Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Being Open about ‘Open’: Tennis Erotica, Dried Blood and Snorting Dragons

Brad greets the news of the Brandre split with “a toothy smile”.

The break up, according to him is the “best thing that could have happened to his tennis”.

Agassi’s licking his wounds holed up in “Bachelor pad #2”, into which he has a new fireplace installed (because I guess that’s the kind of thing you do after a break up).

Nothing soothes the grief-stricken soul like a well-stoked fireplace (and nothing offends it more than than a cheap imitation stoked with illusory coal fire).

Before long Brad’s seated comfortably in his favourite armchair and the two are watching late night highlights of a match featuring Serena Williams and Steffi Graf.

“That’s your play right there!”

The ‘play’ Brad has in mind is of course, Steffi Graf.

Andre had already tried one (unsuccessful) charm initiative with Steffi back in 1992, but Brad is adamant, and being Brad, won’t take no for an answer.


Andre’s pursuit of ‘Stefanie’ Graf (he’s adamant about using her full name) is, as you might have expected given that extra bit of loving attention and page space.

It’s a lengthy affair with Stefanie (who was in a relationship with a race car driver at the time) initially tentative, gradually opening up to the goof that is so obviously nuts about her.


It’s not all plain sailing: there are caveats to resolve, and the two still have very active careers to consider.

But this courtship and eventual marriage forms the undercurrent to most of the remainder of the book.

Agassi’s life is on the mend and everything that was once so intractable, misunderstood and downright irritating, is beginning to magically fall into place.

What follows is mostly a catalogue of how they grew ever closer whilst respectively navigating the demands of a very busy tennis calendar – a period that ended when Steffi famously declared in 1999 that she “was done” with tennis. She would begin to spend more and more time with Andre, attending his matches (his offer to book her a seat at Flushing is flatly refused, she “knew her way around that place”) and eventually moving in with him.

I myself, preferred the initial phases of the relationship, where Agassi so very resolute in his mission, has at the same time no compunction in embracing much of the the ridicule that goes along with being in love and having your underbelly exposed as a result of it. The later descriptions of them running together on a beach (The Blue Lagoon?) and discovering they too share a love of ‘Shadowlands’, seem to have been lifted straight from a candy-coated Brooke Shields movie.

Look out for his first practice hit with her, arranged quite deliberately (by Brad) so that he might hit on her. Steffi’s as ‘proper’ about things as you might expect, and apart from agreeing to share a court with him, is not giving an inch.

Be warned though, it’s not all tennis and romance – there’s also the steamiest survey of groundstrokes you’re ever likely to read without venturing into that curious halfway house of your bookstore that sits in between ‘Sports Bios’ and ‘Erotica’.

Everyone’s forehand is like a fingerprint, we are told: with ‘minute but concrete subtleties of force and spin’.

Andre makes it his mission to acquaint himself with “her subtleties”. Actually, go read it yourself.


Agassi entered the 1999 French Open with about as much confidence as is possible whilst recovering from an injured arm.

In fact were it not for Brad’s incessant badgering, he likely wouldn’t even have taken part.

Brad, in case you haven’t already noticed, is not your ordinary coach.

He plays Cupid, is Sage-like in his insistence that Andre play through his lowest ebbs, and was instrumental in fashioning Andre’s more emotionally attuned relationship with the game.

Everything about the occasion this time round, would seem to indicate it’s not meant to be: he’s even forgotten to pack underwear.

Any reader, whether they’re familiar with tennis or not, cannot fail to be struck by the digitally enhanced recounts of Agassi’s matches, which seem to have been captured with a photographic memory. Agassi claims to remember all the 1144 matches he played in this way, so it’s of little surprise that he reserves perhaps his most evocative visions of life on tour for his first Slam title back from the Dark Side.

Roland Garros clay resembles “dried blood”, and quite appropriately, his first round opponent’s Franco Scolari – the late 90s equivalent of David Ferrer, an encounter Agassi describes as “a street fight, a wrestling match and pistols at fifty paces”.

Agassi would get through, though he calls it “one of the most improbable wins of his career”.

During his match with Carlos Moya, Agassi discovers another more sinister side to himself, and we learn of his love of “maiming” the opposition, running his opponents ragged, and “cutting the legs out from them” - a match Agassi dubs “Run Moya Run”.

Not quite the point finisher we take him for then.

A subtle wrinkle in his game specifically for RG, or a result of learning to enjoy tennis for it’s own sake?

We never find out – it’s interesting though, that we never once (apart from ‘The Summer of Revenge’) got sight of this darker side of Andre during all those years of pronounced hatred.


His opponent in the final is Andriy Medvedev, a guy whom Andre met in a bar some time back (after his own divorce with Brooke), and who was at the time undergoing a tennis crisis of his own.

“I’m done with tennis!”, barks a 24 year old Andriy, a couple of glasses away from a drunken stupor.

For better or worse, Agassi (now 29) had by now come through drugs, injury and divorce, and you might understand why he at first appears a little indignant at the young (drunk) hot head, who doesn’t appear to know his a*s from his tennis elbow.

Agassi was by this point over the worst and was empowered and non-conflicted enough to give Andriy a “Bradesque” appraisal of his game, and how he might turn things around for himself.

Since that day Andriy has followed Agassi’s advice to the letter, and is seemingly on the mend.


Gil had previously remarked that Agassi was on “a collision course with destiny”, but Agassi now realises his collision course is not with destiny, but with “a fire breathing dragon which I helped to build”.

A dragon Andre? Again? But of course.

The final is as graphic as the Baghdatis encounter from the beginning of the book.

Andriy quickly races to a 2 set lead, and would hold match points before the weather and a lot of hot air from Brad in the locker room would intervene.

The sun dries the clay and the pace picks up. Andriy’s had “too long to think about winning” , and is now “living in the past”. Haunted by it.

The dragon begins to snort through his nostrils.

Agassi would win the next two sets, and then the match. Just before the final game, Brad would hold up four fingers. “Four more points – four points equals all four Slams”.

“…I’m terrified by how good this feels: winning isn’t supposed to feel this good – never supposed to matter this much – but it does, it does – I can’t help it.

“I walk off the court blowing kisses in all four directions, the most heartfelt gesture I can think of to express the gratitude pulsing through me.

“I vow that I will do this from now on, win or lose, whenever I walk off a tennis court. I will blow kisses to the four corners of the earth thanking everyone.”

-- ‘Open’, An Autobiography

Agassi would also later reflect how the win made him feel 'worthier' of Steffi.

Winning a Slam whilst going commando, and getting the girl - not a bad few months' work.
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