Sunday, February 07, 2010


On Tuesday June 6th 1995, I left work at lunchtime and made my way across Paris to a not-very-good seat on Court Philippe Chatrier – the best tennis court in France.

Despite the prestige of the French Open grand slam event, and the brilliance of the players, it wasn’t a good day. The first match was a men’s quarter final between clay court specialist Thomas Muster, seeded 5 and the 2002 champion Albert Costa. Their contest went to four sets and I don’t remember a single point or moment from any of them.

Next up was the match I’d come to see; Yevgany Kefelnikov versus Andre Agassi.

In 1995 Andre Agassi was the most famous and exciting tennis player in the world, a fashion icon, media superstar, boyfriend of Brooke Shields, and with the best return of serve in the history of the game. Unlike the boring and one dimensional Pete Sampras (eliminated in the first round that year by an unseeded Austrian called Gilbert Schallier), Agassi excelled on all surfaces, and had a game defined by touch, skill, imagination and the most astonishing reflexes. He was also maddeningly inconsistent and often seemed distracted by the glamour and excitement of his much reported life off-court.

The match was a stinker – here’s how Andre describes it in his autobiography “Open” co-written by Pulitzer prize winner J.R Moehringer, and published a few months ago:

In the quarters I face Kafelnikov, the Russian who likened me to Jesus. I sneer at him across the net as the match begins: Jesus is about to whip you with a car antenna. I know I can beat Kafelnikov. He knows it too. It’s written all over his face. But early in the first set, I lunge for a ball and feel something snap. My hip flexor. I ignore it, pretend it didn’t happen, pretend I don’t have a hip, but the hip sends lines of pain up and down my leg.

I can’t bend. I can’t move. I ask for the trainer, who gives me two aspirin and tells me there’s nothing he can do. His eyes are the size of poker chips when he tells me.

I lose the first set. Then the second. In the third I rally. I’m up 4-1, the crowd urging me onward. Allez, Agassi! But I grow less mobile with every minute. Kafelnikov, moving well, ties the set, and I feel my limbs go slack. It’s another Russian crucifixion. Au revoir, Grail. I walk off the court without collecting my rackets.

The real test wasn’t supposed to be Kafelnikov. It was supposed to be Muster, the hair-musser who’s been dominating on clay. So even if I’d gotten by Kafelnikov I don’t know how hobbled I would have been against Muster. But I promised Muster I’d never lose to him again, and I meant it, I liked my chances. I think no matter who was on the other side of that net, I could have done something great. As I leave Paris I don’t feel defeated; I feel cheated. This was it, I just know. My last chance. Never again will I be in Paris feeling so strong, so young. Never again will I inspire such fear in the locker room.

My golden opportunity to win all four slams is gone.

It’s gritty stuff, and actually that passage is one of the least memorable in the book. Open is quite simply the best sports autobiography I’ve ever read, and is so good it transcends the genre to become one of the best autobiographies ever written. It’s also horrifying and shocking.

The horror comes early in the form of Agassi’s dad, a former Olympic boxer, portrayed as a tennis obsessed disciplinarian who attempts to mould each of his four children into the best tennis player in the world. Andre is lucky enough to be the youngest:

He doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes he made with my siblings. He ruined their games by hanging on too long, too tight, and in the process he ruined his relationship with them.

At 13, thousands of hours of constant practice and haranguing from Mr Agassi have turned Andre into an unbeatable junior, so he’s shipped off to Florida and imprisoned (there’s no other word for it) in a tennis academy run by a former paratrooper called Nick Bolliteri. Rebellious and miserable, Agassi is nearly thrown out of the institution, but his talent, and those thousands of hours of home practice mean he gets away with things and is indulged as the star pupil of the academy. Academy is a lose word here, the inmates are bussed out to a hopeless private school for four hours of hopeless teaching a day, then back to our full-time jobs, hitting balls until after dusk, at which time we collapse in heaps on our wooden bunks…

And so it goes on, a damaged childhood is followed by a bruised adolescence followed by the inevitable entry to ‘the circuit’ (aged 16) which of course is the endless travel practice play practice travel routine of the ATP Tour.

Agassi was known for his eccentric ways throughout his career, but reading Open, you soon come to be impressed with how normal he actually is considering the type of life he’s had. There’s some wry humour, and some nice surprises; Brooke Shields, his first wife, is far from the bimbo she seemed to me at the time; she has an English degree and a serious interest in art and literature. Pete Sampras, Agassi’s chief rival really is as one dimensional and boring as he appeared. Steffi Graff, Agassi’s second and so far final wife emerges from an almost equally damaged childhood so craves domestic bliss and normalcy, which she pursues with the steel eyed concentration that brought her 22 Grad Slam titles. Their marriage seems happy, and it’s easy to understand why, they are very different characters but have a lot in common.

It’s their second or third date:

“We talk for the first time about tennis. When I tell her that I hate it, she turns to me with a look that says, Of course. Doesn’t everybody?”

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