There's not much going on in tennis today, so it seems like a good time to explore the recent revelations in Andre Agassi's new book, Open: An Autobiography. Although generally I attempt to keep the focus of this website on current junior and college tennis, I have always been interested in development, and when one of the U.S.'s greatest champions goes into great detail about his introduction to the game, I think it merits discussion here.
I just finished reading the Sports Illustrated excerpt in the current issue, which emphasizes not the crystal meth drug use that has made all the headlines, but Agassi's fear of his father and his loathing of the game (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas isn't just a Hunter S. Thompson title, I guess.) In fact the SI cover blurb and the excerpt's title is "I Hate Tennis" and it's clear that sentiment is meant to be in the present tense, not the past.
There is what I would call a romantic notion--one I confess I share--that it's impossible to do all the work and make all the sacrifices necessary to excel at tennis without loving the game. When Agassi describes his childhood, which is portrayed as being exclusively directed by his father's desire that Andre become No. 1 in the world, there is only resentment, dread, anxiety, a fear of failure that would seem to be debilitating, but somehow wasn't. Agassi does appear to realize, in retrospect anyway, that the constant practice had produced rare skills. Even though he says he "takes no pride in my reflexes" when he succeeds in sending a ricocheting ball back over the net, he actually does seem proud that "there are few children in the world who could have seen that ball, let alone hit it." Later he adds:
"Though I hate tennis, I like the feeling of hitting a ball dead perfect. When I do something perfect, I enjoy a split second of sanity and calm."
If Marat Safin were to come out with an autobiography claiming that he hated tennis, few of us would be surprised, as his ambivalence toward the sport has been on display for many years now. Or Mark Philippoussis, whose soap opera of a life doesn't exactly exude fulfillment. But Agassi, who extended his career long past the normal retirement age of his contemporaries, married a former tennis player, spoke so eloquently and knowledgeably about it during short stints in the broadcast booth and is still playing exhibitions, how could he hate it?
One interesting exploration of this question was published last week in the Guardian. Stuart Jeffries talks with various prominent British athletes about the issue, and comes up with some pretty compelling arguments. One, former ATP pro Barry Cowan, says:
"If you're at the top of tennis, you're on tour 30-plus weeks of the year – and when you're doing that, everything revolves around tennis. Every decision you make, tennis is at the back of your mind. That's the main reason for burnout among tennis players in their 20s.
"I know this for myself – it's something you've done since you were six years old, and there's a sense that if you stop giving 100% you are doomed to failure, and that is unacceptable. No wonder so many players hate their sport – the surprise is that so few admit it."
Justine Henin, who has announced her return to tennis, recently gave an interview at her Sixth Sense Academy in Florida, and although the Belgian, who had a difficult childhood of her own, didn't say she hated tennis when she retired in May of 2008, she did say this, according to the article in Bob Larson's Tennis News by Charlie Bricker:
"I once said to Carlos that I was afraid the only thing I can do is play tennis. But after this much time off, now I know I am a human being. I can do other things. I found I could trust myself as a person. I needed to try different things to realize how the world is."
She is also quoted in this Miami Herald AP story as saying:
"It took me a while to realize that it's not just about hitting a tennis ball," she said. "At 5 years old, there's no way you can know that tennis is what you want. Now it's something that I choose to do."
It seems that Andre Agassi could have come to that same conclusion eight or nine years ago, made his personal peace with his past, and once retired, concentrated on his school and his other charitable activities. He chose a different path, just as he had in 1997, and the revelations will probably continue through next week, when the book is finally available for sale. Today's headline from the book is "Agassi says he took what he believes to be speed," with his father behind his ingestion of that drug. There hasn't been anything from the Bollettieri years yet; it would be surprising if his teenage years didn't produce some indiscretions.
For some of the thoughts from tennis writers who have covered Agassi throughout his career, and there is nothing like a consensus emerging from them, I'll provide the following links:
Peter Bodo, for espn.com
Bonnie Ford, for espn.com
Jon Wertheim, for si.com
Chris Clarey, for the New York Times
Neil Harman, for the Times
Sunday, November 1, 2009