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.

Federer, Nadal, Becker and Curren: remembering my tennis moments

tennis-ballsIt wasn’t the classic match I’d been hoping for, but it was still a thrill to sit under the lights at Rod Laver arena and watch two of the modern-day greats, Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal, duel it out for a place in the Australian Open final.

Nadal was too aggressive , Federer made too many errors at the net with only the occasional glimpses of his sublime ground strokes, and it was all over in straight sets.

As I sat in the arena with Danni Minogue behind me, Pete Sampras chatting away in the distance (and never applauding a single point) and the great man, Rod Laver himself, watching intently with his distinctive mop of red hair and pointy nose, I thought about my own relationship with tennis and the role it’s played in my life.

Growing up in Germiston, a mining town about 30 minutes east of Johannesburg, we lived across the road from a Catholic convent and next door to the school’s tennis court. The nuns graciously gave us a set of keys and it was quite a novelty to have friends over and then head down to the courts to hit the ball around.  The court’s were cracked and the nets frayed and we frequently lost balls into the neighbouring homes, but it was our own private tennis club.

I was never much of a player, occasionally I’d string a couple of good shots together and fluke a serve down the line, but I’d have been a lower grade club player at best if I’d had lessons and practiced. Still, there probably wasn’t a family holiday, where we didn’t take our rackets and have a game. I recall being rather competitive and not averse to smashing my racket against the ground and not always the best loser.

More so though, my relationship with tennis revolved around the four majors – the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, which seemed to define the calendar year and the seasons.

South Africa might have been isolated from the world in the mid-1980s, but every game was shown on SABC (the South African Broadcasting Corporation) with our legendary doubles champion Bob Hewitt waxing on in English about this shot and that and someone else providing the alternate Afrikaans commentary.

The French Open and Wimbledon were always my favourites – the former played on those bright red clay courts, with smartly dressed men and sexy, haughty European women in sunglasses watching from the stands (expertly picked out by the cameramen) while the umpire called the points in French.

They was probably the only words in French I knew:

“Zero – quarante” (Love – 40)

“Jeu” (Game”)

“Quarante – trente” (40-30)

And my favourite, the oh so very sophisticated:

“Egalite” (Deuce)

I loved all the sliding across the red clay, the ability to see exactly where the ball landed in the court when a dispute was called and the long baseline rallies by the likes of Mats Wilander, Sergi Bruguera, Thomas Muster and the tiny, plucky Michael Chang and his famous win over Stefan Edberg in 1989 (where I seem to remember a point he served underhand).

But Wimbledon holds the strongest memories for me.

It was always played in the middle of winter in South Africa, crisp, days when the afternoon sun streamed in through the sliding doors of the living room and always while I was studying for mid-year exams. I remember I’d structure my study time  – 40 minutes at my desk, then 20 minutes of tennis, which soon turned into 30 minutes and sometimes until my mother called the family over for dinner.

The men’s final evokes strong memories of family gatherings. Uncles and aunts and cousins would arrive for tea, cake and biscuits and then we’d all retire to the family room to watch the final. My father would invariably fall asleep (I have photographic evidence somewhere) but wake up in time for the trophy presentation by Duke of Edinburgh.

One year was particularly special – 1985. I was 12 years old and a South African had made it all the way to the final. His name was Kevin Curren. He was tall, awkward looking, softly spoken guy who blitzed the likes of McEnroe and Connors with an endless stream of aces and unplayable serves to power his way into the final against an unknown, unseeded 17-year-old German “wunderkid” called Boris Becker.

This was in the deep, dark days of apartheid isolation with only the likes of Gary Player and a few other individual sportsman able to still represent our country on the global stage.

The nation held its breath that day as we prayed that our new sporting idol, Kevin Curren, would play one more storming match and give us our first Grand Slam champ since Johan Kriek won the Australian Open in the late 1970s.

Sadly it was not to be. The fresh-faced, precious talent that was Boris Becker leaped onto the world stage on the hallowed grass of Wimbledon and tennis was changed for ever. It was upsetting to see our hero lose, but the truth is I became an enormous fan of Boris Becker with all his theatrical dives at the net and that powerful, trigger serve of his.

In the subsequent years, I remember the three Wimbledon Finals between the raging, tear away Boom Boom Becker and the cool elegant Swede, Stephen Edberg between 1988 and 1990 as among the most thrilling of my young adult life.

Later, while living in London, I was lucky enough to attend Wimbledon a couple of times, taking the train after work, queueing up for five-pound tickets and wander around the famous courts, indulging in some rather disappointing strawberries and cream and sitting on what was then called “Henman Hill” (now called Murray Mound) in the long summer days.

In 2004, I slept over at a mate’s house in Croydon  and we awoke at 4am to queue early for tickets for one of the show courts.

We got to watch a young very attractive talent by the name of Maria Sharapova on her way to her first Grand Slam, but the highlight was watching the panther like Roger Federer on his way to his second of seven Wimbledon Crowns.

And this week I got to see him again  in the twilight of perhaps the greatest of tennis careers.

To inappropriately quote Eric Clapton and Cream: Anyone for tennis, wouldn’t that be nice?