s first match against the world #1 – the message unmistakable behind the thinly veiled display of swagger: “I'm gonna stomp all over you kid”.

He did stomp all over him; and then rubbed his nose in it by calling him “a haircut and a forehand” in the post match presser.

This section of the book, and I’m guessing further in too, is packed full of these colourful anecdotes, that make for an entertaining read as well as revealing more about life on tour than you might hope to find anywhere else – and that includes other ghost-written bios.

But it’s around this time too that Agassi begins experiencing problems with his “image” (which you’ll remember, is “everything”) – both internally and with his relationship with the Press.

Nick is not well liked; Jeremy Bates all but gave him “the arm” (the two have history) after overcoming his protégé in his Slam Debut and Agassi, tainted by association, finds himself shunned in the locker room.

To make matters worse Agassi has begun losing more often, and is struggling in his relationship with the Press, who are quick to seize upon the “L’efant Terrible” or worse still, the "Punkrocker”.

He can’t stand clay which he describes as “hot glue in wet tar on a bed of quick sand”. He fares no better on grass which is “ice slathered with Vaseline”.

Even more concerning is his propensity to run out of steam in long matches.

Oh, and he’s also begun losing his hair.

This is clearly more than your average case of teen angst.

In one of his most candid moments Agassi speaks of his anxiety at being characterised as a “rebel” when in his mind he’s doing nothing more than conducting a run-of the-mill “teenage rebellion”; one that just happens to be played out in front of millions of strangers worldwide - “strangers that think they know me and love me beyond reason, while others think they know me and resent me beyond reason”.

Not Agassi’s words but those of Pastor John Parenti 0r “JP”, whom Agassi is drawn to precisely because he’s “more surfer than pastor”, “a rebel” with “no dogma just common sense and clear thinking”.

This is one of many turning points in the book: Agassi would bounce back soon after and win his first Slam, somewhat ironically at Wimbledon of all places – but not before adding one of two key stabilizing influences to his team (guess who the other one is?).

It makes fascinating reading to hear how Agassi dealt with so very many conflicting forces in his life at a time when it would still be fair to consider it a “formative experience”.

I was especially surprised to learn that he would have gone to a Pastor of all people as I never really had him down as the type. He probably wasn’t strictly the type (not at that time anyway), and it was with some pressure from Philly that he eventually took the plunge.

Whatever the case, JP would play a key role not he insisted as a “mentor”, nor as a “father figure”, more just “a friend” that like Perry, proves useful in deciphering the many complexities the young Andre finds himself confronted with.


Sunday, 13 December 2009

Being Open about ‘Open’: Holding Hands, Dragons and Hating to Lose

[You are reading the second in a series on Andre Agassi's 'Open'. Click here to start at the very beginning]

I’ll spare you the match report.

Suffice to say that every bruise, every cramp, each and every tactical mis-selection is brought to you in glorious high definition.

At the end of the encounter Agassi and Baghdatis lay quivering like bloodied hunks of meat atop a pair of massaging tables, somewhere deep beneath the subterranean chambers of Arthur Ashe.

Agassi can’t breath. Neither can move. “They stretch his [Marcos’] quad - his hamstring cramps, they stretch his hamstring - his quad cramps”.

There’s a way-too-smooth Spielberg moment, as they end up holding hands seemingly in joint recognition of the greatness they’ve both been privy to.


I’d have preferred a knowing look, a slight nod - a gruff acknowledgement even.

It’s all as schmaltzy as hell, and exactly the kind of sentimental mush you might expect in any other sports bio – except this particular incident actually happened, and ‘Open’ somehow manages to make it feel manufactured.

On the topic of his father, Agassi predictably pulls absolutely no punches whatsoever.

Mike is presented as every bit the volatile, controlling and overbearing figure everyone already feels uncomfortably familiar with.

Having only made it half way through, I don’t yet know to what degree he may or may not choose to temper our image of Mike. My guess at this point is, not very much.

Mike’s unyielding determination to turn his kids into tennis legends is itself legendary – and not in a good way. “The von Trapps of Tennis”.

Amazed at Agassi’s unprecedented ability to take the ball so early?

That’s no fluke. He was obviously born with talent, but also spent countless hours on the court opposite a ball machine modified by his father so it sat flush with the net, and propelled a ball at an angle so acute, the only way to ensure it didn’t bounce over you was to take it on the rise.

Agassi projects all his tennis hate on to the machine by characterising it as a “dragon” built by his “smoke belching father”; an accurate depiction of a seven year old’s thought process maybe, but it feels like it’s being delivered in an adult voice (which of course it is), and is made to feel the more vacuous for it.

I read in a review elsewhere, that it’s at it’s most poignant moments that ‘Open’ sometimes feels the most hollow. Or at the moments of “maximum declared honesty” that it’s in danger of sounding anything but. I can see why this is, and like the “Film Noir” moments, there are times you feel as though it’s trying too hard.

Fortunately this doesn’t detract from the book, as there’s so much else happening and at such a tempo, it’s actually a conscious effort to get distracted.

One other Mike-moment merits mention, as it involves Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase.

Mike served as a one time racquet restringer to Connors, and used the opportunity – as Mike would – to let’s say, “encourage” the players to hit with his son whom he describes as “the next world #1”.

Borg being Borg, politely acquiesces.

Connors takes more persuading, and begins to look disinterested very quickly.

Nastase agrees, but quickly begins to take aim at Agassi, referring to him as “Snoopy”, quite deliberately in the presence of Andre’s latest love interest.

I know Nastase’s now something of an entertaining teddy-bear in the Seniors’ Circuit, but this is not the first time I’ve heard of an incident in which he comes across as even more of an obnoxious twat than Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe.

It’s a strange moment.

Andre decides he’s had enough and storms off court.

Mike looks on for once, in proud amazement. “You were born with a horseshoe up your ass kid”.

Is that good?

What he means of course is Agassi possesses all the fighting instinct, Mike found wanting in his older son Philly, whom he terms “a loser”.

An assessment with which Philly, rather sadly, agrees. Through a carefully-honed instinct it seems, rather than choice. Though this relationship helps deflect a lot of the intensity coming from Mike, that would otherwise have found it’s way to the younger Agassi.

There’s other moments that give us insights into how Philly evolved into the kindly, protective and sensitive big brother presence that continued to play a role well into Agassi’s professional career, and to which he owes much his success to.

A large section in chapter two, charts Agassi’s journey through Juniors. Just before he’s shipped off to Bollettieri’s, that is. I’ll return to that.

There’s a stellar cast of soon-to-be’s, but one match in particular stands out.

Agassi’s playing a kid named Jeff Tarango – and not unlike many matches he’s played thus far, it’s been a gruelling one.

At match point Agassi eventually fires a winner past Tarango, and is set to meet him at the net in victory. Jeff seems ready to follow suit, until at the very last moment, a second (somewhat degenerate) thought races through his head.

“Out”, he cries.

The asphalt beneath Agassi’s feet begins to crumble, as he realises what Tarango’s up to.

Junior circuits (like Futures) are self regulated and there’s not much more to be said or done.

The poignancy of this match lays in what happens next. Agassi describes how the experience resulted in him “internalising” much of the raging-bull-like pressure previously applied by Mike. From this day on that would no longer be necessary as Agassi would himself assume that role.

At this point some of my questions about Agassi’s hate-hate relationship with tennis are beginning to be answered.

What we’re seeing here (if I’m not horrendously off the mark) is the beginnings of the forging of Agassi’s hatred of losing.

Which seems to trump his desire to win, which in turn trumps his hatred of tennis.

So transitively speaking, Agassi’s hatred of losing subsumes his hatred of tennis.

Or to put it more plainly, the two struck up an uneasy alliance, within which the hatred of losing held the upper hand for the greater part of his career.

And that might just have something to do with why he chose to play for so long.

Mightn’t it?

Bollettieri, and the early parts of Agassi’s professional career next.


Friday, 11 December 2009

Being Open about ‘Open’: Hate, Consciousness and ‘Film Noir’

[You are reading the first in a series on Andre Agassi's 'Open']

I’ve just begun reading ‘Open’. Agassi’s retelling of the strange mix of pain, anguish, emotion and euphoria he calls life.

A life largely shaped (if we are to believe the account) by his now infamous hatred of tennis.


Hate is a strong word. At this point, only two chapters into the book, I find it difficult to understand how he could comprehensively hate something he does so well, and that has brought him the fame and success that undoubtedly changed his life forever. The rewards of which have enabled him to channel so much into his school for underprivileged children.

It’s not that I have trouble believing him, and I have encountered friends and colleagues before, who loathe the prospect of giving themselves over to a life in pursuit of something that to me, they seem cut out for.

It’s almost as if Agassi’s recollection of his fragile and inherently polarised relationship with the sport has become skewed. The greater picture lost in between the seams of subjectivity inherent to that stream of consciousness he draws upon – a literary device not without it’s flaws.

I decide I’m willing to suspend my doubt until after finishing the book.

I also decide not to unwittingly lapse into the stream of my own consciousness.

*Snaps out of it*

Having not historically been a huge fan of Sports Bios, I was reluctant to change anything on this occasion, not least because the reports of his use of Crystal Meth probably fuelled sales.

At this point I’m not sure what I’m going to do.

This is not a book review.

I don’t even promise the rigour of a Book Club.

But I will share the sections of the book I found most interesting, and make no apologies for the lack of attentiveness to structure and chronology.

And besides, I’m not much into the idea of doing an end of year wrap-up like in 2008. Maybe I’ll get back to that. Don’t hold your breath.

The book opens with a vivid account of Agassi awakening amidst a haze of pain in the foetal position on the floor of his hotel room. Gingerly finding his way to his feet and thence to the breakfast table – a process he describes as “negotiation”. A game he’s been playing with his body for some years now, bartering not with blue chips but with cortisone shots, slowly cajoling a body that’s already retired to emerge from it, if only for a moment.

Jaden and Jazz are reassured that if Daddy loses tonight, he retires (or present-tense “retire” as they like to put it), and they’ll get a doggy. “We might even name it Cortisone”.

I get the feeling that the book will be full of dry humour like this. Not necessarily a bad thing.

I’m naturally suspicious of works claiming to employ a “stream of consciousness”, mostly because it takes a particularly astute writer to pull it off.

The approach itself is also not without it’s critics, as it involves drawing upon an experience some would argue is both inherently flawed and somewhat misrepresented as a “stream” - using it for a sports bio then, might seem a uniquely risky proposition.

The amazing thing is, it translates rather well to what you might reasonably think of as being the sections it’s least suited to: actual tennis.

‘Open’ is refreshingly brave in it’s approach of not shying away from talking tennis, sometimes in painstaking ball-by-ball recounts. The Agassi-Baghdatis US Open encounter of 2006 is one such example early on in the book – one of his most gruelling matches when he was all but ready to hang his racquet up.

But it’s in the lead up to and in the aftermath of that match, that JR [Moehringer]really shines.

Marcos was number 8 in the world, "a kid just entering his prime”, who had made the finals of Oz and the semis at Wimbledon that same year.

Agassi recounts his motivational soliloquy in his second shower of the day (the one he uses for self coaching), reminding himself how amazing it is that a “quasi-cripple can compete at the US Open”.

The journey to Flushing and the various pre-match rituals of massages, racquet-restringing, and practice hits are all described at length.

Gil Reyes dresses like he’s going on “a blind date or for a mob hit”.

We’re not even spared the taping of Agassi’s feet just one hour before the match, a sticky ink like substance used to secure much of it that leaves his foot awash with colour: “My instep hasn’t been ink-free since Reagan was President”.

You do sometimes get the feeling that such curt one-liners aren’t always necessary to convey the intensity of the semi-permanent anguish that goes with both hating tennis and hating to lose; it won’t appeal to everyone and you might sometimes feel you’ve inadvertently strayed into a Raymond Chandler novel.

Stick with it though, and you’ll soon realise that for every “Film Noir” moment there’s one that conveys the unique vulnerability of a former big guy no longer in his prime, such as Agassi’s realisation that the “hot water bravery” (experienced during and after the self-pep-talks of his second shower) is not real bravery at all.

He still has to go out there and down Baghdatis.


Monday, 7 December 2009

On Henin’s Return and the Reconcilability of “Where” and “Back”

henin(Photo: AP)

"It is another Justine Henin who will try and go out and achieve her dream of finally winning Wimbledon," she said.

"I don't know if it's possible but that makes it an even more passionate challenge for me."

"To be honest, I don't have any big expectations as regards results in Australia," she said.

"But I will be delighted just to return to the country again, I love it there, and to the official circuit.

"I've never regretted my decision to stop playing but now I'm really excited about the prospect of starting a second career that probably won't look anything like the first, at least in my mind."


Quite how probable a Wimbledon Title is for Justine 2.0 (or Justine 0.6 for that matter), is anyone’s guess.

She could quite reasonably be expected to blow away the competition, or be blown away by it.

I like it that she’s playing it cautious with regards to Oz , where she’ll face stiff competition from Shaza, Kimmie and the Williamses.

I don’t have any intention of mentioning anyone else in the same breath as that esteemed foursome, unless and until they prove themselves worthy of it.

As with Nadal, clay should answer a lot of philosophical and semantic questions of quite “where” Henin is - an altogether different question from whether one is “back”.

One may be “back” without us having the strictest idea of “where” they are; though we may also understand “where” they are without them necessarily being “back”.

Despite what happened in Davis Cup this weekend, it is not at all certain whether Nadal is “back”. Though we know only a little more about “where” he is. A frightening prospect for anyone but the very best, who tend to thrive on their instincts and abundant reserves of confidence.

In contrast, Djoko may or may not be “back”, but most of us have a well-defined appreciation of “where” he is.

The question of being “back” and of “where” a player is, is not subject to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: it is incorrect to assert that being “back” somehow compromises our abilities (partially or in full) to determine “where” one is – indeed it is quite possible for us to determine that a player is “back”, having already gathered significant knowledge on their “whereabouts”.

But enough of that.

Justine defeated Flavlova at an Exho in Belgium this week – her first title of her second career. I’ve heard reports that the only discernible change to her serve is that she throws it a little higher.

But to me, it looks pretty good.



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