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.

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