Andre Agassi’s odyssey and the death of flamboyant tennis

agassiReading Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, you realise how boring men’s tennis has become.

No wonder they are trying to re-invent the game with a new idiotic format, Fast 4 tennis.

Tennis players these days by and large remind me of Ivan Lendl, the gaunt Czech number one who dominated the game in the late 1980s winning eight grand slams. Lendl had the charisma of a can of tuna (the no name supermarket brand). Expressionless, machine-like, Lendl wore opponents down with relentless accuracy. (Jim Courier was another mind-numbingly boring player to watch and even worse, to hear these days as a commentator).

The current world number one, Novak Djokovic, is very much Lendl-like, and while we all admire Roger Federer as the greatest player of the modern game – Agassi calls him “the most regal player I have ever known” – flamboyant he is not. Ditto Andy Murray. Perhaps only Rafael Nadal in full flight has something to captivate the imagination.

Andre Agassi burst onto the tennis scene at about the same time Ivan Lendl was at his peak and as the game’s other great entertainer – Enfant terrible John McEnroe – was nearing the end of his career.

Complete with enormous hair (actually a hair piece because he was going bald), earrings, colourful outfits and the most amazing return of serve and ground strokes the game has ever seen, Agassi shook the tennis foundation to its core, reaching his first Grand Slam final at the French Open in 1990 aged just 19 and winning Wimbledon two year’s later, a tournament he admits to hating for its rules and snobbery.

Winning Wimbledon in 1992

Winning Wimbledon in 1992

Agassi ended up winning just as many grand slams as Lendl, (he won all four majors, something Lendl never achieved) doing so in an era dominated by another machine-like competitor, Pete Sampras. Without Sampras to thwart him, Agassi could have won as many majors as Roger Federer.

All the more amazing his success, given that Andre Agassi hated playing tennis.

“I hate tennis most of all,” he tells his friend, the actor Kevin Costner soon after winning Wimbledon, in Open.

“Right, right. I guess it’s a grind. But you don’t actually hate tennis.” – Costner says. “I do,” Agassi replies.

This conversation repeats itself throughout the book, becoming almost its mantra.

Forced to practice for hours and hours under the Las Vegas sun by his mad Iranian father and later sent away to be force-fed tennis at the Nick Bollettieri academy, Agassi says he despised tennis.

The problem is, he wasn’t much good at doing anything else, so he stuck to it, becoming, against the odds, one of the all time greats.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Open is the window Agassi gives into the world of professional tennis. The endless travel and hotel rooms. The dieting and fitness regimes. Overcoming injuries. Dealing with hostile sports journalists. Encountering rivals and finding ways to beat them. The physical and mental strain of competing and the agony of losing.

Of course there is also the joy of numerous come from behind victories, his most incredible being at the French Open in 1999 – a tournament which marked Agassi’s comeback from injury, disillusionment, dabbling with drugs and extracting himself from a soulless marriage to the actress, Brooke Shields. Agassi, ranked 141 in the world, fought back from two sets to love down against Russian battler Andrei Medvedev to win in five sets. Rousing himself from the jaws of defeat, Agassi writes brilliantly about how he started to win the mental battle after winning the third set:

He’s (Medvedev) has had too long to think about winning. He was five points away from winning. Five points, and its haunting him…

Open is a real ‘rags-to-riches-to-rags-to riches’ tale and Agassi tells it well, especially when he’s in the cauldron of the packed arena slogging it out, somehow finding the will to win. His battles with Pete Sampras in particular are riveting blow-by-blow accounts of epic encounters.

Agassi comes across asschmaltzy, painfully honest and very likeable – the same can not be said for Jimmy Connors (a pompous prick), his ex-wife Brooke Shields (a vacuous airhead) and to an extent Pete Sampras (the accountant of the tennis world).

His coach Brad Gilbert, who helped turn his career around, comes across as an eccentric genius.

Agassi’s pursuit of Steffi Graf – told with embarrassing relish – is quite comical, particularly, the numerous rebuffs, but the lashings of syrupy cards and flowers leave one feeling a tad ill. The same can be also be said of Agassi’s choice of inspirational music which includes Michael Bolton, Celine Dione and Kenny G and his brief dalliance with “finding God”.

Whatever his musical shortcomings or sugary sentimentalism, no one has since entertained quite like Andre Agassi, who played his last professional match – almost ten years ago – at the 2006 US Open.

And Open is one of the best accounts of a life of tennis you will ever read.

How to win cricket world cups: win the toss, bat first

ICC-Cricket-World-Cup-Trophy-2011

The illusive ICC World Cup Trophy

I never stayed till the end of the India v South Africa game on a steamy night at the MCG.

As the sixth wicket fell and the sea of orange, white and green Indian flags waved triumphantly in the packed arena, and as we (meaning South Africa) began our all familiar world cup capitulation, I got up and left.

India had scored over 300 and we were about 150/6 with 20 overs remaining. It was a hopeless situation, one South African fans are all too familiar with at world cups, particularly at the knock-out stages.

In five world cup knockout games South Africa have played since their debut in 1992, they have lost four and tied one (THAT game against Australia we should have won in 1999 before the greatest choke in the history of sport).

1999: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

1999: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

To win world cups is a mixture of skill, luck and nerve: we have plenty of the former and not much of the other two.

But if South Africa do – as expected – make the quarterfinals and then somehow win their way through to the final, this is the surest way to win the competition:

One
Win the toss

Two
Bat first

Three
Score at least 250

(If we lose the toss, bowl them out for under 150 or less)

Winning the toss is important, but only if you take advantage of it by choosing to bat.

In the 10 world cups played to date, seven have been won by the team batting first.

This is not all that surprising. Cricket is a game of nerves, of who blinks first.The pressure is so much greater batting second. Recovery is so much harder if you get off to a poor start, and if it’s a day/night game, conditions are usually tougher batting second under the lights.

That’s unless you’ve got only a small total to chase.

In 1996 Sri Lanka chased down 240 odd against Australia and in 1999, Australia only had to score 132 against Pakistan.

The only time a team has chased down a sizeable total and won the world cup was in 2011, when India chased down 274 set by Sri Lanka, winning with 10 balls to spare thanks to an MS Dhoni special.

The cardinal error though is to win the toss and choose to field. Only one team has done that and ended up on the winning side: Sri Lanka against Australia in 1996.

In the first three world cup finals won by West Indies twice and then Australia, on each occasion, the team that won the toss chose to field and lost the game. It happened again in 2003 when India won the toss, chose to field and Australia amassed 359/2.

So my message to AB De Villiers, if we somehow start playing well enough and make it through to the final is simple:

Make sure you win the bloody toss and for heaven’s sake, BAT FIRST (and then post 300 plus!)

I know, I know…

But, we are allowed to dream, aren’t we?

Dealing with my Twitter addiction or: please be kind and retweet

twitterHello world. My name is Larry Schlesinger and I am an addict.

It’s not crack cocaine, or alcohol or heroin or chocolate that I can’t get enough of.

I am addicted to Twitter. I make this confession openly and honestly and promise to change.

I realised I was addicted to Twitter – really realised – when I sat down on a Tuesday evening last week in front of the television to watch an episode of my favourite show, the UK detective drama Midsomer Murders. As the killer was unmasked by Detective Inspector Tom Barnaby of Causton CID, I was completely clueless as to how the great sleuth had reached this stunning conclusion (Who would have thought it was the priest with a limp in love with his brother’s ex-girlfriend?)

The truth was I had completely lost track of the plot, Christ, I didn’t even know who the main characters were anymore.

It was all because of Twitter.

It seemed impossible that I could go more than 15 minutes of a Midsomer murder (in some quaint flower-encrusted cottage) before, with sweaty palms and gritting teeth, I yanked my phone out of my pocket and ravenously checked the updates on my Twitter feed.

Had I missed something? An explosion? A plane crash? A new government crisis? Had Tony Abbott spontaneously combusted? Had someone cooked a hamburger all by themselves? Or remembered the name of their dead pet parrot? Or decided they liked the colour blue more than red?

How could I possibly go on watching Barnaby as he traipsed through the English countryside finding clues while all these important things were happening in the lives of others – some of whom I don’t even know?

And then the utter ludicrousness of it dawned on me.What the f-ck was I doing? Had I gone mad?

Yes, Twitter is without any doubt the most powerful social media device in the world bar none – I realised this the day someone at work yelled out: “Someone has just tweeted that Oscar Pistorious has been arrested for shooting his girlfriend” – but the addiction (and the envy: he has how many followers???) came much later.

Never mind breaking news about really significant events – where Twitter has its true power – I had to know the insignificant minutiae of everybody else’s lives – and tell my eager 1,500 or so followers all the boring crap about my own. Had it really come to this?

Of course I am not the only one addicted like a twit. There are millions of us updating the world about ourselves, 140 characters at time. We’ve all become experts at the “#” and “@”. We know what’s trending. We know who said what to whom.

Get on any train in Melbourne or Sydney or Paris or London, or a bus in Dar-es-Salaam of Caracas, or a camel in Morocco and there will be someone tweeting or retweeting or favouriting or replying.

The kind of crap you used to mutter to yourself on a lonely stretch of highway as the tumbleweeds drifted buy  – that’s what’s become breaking news in the Twit-o-sphere.

– I just saw a dog that looked like my grandpa. Better tweet that.
– What a beautiful row of palm trees. Better tweet that. Etc etc.

I am pleased to say I am dealing with my addiction, though temptation is the route of all smart phone evil.

For the last two days, there has been no Twitter and no inane tweeting after work. I’ve actually given my wife and my daughter my full attention between the hours of 6.30pm and 8.30pm. It’s been a struggle, my palms have been itchy, my fingers twitching, seeking out the phone I’ve stuck in a locked drawer, but I’ve managed…somehow.

Home in the evening has become a Twitter-free zone, especially as the bodies start dropping all of over Midsomer County, the deadliest county in England.

Baby steps, Baby steps…each day is a struggle, but I think it is getting easier.

I’m so pleased with myself, so delighted with my progress that I think I’ll celebrate. Yes, this is what I will do: I’ll compose a little congratulatory message to all my ‘friends’.

Exactly 140 characters.

The freshlyworded 2 minute review: ‘Compliance’ – a very disturbing experience

Compliance_Movie_PosterWhat’s being reviewed?

Compliance

What is it ?

A movie made in 2012.

What’s it about?

Based on a true story – or more accurately many true stories – Compliance is about a hoax phone call made to a fast food joint. The caller pretends to be a police officer and forces Sandra, the manager of the story to detain and strip search Becky, a pretty, blonde employee who works behind the counter. ‘Officer Daniels’ says Becky stole money from a customer and is being investigated for other crimes. He tells Becky she can either be stripped and searched in the back office of the restaurant or be taken to the police cells and locked up for the night. Later when the restaurant gets busy, Officer Daniels suggests that Sandra put a male in charge of watching over Becky, now naked, except for an apron…

If you only know one thing…

As unbelievable as it sounds, this film is an accurate depiction of real events at a McDonald’s in Mt Washington, Kentucky in 2004. It is one of about 70 hoax calls made across the USA where the caller duped managers of fast food outlets into strip-searching, humiliating and sexually abusing customers and staff. The caller was thought to be a 38-year-old prison warden, who was brought to trial but found not guilty by a jury due to lack of direct evidence. The caller used a disposable mobile phone and a pre-paid call card.

Is it any good?

Yes,I found it utterly engrossing and very disturbing. The acting is excellent and needs to be for the audience to accept the unlikely series of events that unfold. The acting is particularly good from Ann Dowd, who plays the do-good manager Sandra, Dreama Walker as Becky and Pat Healy as the creepy Officer Daniels.

What I liked most about it?

It’s voyeuristic quality, where it draws the viewer in and makes them almost complicit in the vile acts. It also makes you question, how you would behave in the same situation, from each character’s point of view. You want to watch and turn away. I also like the setting. The film is set almost entirely in a fast food restaurant called ChickWich on a snow winters day. The diabolical deeds go on in the back office while customers eat burgers and chips, drink sodas and socialise.

Famed film critic, Roger Ebert liked the film: “There is the uncomfortable realization that if a TSA agent (the person who screens you at a US airport) wanted to strip-search us at an airport, we might agree. Or would we? Would you?”

An interesting thing to ponder:

While you may balk at how easily Sandra, the store manager was sucked into the hoax or be disgusted at how Van, Sandra’s boyfriend followed orders, a famous 1960s experiment by behavioral scientist Stanley Milgram found that subjects would administer potentially lethal – so they believed – electric shocks to others even though they could hear their screams and pleadings through the wall. They did so because Milgram,  dressed in a white laboratory coat, stethoscope and clipboard, represented authority and most test subjects simply obeyed his orders.

How much time do you have to invest?

Compliance is just over an hour and twenty minutes long.

How do I watch to it?

If you’re living in Australia, you can watch Compliance for free on SBS on Demand (as of February 2015). Otherwise, search for it online. Here’s the official website.

Can you recommend something similar?

Happiness, a film made in 1998 by Todd Solondz filled with weirdos and perverts, plus a great performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

In memory of my beautiful son, Rafferty Schlesinger

IMG_1382

Today, February 2, would have been Rafferty’s first birthday.

A happy little boy, perhaps with curls in his hair like mine, taking his first steps around the living room, my arms outstretched, waiting to catch him.

Just a playful image to hold in my mind: our beautiful little boy was stillborn at 38 weeks exactly a year ago.

His passing came without warning. A few days before he died, he was an active little baby, his arms and feet pushing against Larna’s belly. Little shapes bopping out playfully from her round tummy.

The shock of his passing was immense. It was impossible to comprehend when it happened. I remember the phone ringing, and a lady at the hospital telling me I had to come in right away. Larna was too upset to speak.

I asked the woman on the phone: “Is everything OK?” She would not say, but I knew the answer.

A man usually of few emotions, I wept against the side of the bed as I held Larna’s hand in a darkened hospital ward half an hour later.

As Raffie was a fully developed baby, the doctor said it was better if he be born via natural birth and encouraged us to choose this option, even though it felt so ghastly and cruel and would mean Larna would have to go through labour and give birth. But the doctor said it was a safer option, especially if we decided one day to have another child, and so we agreed

We returned in the morning. Larna was inconsolable in the car as we approached the hospitable: “Raffie, why did you leave us?” she repeated over and over.

There were no answers. As a mother, Larna had lovingly carried Raffie for 38 tiring weeks, battled through severe morning sickness and an earlier miscarriage scare. More than anyone in the world, she deserved a healthy baby.

If there was a God, I thought, he was cruel and vindictive.

Through a vail of tears, Raffie was born in the early hours of  Sunday morning at the Royal Women’s Hospital.

Even though I knew there was no hope, I had, up until his birth, prayed for a miracle. That some how the doctors had been wrong, that he would still be alive.

The moment he was born will stay with me for ever: a little boy who did not utter a sound.

We held Raffie’s little body, stroked his soft skin, held his fingers and toes and took photographs. In one of those photos, I can see the sadness etched on my face, it is the saddest I have ever been.

We would have given anything for just a few moments of him warm and breathing against our skin.

Later that day I drove home to shower and get some rest before returning to the hospital in the evening. It was one of those scorching February days. I felt the heat as a crushing, suffocating sadness. I felt empty and deeply depressed. The world seemed completely changed, drained of colour for ever.

At home, I lay down on our bed while the fan whirred, next to an empty crib that should have been Raffie’s: it was the loneliest, saddest empty space in the world.

Two days later, on a Tuesday, we said goodbye to Raffie.

His little white coffin engraved with Rafferty” and my surname ‘Schlesinger” stood at the end of a small chapel hall attached to the funeral parlour.

We  sat together and said our goodbyes.

Behind us, my daughter Edie, nearly two then, provided some ill-timed, but much-needed comedic relief, ransacking purses and bags and running around with the bunches of colourful balloons that decorated the hall.

When it was my turn to speak, I read from something I had prepared. At the end, my emotions got the better of me and I collapsed into tears:

Rafferty.
Raffie.
I never thought hello and goodbye would come so quickly.
You were a beautiful boy with your mom’s long hands and your dad’s frown.
Raffie, I was so looking forward to kicking the ball with you in the park, watching your delighted face discover new things, hearing you say your first words.
I don’t know why you left us, but just know that where ever you are, your mom and dad and big sister Edie love you so much.
Our hearts are broken, but with time they will heal and we know that you will be watching over us.
We will never forget you. You will always be a part  of our family.
You are inside of me, in my heart.
You are my son.
My sweet little Raffie.
My little rascal

After the service, we let go 38 balloons into the air – one for every week Raffie had grown in Larna’s tummy.

The saddest part was watching the car with his coffin drive away, knowing that we were saying goodbye to him for the last time and knowing that we would not watch him grow older, not even for a day.

Later that day we had a picnic in his honour in Queen’s Park in Moonee Ponds under a big shady tree. The pain lifted briefly that afternoon. Perhaps we were just numb or too tired or just relieved to have made it this far.

Twelve months have passed, and I don’t think I have really comes to terms with losing our boy. Do you ever?

Today, we celebrate Raffie’s birthday. It is hard to accept that he is not hear running around, playing with his big sister, saying his first words, being a little rascal.

We speak about Raffie all the time and miss him terribly. He is part of our family. Edie may not yet be three, but she knows all about her baby brother and we encourage her to look at pictures of him and say his name.

Rafferty. Raffie.

Rest in peace my beautiful little man. We love you, always.

IMG_1394

Rafferty Schlesinger

Born, February 2, 2014 – passed away, February 2, 2014
Deeply missed by mom, dad & big sister Edie

The freshlyworded 2 minute review: Serial

141023_CBOX_SerialPodcast.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeWhat’s being reviewed?

Serial

What is it ?

A 12 podcast series produced by ‘This American Life’ a  syndicated American radio program and WBEZ Chicago, a community radio station.

What’s it about?

Part story telling, part investigative journalism, part amateur sleuthing in the style of Scooby Doo (as one reviewer put it), Serial tells the story of the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee and the conviction, after two trials, of her former boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was given a life sentence. In each episode, journalist and broadcaster Sarah Koenig attempt to unravel a different element of the case to answer the question: Did Adnan do it?

If you only know one thing…

It’s the most downloaded podcast of all time with more than 5 million downloads as of January this year.

Is it any good?

Yes. If you love a good detective story or a riveting documentary, you will love Serial. The show’s executive producer, Ira Glass said of it: “We want to give you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, but with a true story and no pictures. Like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving.”

What I liked most about it?

The chatty, personal style that exploits the audio-only medium and draws you in. How much you learn about criminal investigation and procedure. The setting, Baltimore, one of America’s most interesting cities. The interweaving of narrative, interviews, opinion and evidence that gives Serial its power.

What I disliked?

Trying to remember all the details and keep track of the various plotlines. At times confusing. The ending may disappoint some.

How much time do you have to invest?

Eight and a half hours of listening time, plus many more hours on the Serial website, doing your own research and reading analysis and comments about the show. It’s addictive.

How do I listen to it?

It’s free. Download it from iTunes or from serialpodcast.org

Can you recommend something similar, in another medium?

The Oscar-nominated documentary: “Capturing the Friedmans” about dark secrets in a upper middle-class Jewish family in New Jersey. And watch The Wire, a television series set in Baltimore about criminals and the police that pursue them. Arguably the greatest television show ever made.

The Asian Cup of rogue nations

afc-asian-cup-1420749072-2318216It struck me – with the force of a Tim Cahill wonder strike – that there was something decidedly wrong with the 2015 Asian Cup.

North Korea. Iran. Saudi Arabia. All run by brutal dictatorial regimes, all with appalling human rights records, but allowed to compete in an international sporting event.

Has the world gone mad? Have we lost our moral compass?

I ask from the perspective of a South African who remembers our isolation from world sport, forced to live off a diet of local competitions and the occasional ‘rebel’ cricket or rugby side visit.

Of course, it was quite right that we were banned, given our cruel apartheid policies, though there were some who argued that sport and politics should be kept separate and that we shouldn’t punish individuals, many of whom opposed the government’s policy of separation, from competing internationally.

Certainly, there were many great South African sportsmen and women denied their opportunity on the world stage, barred from competing at  Olympic and Commonwealth Games and from cricket, rugby and soccer world cups.

We had a world-beating cricket team in 1970 (thrashing Australia 4-0 at home) before we were kicked out of world sport, champion rugby and soccer players, swimmers and athletes.

But, I got a real shock when I saw North Korea arrive in Australia to take part in the tournament, a ridiculous charade, given they refused to give media conferences or engage with the public and thankfully were bundled out in the group stages. Clearly instructions came straight from mad dictator Kim Jong-un and his henchmen on how to behave in a foreign country, a rare treat for the lucky few who were able to travel outside of their home country. The rest stay home and starve.

Iran’s another shocker. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is a jihadist theocracy that has dragged Iran into economic depression while executing, imprisoning and intimidating its domestic opponents” wrote the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan recently. Iran is more dangerous than the Islamic State, he added.

Iran’s people are beaten, imprisoned, tortured…but its team is allowed to compete in the Asian Cup. Even the players over here play with fear in their hearts: during the tournament players were warned not to be photographed with young female fans.

As for Saudi Arabia, being a Jew I wouldn’t be allowed into the country (not that I have any plans to visit). Saudi Arabia is by all reports a brutal, repressive place, with medieval laws. The penalty for homosexuality is death. The penalty for blasphemy is death.  Commit adultery and the punishment is to be stoned to death. Steal and you lose a hand. State your opinion in a blog and you get flogged.

So, I ask again, has the world lost its moral compass?

Do we now turn a blind eye now to every human rights violation in the name of sport and entertainment?

Or have we finally decided that sport and politics should not mix. If so, a lot of South African sportsmen and women deserve an apology.