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.

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