In the sweet spot
No other sport uses the language of life like tennis. I've been thinking about this during Wimbledon (today should be the final), but Andre Agassi put it best: "Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature." His "Open: An Autobiography" (Knopf, 2009) is full of such thoughtful lines. And it's unafraid of the darkness — the tiger moms and dads, the stunting isolation on the tour, the unbearable pressure — beneath this world glinting in sunlight and tennis whites. It may be the best sports memoir ever written.
During his last US Open, in 2006, Agassi read another masterful memoir, J.R. Moehringer's "The Tender Bar," about a fatherless boy who finds various father stand-ins at a pub in his hometown. Agassi found it "staggering" and, to his true credit, got Moehringer to collaborate. Most ex-jocks hire sportswriters to ghost their books (usually those who filed the most favorable pieces). The results are often high on play-by-play, low on psychological depth, with a kind of glib and shouting prose.
Not here. Agassi and Moehringer compared their process to therapy — at first Agassi was blocked talking about his childhood and marriages — but the end result gives us a harrowing portrait of his father, an Armenian Olympic boxer who grew up in Iran and later became a casino captain in Las Vegas. We've seen stage parents like this before. But Emmanuel Agassi was formidable in his anger and obsession: While Andre was still in his crib, he made him a mobile of tennis balls and taped a paddle to his hand. By the time Andre was 7, his father had decided that the boy must hit at least 2,500 balls daily in their backyard court, which Andre calls "my prison."
From there it's a blur of top tennis camps (" 'Lord of the Flies' with forehands") and tournaments, with Andre leaving school after ninth grade to join the circuit: This shocked me, but so it went for a generation of tennis players, who skip a crucial stage of maturity and pay the price down the road. Meanwhile, he describes key matches with acuity: Not a great natural athlete, Agassi had to find the mental edge, and his head games (especially with Boris Becker) make for shrewd reading.
In 1986, I saw John McEnroe play in Vermont at the Volvo International Tournament. I'd never been to a pro match and was struck by how oddly intimate, even embarrassing, it was. The quietly reverential crowd, the loudly fulminating players — such a bizarre contrast. Once again, Agassi offers context. "No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players," he writes. "In the heat of a match, tennis players look like lunatics in a public square, ranting and swearing and conducting Lincoln-Douglas debates with their alter egos. Why? Because tennis is so damn lonely."
Loneliness haunts all these books. Boxing may come closest for athletic solitude, but at least a boxer can lean on others in his corner. Jimmy Connors embodies this boxing-tennis link: His mom was a tennis pro who taught Mickey Rooney and Errol Flynn, while his grandfather sparred with Joe Louis. Agassi calls himself "a boxer with a tennis racket." Connors calls tennis "boxing at 90 feet."
In "The Outsider: A Memoir" (Harper, 2013) Connors gives us his also-formidable mom (who became his manager). Unlike Agassi's dad, Gloria Connors was careful to avoid burnout, limiting her son's boyhood practices to an hour or less a day. "As a result, I always looked forward to my next workout," writes Connors. (Note: Connors says he loves the game; Agassi says he always hated it.)
Both players struggle with their post-career health (spinal issues for Agassi, three hip replacements for Connors). Connors had a gambling problem and OCD; Agassi used drugs and threw games. Today's players are more staid, which may explain all the recent titles on "the colorfully vulgar golden age," per Tennis magazine's executive editor Stephen Tignor in "High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis's Fiercest Rivalry" (Harper, 2011). I'm not nostalgic — the brattiness! the bad hair! — but rivalries make good copy. And with Borg playing ice to McEnroe's fire, we get the historic 1981 US Open when the losing Borg walks off the court to essentially end his career.
Tignor has some absorbing stuff on the upper-class origins of the game — patented in 1874, it was meant for amateurs who were rich enough not to worry about prize money. Class figures, as well, into "A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, A World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played" (Crown, 2009). The three are Don Budge, son of an Oakland. Calif., truck driver, Gottfried von Cramm, an elegant German baron, and Bill Tilden, the American tennis god, mentoring the German team. The setting is England, the Davis Cup, July 1937, with swastikas flying next to the Union Jack.
Author Marshall Jon Fisher writes a bit breathlessly for me, but he's got a fine story. Cramm is such a gentleman he alerts an umpire to a call that favors him but is wrong, and thus loses an earlier match. But he's got a secret: He's gay, with a Jewish lover, and Hitler will jail Cramm unless he keeps playing — and winning. He wins two sets, Budge two, and the fifth is epic. This triple threat of game, profiles, and history was pioneered by John McPhee in his classic "Levels of the Game" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, first published in 1969) about another killer match between (black liberal) Arthur Ashe and (white conservative) Clark Graebner at the 1968 US Open.
Sports Illustrated ranked "Levels" 16th on its 2002 list of the 100 best sports books. And SI writer L. Jon Wertheim is jealous of McPhee's now-unthinkable access: Ashe and Graebner watched tapes of the match with him, parsing virtually every point. Wertheim is pretty much on his own, though, reconstructing another event, the 2008 Wimbledon men's final, in "Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). And so we get the colossally talented Swiss and Spanish netmen: Federer with his sublime efficiency, power, and 27 different forehand strokes, Nadal a wizard of topspin and a near-violent style of play ("he's a medical disaster waiting to happen"). It's smart reading, but nothing beats David Foster Wallace's exquisite New York Times article from 2006, "Federer as Religious Experience," in which he cites Thomas Aquinas, speaks of high-level sports as "a prime expression of human beauty," and marvels how some Federer shots are "like something out of 'The Matrix.' "
There are a few out-of-print books about the women's tour (lots of affairs, eating disorders, chauvinism) and plenty of bios (Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, etc.). But I'm going with Serena Williams's thought-provoking, if introspection-lite, memoir "On the Line" (Grand Central Publishing, 2009). It's upfront on tennis as a reflector of issues of race and class. The strongest chapters consider her hardcore-coach-father, who pushes his five daughters to play in their tough neighborhood outside LA (one later dies from gang violence), as he realizes that tennis prize money was "our ticket up and out of Compton."
Williams is heartfelt on charged moments — meeting Billie Jean King early, visiting "slave castles'' in Africa later — and uses her own experience to discuss what it means to be black and poor in a sport founded on ultimate white privilege. Like Agassi, she reads into tennis terms, too, finding "advantage" the most loaded. And so I'll end with a little more language. Do you know why zero is called "love?" It comes from "playing for love," as in for nothing, rather than money. That now seems ironic, to a fault.