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.

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