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.

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