The last place I want to be, other than a tennis court, is in a car with my father. But it’s all settled. I’m condemned to divide my childhood between these two boxes.
I play as if my life hangs in the balance, which it does. Tarango must have a father like mine, because he’s playing the same way.
For once I’m not afraid of my father. No matter how angry he is with me, I’m angrier. I’m furious with Tarango, with God, with myself. Even though I feel Tarango cheated me, I shouldn’t have put him in a position to cheat me.
I’ve internalized my father—his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage—until his voice doesn’t just feel like my own, it is my own. I no longer need my father to torture me. From this day on, I can do it all by myself.
My father says that when he boxed, he always wanted to take a guy’s best punch. He tells me one day on the tennis court: When you know that you just took the other guy’s best punch, and you’re still standing, and the other guy knows it, you will rip the heart right out of him. In tennis, he says, same rule. Attack the other man’s strength. If the man is a server, take away his serve. If he’s a power player, overpower him. If he has a big forehand, takes pride in his forehand, go after his forehand until he hates his forehand.
My father has a special name for this contrarian strategy. He calls it putting a blister on the other guy’s brain.
since most tennis players pride themselves on their serve, my father turns me into a counterpuncher—a returner.
Part of me feels grateful for my mother’s endless calm. Part of me, however, a part I don’t like to acknowledge, feels betrayed by it. Calm sometimes means weak. She never steps in. She never fights back. She never throws herself between us kids and my father. She should
tell him to back off, ease up, that tennis isn’t life.
MY FATHER WORKS HARD, puts in long hours on the night shift at the casino, but tennis
is his life, his reason for getting out of bed. No matter where you sit in the house, you see scattered evidence of his obsession. Aside from the backyard court, and the dragon, there is my father’s laboratory, also known as the kitchen. My father’s stringing machine and tools take up half the kitchen table.
my father cajoles most of them into hitting a few balls with me. Some are more willing than others. Borg acts as if there is nowhere else he’d rather be. Connors clearly wants to say no, but can’t, because my father is his stringer. Ilie Nastase tries to say no, but my father pretends to be deaf. A champion of Wimbledon and the French Open, ranked number one in the world, Nastase has other places he’d rather be, but he quickly discovers that refusing my father is next to impossible. The man is relentless.
I’m proud, of course, to think my father has such faith in me. But mainly I’m scared. What hap- pens to me, to my father, to my mother and my siblings, not to mention Grandma and Uncle Isar, if I lose?
I don’t like sports, but if I must play a sport to please my father, I’d much rather play soccer. I get to play three times a week at school, and I love running the soccer field with the wind in my hair, calling for the ball, know- ing the world won’t end if I don’t score. The fate of my father, of my family, of planet earth, doesn’t rest on my shoulders. If my team doesn’t win, it will be the whole team’s fault, and no one will yell in my ear. Team sports, I decide, are the way to go.
I beg him for a second chance. I tell my father that I don’t like being by myself on that huge tennis court. Tennis is lonely.
He’s adamant, and desperate, because that was the plan for Rita, Philly, and Tami, but things never worked out. Rita rebelled. Tami stopped getting better. Philly didn’t have the killer instinct.
When my cheating opponent hits a shot in the center of the court, I call it out and stare at him with a look that says: Now we’re even.
I don’t do this to please my father, but it surely does. He says, You have a different men- tality than Philly. You got all the talent, all the fire—and the luck. You were born with a horse- shoe up your ass.
Perry doesn’t just talk, then listen, then nod. He converses. He analyzes, strategizes, spit-balls, helps me come up with a plan to make things better. When I tell Perry my problems, they sound jumbled and asinine at first, but Perry has a way of rearranging them, making them sound logical, which feels like the first step to making them solvable. I feel as if I’ve been on a desert island, with no one to talk to but the palm trees, and now a thoughtful, sensitive, like-minded castaway.
I don’t want to leave my home, my siblings, my mother, my best friend. Despite the tension of my home, the occasional terror, I’d give anything to stay. For all the pain my father has caused me, the one constant has been his presence. He’s always been there, at my back, and now he won’t be. I feel abandoned. I thought the one thing I wanted was to be free of him, and now that he’s sending me away, I’m heartbroken.
He’s yelling. Mr. Agassi! Nick Bollettieri here! Right, right. Yes, well, listen to me. I’m going to tell you something very important. Your boy has more talent than anybody I’ve ever seen come through this academy. That’s right. Ever. And I’m going to take him to the top.
You’re number 610.
Six-ten in the world, bro.
Which means there are only 609 people better than me in the entire world. On planet earth, in the solar system, I’m number 610.
For laughs, I decide to play the match in jeans. Not tennis shorts, not warm-up pants, but torn, faded, dirty dungarees. I know it won’t affect the outcome. The kid I’m playing is a chump. I can beat him with one hand tied behind my back, wearing a gorilla costume.
Everywhere I walk people are pointing at me, whispering. There he is. That’s the kid I was telling you about—the prodigy. It’s the prettiest word I’ve ever heard applied to me.