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OPENed: can of worms

The term ‘open’ is used a lot in the tennis world. The Open Era refers to the period of time when tennis tournaments and Grand Slams became open to professional tennis players as well as amateurs in 1968. Hence you have the Australian Open, French Open, Italian Open, US Open…I could go on.

So when Andre Agassi launched his book entitled ‘Open’ in October 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking he was simply expressing himself using predictable tennis terminology.

Only he wasn’t. He was being Open in every normal sense of the word – frank, honest, truthful, straight, sincere; quite literally an open book. Agassi’s book created a lot of shocks that saw it reach not just the back page sport headlines but the front pages – and it wasn’t even Wimbledon summer time!

The Times had exclusive rights to his book launch in October 2009, printing excerpts two days running focused on Agassi’s shocking drug revelations (more on that later on). After buying both papers and reading Andre’s confessions, and despite dropping hints to family to buy me the book for Christmas, I only got around to buying and reading the book recently. And what a treat is has been to read.

We all make assumptions about other people. We clump groups of people together and have a structure in our minds of how they feel and act and think. You see I had made an assumption that Andre Agassi liked, tennis even loved tennis, with all his heart and with all his soul, like all the pros do. I presumed you had to love the sport to go to such extreme levels to play professionally day after day and lead the demanding schedule that takes you all over the world. But I was wrong.

More shocking to me than Andre’s drug scandal was the fact that on the first page, Agassi revealed that he hates tennis. Imagine that, writing about someone on the LoveTennisBlog that actually hates tennis! And that person being Andre Agassi?? In the words of a famous Northern Ireland Politician, Never!

Once I was over my shock I quickly settled into the book and I will admit, the first section ironically entitled ‘The End’ brought tears to my eyes.

Andre opened up the book detailing, and I mean detailing, his epic match against Marcos Baghdatis in his final US Open appearance in 2006. Right from the very moment he opened his eyes that morning, he tells the story of the preparation, showers (yes, there was more than one), Gil water (secret hydrating recipe), trip to the Arthur Ashe Stadium, the match itself and the after match routine that quite simply was a work of art written over 23 pages.

So how could a description of one day in a tennis player’s career draw tears? As a fan of the sport for many years, I have never fully grasped or appreciated the sacrifice the players give to the game. What sacrifice? The stress and strain and tension their bodies are put through.

As a casual club player, my body doesn’t come under anywhere near the pressure of these guys because I’m too lazy and my sorest ever injury was falling on my backside when going backwards to hit a forehand years ago (if Agassi is honest, I might as well be too).

Waking up after sleeping on the floor because of back pain, Andre, then 36 years of age writes how he rises like a 96 year old, after 13 career cortisone shots and suffering from spondylolisthesis (the reason he gives for walking like a pigeon). His body is in a tender state so much so its almost painful to read as he slowly moves his body around which sounds like its about to break all over their fancy Four Seasons hotel suite.

Thankfully his wife Stefanie (because that is her real, full name that she prefers to be called by) has trained their two kids Jaden and Jaz not to pounce on Daddy in the mornings like most kids do because their dad is rather delicate. As the day progresses and the preparations mount for the match, Andre relays his fight with his body who has already retired “moved to Florida and bought a condo and white Sansabelts”.

I’ve extracted some paragraphs below as Andre beautifully describes his post match experience and how he and his earlier opponent meet again, both exhausted and dazed from their five set thriller match and lying on adjacent physio tables:

“I hear moans to the left. I turn my head slowly and see Baghdatis on the next table. His team is working on him… He curls into a ball and begs them to leave him be. Everyone clears out of the locker room. It’s just the two of us. I hear my name coming from the TV…Highlights from the match…Some of the best tennis I’ve ever played. Some of the best I’ve ever seen. The commentator calls it a classic.

In my peripheral vision I detect slight movement. I turn to see Baghdatis extending his hand. His face says, we did that. I reach out, take his hand and we remain this way, holding hands, as the TV flickers with scenes of our savage battle.

And because my mind notes and records the slightest details, I see everything with bright, startling clarity, every setback, victory, rivalry, tantrum, paycheck, girlfriend, betrayal, reporter, wife, child, outfit, fan letter, grudge match and crying jag. It all flies past in a high-def whirl.

People often ask what it’s like, this tennis life, and I can never think how to describe it. But that word comes closest. More than anything else, it’s a wrenching, thrilling, horrible, astonishing whirl.

It even exerts a centrifugal force, which I’ve spent three decades fighting. Now lying on my back under the Arthur Ashe Stadium, holding hands with a vanquished opponent and waiting for someone to come help us, I do the only thing I can do. I stop  fighting it. I just close my eyes and watch.”

As fans, we sit and shout at the TV and tell pros to put the ball left and right and lob and volley from the edge of our sofas. We move them like they are just some characters in a Nintendo Wii game that don’t need refreshment or encouragement or water or toilet breaks or cortisone shots.

We expect them to play well, every day and every match and not to let down their countless fans in the crowd because that might be the only time they get to see them play live. We forget the hours and the rigmarole their bodies have to endure so we can have something to entertain us as we scoff down our strawberries and cream and drink our iced Pimms.

We don’t see any of this sacrifice that is given from not just one player but hundreds of male and female players every day. As they retire and the rest of us slave over a desk for another forty years to get a pension, we forget their bodies have been aged to an extent they might as well be checked into a retirement home quite literally restrained in how they walk and move and feel.

Agassi’s book has thrown up plenty of other interesting stories and issues and as such, I will return another day with more insight into this former world number one. As the title suggests, this can of worms is just opened.

The language Agassi uses throughout the book is conversational, funny and very easy to read. The only reason you might have to re-read a section of his book is because the truth and stark honesty blows you away the first time. This might also have something to do with a Mr J.R. Moehringer who helped Andre pen the autobiography.

A modest guy, Andre paid tribute to J.R. who didn’t want his name on the cover of the book which features a strikingly face-to-face in-your-face Andre Agassi, holding a non-smiling pose, unusual for a guy well known for his charming cheeky grin.

I would seriously recommend getting your hands on a copy, it’s an enjoyable read and no matter how you feel about Agassi’s drug revelations, you might change your mind when you hear his full story…I did.