This Tennis Life

A look at Andre Agassi’s successful memoir.

By Scott Korb

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Andre Agassi hits a forehand return at the U.S. Open, 2005. Photograph by Eugene Wei.

On August 30, 1992, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an essay by David Foster Wallace now known as “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” a title Wallace apparently chose when the piece was collected in his 2005 book Consider the Lobster. In the essay, Wallace ostensibly reviews 1980s tennis juggernaut Tracy Austin’s sports memoir Beyond Center Court: My Story, and for those of you who have never read Wallace on Austin, suffice it to say he was disappointed by the book, which at one point he calls “breathtakingly insipid.”

Wallace’s heartbreak is clear from the very start. “I think,” he writes towards the end of the first paragraph, “Austin’s memoir has finally broken my jones for the genre.” The book’s essential failure is not to come through on what Wallace sees as its promise to “let us penetrate the indefinable mystery of what makes some persons geniuses, semi-divine, to share with us the secret and so both reveal the difference between us and them and to erase it, a little, that difference.” For Wallace, an excellent junior tennis player himself, another reason the book was such a monumental disappointment was that growing up he had loved Austin’s prodigiousness, beauty, and inspiration—or, in a word, her genius.

I’ve been an off-and-on tennis player and fan for most of my life. I went to tennis camp as a kid, for a few summers lost in the early rounds of United States Tennis Association junior tournaments, was known to be a bad loser with a bad temper, and had a subscription to Tennis that I used for an eighth-grade research project on Andre Agassi. Despite my McEnroe-esque on-court attitude, during those summers Agassi shaped both my on-court fashion—day-glo pink Nike Air Tech Challenges, stonewashed denim shorts, the occasional spandex—and the way I tried to hit my forehand on the rise. Yet, though I love all that Bart Giamatti and John McPhee have written about sports, to say nothing of Roger Angell and of course DFW, in all my life I’ve never shared Wallace’s jones for sports memoirs. Andre Agassi’s Open, published last year, excerpted in this summer’s Sports & Games issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, and now out in paperback, may indeed have been my first.

Unlike with Austin’s memoir, the reviews of Agassi’s book have been almost all gushing. It’s a book, it’s been said, that even Wallace might have loved—though I’m not so sure. After all, Wallace did once note, “I loathe Agassi with a passion.” He then continued in the same essay, “String Theory,” published in the July 1996 issue of Esquire, to drum home his point: “He’s incredible to see play in person, but his domination…doesn’t make me like him any better; it’s more like it chills me, as if I’m watching the devil play.” Indeed, Wallace’s last mention of Agassi was in his August 2006 New York Times PLAY Magazine essay “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” In that piece, Agassi plays the foil to Federer’s genius:

[A]nd what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi’s side, a winner—Federer’s still dancing backward as it lands.

Agassi on the same match: “Now the shit is rolling downhill and doesn’t stop.”

In a sense, what Wallace claims to have ever wanted out of the sports memoir—to penetrate the mystery of genius—is immaterial. He goes so far in the Tracy Austin essay to say that her very “blindness and dumbness” on the matter of what it’s like to possess athletic genius is not genius’s price but “its essence.” It takes a spectator, and preferably one with an ability to write, “to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied.” And in writing about Federer, that gift gets called metaphysical. Wallace’s friend Jonathan Franzen, in his forthcoming novel Freedom, will describe the athlete’s being in “the zone” as “an alert drowsiness or focused dumbness that persisted no matter what she was doing.”

What’s striking about Agassi’s memoir—beyond the dull admissions that he wore a rug for years, or that he used crystal meth during the ‘90s—is that these metaphysical descriptions of “the zone” are absent. Of course, it’s almost certainly true that Agassi was just never quite that good a tennis player—never as good as Austin or Federer. Never a genius. As he tells it, “this tennis life”—by which he ultimately means “this life period”—is a “wrenching, thrilling, horrible, astonishing whirl.” The life is confusing. And above all else, it’s lonely.

For non-genius tennis players—and there are many, many more of them than the Federer-type—the loneliness of a tennis court, what Agassi calls an “island,” leads players to talk to themselves, “and answer.” A point which leads me to the key of Agassi’s memoir, which can be found in his acknowledgments:

This book would not exist without my friend J.R. Moehringer.

It was J.R., before we even met, who first made me think seriously about putting my story on paper. During my first U.S. Open, in 2006, I spent all my free time reading J.R.’s staggering memoirThe Tender Bar. The book spoke to my heart. I loved it so much, in fact, that I found myself rationing it, limiting myself to a set number of pages each night…Eventually I asked J.R. if he’d consider working with me, helping me tackle my own memoir and give it shape…J.R. moved to Las Vegas and we got right to it. We have the same work ethic, the same obsessive all-or-nothing approach to big goals. We met each day and developed a strict routine—after wolfing down a couple of burritos, we’d talk for hours into J.R.’s tape recorder. No topics were out of bounds, so our sessions were sometimes fun, sometimes painful. We didn’t go chronologically or topically; we simply let the talk flow.

To do better than Austin—in this case as a writer—Agassi needed someone else to talk to, someone else who would answer him—and for him—in writing. Someone who’d been as lonely and confused as he had. Someone else, another perfectionist, whose life had been spent trying “to put order to chaos,” as Moehringer puts it.

If you haven’t read The Tender Bar, do. Here are a few choice lines. On loneliness: “Sometimes I felt so alone that I wished there were a bigger, longer word for alone.” On perfectionism: “According to my black-and-white view of the world, it wasn’t enough to do my best. I had to be perfect. … I needed to eliminate all mistakes.” On self-contradiction: “My inability to see life in anything but black and white prevented me from understanding my contradictory self.” And finally, on writing: “I’d rather write other people’s stories.”

And so we have Open, a book that succeeds—whereas Austin was bound to fail—to both reveal the difference between us and them and to erase it, a little, that difference. It’s safe to say that when Agassi approached Moehringer with the idea of writing about himself, the tennis player didn’t actually know himself very well. (Indeed, in what seems a direct nod to Moehringer’s essential role inOpen—a move that in the blink, or authorial wink, of an eye erases the difference between “us” and “them”—Agassi writes very early, “I open my eyes and don’t know where or who I am.” For his part, Moehringer concludes the first chapter of The Tender Bar with, “I closed my eyes and laughed and for a few moments forgot who and where I was.”)

What Agassi needed, and what he found in his friend J.R., was someone who would ask and ask and ask again not just about the devil of a player he had been on the court but also about the person who would answer him when stuck out there alone on that great island.