I laugh more than I’ve laughed since I was a boy, and even though it’s tinged with hysteria, the laughter has healing properties. For a few hours, late at night, laughter makes me feel like the old Andre, whoever that is.
I don’t know anything about tennis, but it seems to me that, by the third step, you’d better be thinking about stopping. Otherwise you’re going to hit the ball and keep running, which means you’ll be out of position for your next shot. The trick is to throttle down, then hit, then slam on the brakes, then hustle back. The way I see it, your sport isn’t about running, it’s about starting and stopping. You need to focus on building the muscles necessary for starting and stopping.
I tell Gil a little about my story. My father, the dragon, Philly, Perry. I tell him about being banished to the Bollettieri Academy. Then he tells me his story. He talks about growing up outside Las Cruces, New Mexico. His people were farmworkers. Pecans and cotton. Hard work. Wintertime, pick the pecans. Summertime, cotton. Then they moved to East LA., and Gil grew up fast on the hard streets.
I like sleeping on floors. My back feels better.
I’m not talking about the floor. I mean, here. Are you sure you want to be—here? You must have better places to be.
Can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be, Gil.
He gives me a hug. I thought I knew what a hug was, but you’ve really never been hugged until you’ve been hugged by a man with a fifty-six-inch chest.
I tell him my life has never for one day belonged to me. My life has always belonged to someone else. First, my father. Then Nick. And always, always, tennis. Even my body wasn’t my own until I met Gil, who is doing the one thing fathers are supposed to do. Making me stronger.
IF I MUST PLAY TENNIS, the loneliest sport, then I’m sure as hell going to surround my-
self with as many people as I can off the court. And each person will have his specific role. Perry will help with my disordered thoughts. J.P. will help with my troubled soul. Nick will help with the basics of my game. Philly will help with details, arrangements, and always have my back.
I study them and steal from them. I take an expression from Perry, a story from J.P., an attitude or gesture from Nick. I learn about myself, create myself, through imitation.
Gil, I think I can accomplish a lot. I think I can do—things. But after our short time togeth-
er, I’m reasonably certain that I can only do them with your help.
He doesn’t need a hard sell. Yes, he says. I would like to work with you.
He doesn’t ask how much I’ll pay him. He doesn’t mention the word money. He says we’re
two kindred spirits, embarking on a great adventure. He says he’s known it almost from the day we met. He says I have a destiny. He says I’m like Lancelot.
I see in Gil’s notebooks, in the care he takes with them, in the way he never skips a day, that I inspire him, and this inspires me.
As we roll into the parking lot of the stadium, I pull on my tennis gear. We stop at the security hut and tell the guard I’m expected, I’m one of the players. He doesn’t believe me. I show him my driver’s license.
Then he gives a speech. Gil, who learned English from newspapers and baseball games, delivers a flowing, lilting, poetic monologue, right outside Joe’s, and one of the great regrets of my life is that I don’t have a tape recorder with me. Still, I remember it nearly word for word.
Andre, I won’t ever try to change you, because I’ve never tried to change anybody. If I could change somebody, I’d change myself. But I know I can give you structure and a blue- print to achieve what you want. There’s a difference between a plow horse and a racehorse. You don’t treat them the same. You hear all this talk about treating people equally, and I’m not sure equal means the same. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a racehorse, and I’ll always treat you accordingly. I’ll be firm, but fair. I’ll lead, never push. I’m not one of those people who expresses or articulates feelings very well, but from now on, just know this: It’s on, man. It is on. You know what I’m saying? We’re in a fight, and you can count on me until the last man is standing. Somewhere up there is a star with your name on it. I might not be able to help you find it, but I’ve got pretty strong shoulders, and you can stand on my shoulders while you’re looking for that star. You hear? For as long as you want. Stand on my shoulders and reach, man. Reach.
To his credit, he finds a ray of confid- ence and wins the third set. Normally I’d be rattled. But this year I look to my box and see Gil.
I replay his parking lot speech, and win the fourth set, 6–3.
Whether or not it’s slipping, I imagine that it’s slipping. With every lunge, every leap, I picture it landing on the clay, like a hawk my father shot from the sky.
I can hear a gasp going up from the crowd. I can picture millions of people suddenly leaning closer to their TVs, turning to each other and in dozens of languages and dialects saying some version of: Did Andre Agassi’s hair just fall off?
Upon winning the match, Gómez is exceedingly gracious and charming. He weeps. He waves to the cameras. He knows he’ll be a national hero in his native Ecuador. I wonder what it’s like in Ecuador. Maybe I’ll move there. Maybe that’s the only place I’ll be able to hide from the shame I feel at this moment.
Qué lindo es soñar despierto, he says. How lovely it is to dream while you are awake. Dream while you’re awake, Andre. Anybody can dream while they’re asleep, but you need to dream all the time, and say your dreams out loud, and believe in them.
There’s a lot of good waiting for you on the other side of tired. Get yourself tired, Andre. That’s where you’re going to know yourself. On the other side of tired.
Then a different Pete shows up. A Pete who doesn’t ever miss. We’re playing long points, demanding points, and he’s flawless. He’s reaching everything, hitting everything, bounding back and forth like a gazelle. He’s serving bombs, flying to the net, bringing his game right to me. He’s laying wood to my serve. I’m helpless. I’m angry. I’m telling myself: This is not hap- pening.
Gil guards my body, my head, my game, my heart, my girlfriend. He’s the one immov- able object in my life. He’s my life guard.
Somehow he misses the easy volley. His ball smacks the net and just like that, after twenty-two years and twenty-two million swings of a tennis racket, I’m the 1992 Wimbledon champion.
I fall to my knees. I fall on my stomach. I can’t believe the emotion pouring out of me.
I’m unnerved by how giddy I feel. It shouldn’t matter this much. It shouldn’t feel this good. Waves of emotion continue to wash over me, relief and elation and even a kind of hysterical serenity.
Pops? It’s me! Can you hear me? What’d you think? Silence.
You had no business losing that fourth set.
Stunned, I wait, not trusting my voice. Then I say, Good thing I won the fifth set, though, right?
He says nothing. Not because he disagrees, or disapproves, but because he’s crying. Faintly I hear my father sniffling and wiping away tears, and I know he’s proud, just incapable of expressing it. I can’t fault the man for not knowing how to say what’s in his heart. It’s the family curse.
But I don’t feel that Wimbledon has changed me. I feel, in fact, as if I’ve been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing. Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something that very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last as long as the bad. Not even close.
I work hard at putting fame out of my mind.
But fame is a force. It’s unstoppable. You shut your windows to fame and it slides under the door. I turn around one day and discover that I have dozens of famous friends, and I don’t know how I met half of them.
My circle of ac- quaintances now includes Kenny G, Kevin Costner, and Barbra Streisand. I’m invited to spend the night at the White House, to eat dinner with President George Bush before his summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. I sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom.
I find it surreal, then perfectly normal. I’m struck by how fast the surreal becomes the norm. I marvel at how unexciting it is to be famous, how mundane famous people are. They’re confused, uncertain, insecure, and often hate what they do. It’s something we always hear—like that old adage that money can’t buy happiness—but we never believe it until we see it for ourselves.
I couldn’t believe that a human being was capable of producing that much sound, that a human voice could pervade every square inch of a room.
From that moment I was even more intrigued by Barbra. The idea that she possessed such a devastating instrument, such a powerful talent, and couldn’t use it freely, for pleasure, was fascinating. And familiar.
She was a tortured perfectionist who hated doing something at which she excelled.
I told her it was wrong to deprive the world of that voice, that astonishing voice. Above all, I told her that it would be dangerous to surrender to fear. Fears are like gateway drugs, I said. You give in to a small one, and soon you’re giving in to bigger ones.
More often than not, Barbra and I laugh at the shock and scandal our dates cause. We agree that we’re good for each other, and so what if she’s twenty-eight years older?
It makes our friendship feel forbidden, taboo—another piece of my overall rebellion. Dating Barbra Streisand is like wearing Hot Lava.
I don’t feel anything. Numb. As if the cortisone has spread from my wrist to engulf my being.
I just don’t trust surgeons. I trust very few people, and I especially dislike the notion of trusting one perfect stranger, surrendering all control to one person whom I’ve only just met. I cringe at the thought of lying on a table, unconscious, while someone slices open the wrist with which I make my living.
pain is the price of being human, and well worth it.
Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
We are like blocks of stone.
he blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect.
If I were you, with your skills, your talent, your return and footwork, I’d dominate. But you’ve lost the fire you had when you were sixteen. That kid, taking the ball early, being aggressive, what the hell happened to that kid?
You always try to be perfect, he says, and you always fall short, and it fucks with your head. Your confidence is shot, and perfectionism is the reason.
You try to hit a winner on every ball, when just being steady, consistent, meat and potatoes, would be enough to win ninety percent of the time.
Stop thinking about yourself, and your own game, and remember that the guy on the other side of the net has weaknesses.
You’re assuming too much risk. You don’t need to assume so much risk. Fuck that. Just keep the ball moving. Back and forth. Nice and easy. Solid. Be like gravity, man, just like motherfucking gravity. When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you’re doing? You’re chasing something that doesn’t exist. You’re making everyone around you miserable. You’re making yourself miserable. Perfection? There’s about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can’t lose to anybody, but it’s not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter. It’s the other times. It’s all about your head, man. With your talent, if you’re fifty percent game-wise, but ninety-five percent head-wise, you’re going to win. But if you’re ninety-five percent game-wise and fifty percent head- wise, you’re going to lose, lose, lose.
Would you have any interest in maybe becom- ing Andre’s coach?
Brad thinks it over. For three seconds. Yeah, he says. I think I’d like that. I think I can help you.
Perfectionism is something I chose, and it’s ruining me, and I can choose something else. I must choose something else. No one has ever said this to me. I’ve always assumed perfectionism was like my thinning hair or my thickened spin- al cord. An inborn part of me.
I feel crushed. Brad appears, smiling. Good things, he says, are about to happen.
I stare, incredulous.
He says, You have to suffer. You have to lose a shitload of close matches. And then one day you’re going to win a close one and the skies are going to part and you’re going to break through. You just need that one breakthrough, that one opening, and after that nothing will stop you from being the best in the world.
You’re crazy. You’re learning. You’re nuts. You’ll see.
My game speeding up, my mind slowing down, I storm through the rest of the draw and win the Canadian Open.
What if he’s right? What if this is it, my moment of truth, and I’m revealed to be a fraud? If it doesn’t happen now, when will I have another chance to win the U.S. Open? So many things have to fall your way. Finals don’t grow on trees. What if I never win this tournament? What if I always look back on this moment with regret? What if hiring Brad was a mistake? What if Brooke is the wrong girl for me? What if my team, so carefully assembled, is the wrong team?
I fall to my knees. My eyes fill with tears. I look to my box, to Perry and Philly and Gil and especially Brad. You know everything you need to know about people when you see their faces at the moments of your greatest triumph. I’ve believed in Brad’s talent from the begin- ning, but now, seeing his pure and unrestrained happiness for me, I believe unrestrainedly in him.
My new girlfriend, my new coach, my new manager, my surrogate father.
At last, the team is firmly, irrevocably, in place.
It’s as though she’s suggesting I have all my teeth pulled. I tell her to forget it. Then I go away and think about it for a few days. I think about the pain my hair has caused me, the in- convenience of the hairpieces, the hypocrisy and the pretending and the lying. Maybe it isn’t crazy after all. Maybe it’s the first step toward sanity.
But, really, what the hell have I lost? Maybe I’ll have an easier time being this guy. All this time with Brad, trying to fix what’s in my head, it never occurred to me to fix what’s on my head.
I tell them that tennis has nothing to do with destiny. Destiny has better things to do than count ATP points.
I stand and feel an overpowering urge to forgive, because I realize that my father can’t help himself, that he never could help himself, any more than he could understand himself. My father is what he is, and always will be, and though he can’t help himself, though he can’t tell the difference between loving me and loving tennis, it’s love all the same. Few of us are granted the grace to know ourselves
In my hand, he says, I hold the latest rankings.
Hit me with it.
You—are number one.
I’ve knocked Pete off the mountaintop. After eighty-two weeks at number one, Pete’s looking up at me. I’m the twelfth tennis player to be number one in the two decades since they started keeping computer rankings. The next person who phones is a reporter. I tell him that I’m happy about the ranking, that it feels good to be the best that I can be.
It’s a lie. This isn’t at all what I feel. It’s what I want to feel. It’s what I expected to feel, what I tell myself to feel. But in fact I feel nothing.
I'm wondering what the hell is wrong with me. I did it—I’m the number one tennis player on earth, and yet I feel empty. If being number one feels empty, unsatisfying, what’s the point? Why not just retire?
Also, I tell myself that retiring won’t solve my essential problem, it won’t help me figure out what I want to do with my life.
No, what I need is a new goal. The problem, all this time, is that I’ve had the wrong goals. I never really wanted to be number one, that was just something others wanted for me. So I’m number one. So a computer loves me. So what? What I think I’ve always wanted, since I was a boy, and what I want now, is far more difficult, far more substantial. I want to win the French Open. Then I’ll have all four slams to my credit. The complete set. I’ll be only the fifth man to accomplish such a feat in the open era—and the first American.
The more I think about winning all four slams, the more excited I become. It’s a sudden
and shocking insight into myself. I realize this is what I’ve long wanted. I’ve simply repressed the desire because it didn’t seem possible, especially after reaching the final of the French Open two years in a row and losing. Also, I’ve allowed myself to get sidetracked by sportswriters and fans who don’t understand, who count the number of slams a player won and use that bogus number to gauge his legacy. Winning all four is the true Holy Grail. So, in 1995, in Palermo, I decide that I will chase this Grail, full speed ahead.
I present her with a diamond tennis brace- let. She laughs as I put it around her wrist and fiddle with the clasp. We both admire the way it catches the moonlight. Then, just beyond Brooke’s shoulder, standing on the stone steps, a drunken Frenchman staggers into view and sends a high, looping arc of urine into the Seine. I don’t believe in omens, as a rule, but this seems ominous. I just can’t tell if it portends something for the French Open or my relationship with Brooke.
At last the tournament begins. I win my first four matches without dropping a set. It’s evident to reporters and commentators that I’m a different player. Stronger and more focused. On a mission. No one sees this more clearly than my fellow players. I’ve always noticed the way players silently anoint the alpha dog in their midst, the way they single out the one player who’s feeling it, who’s likeliest to win.
She takes it for granted that I’m going to win, and she wishes I’d hurry up and do it, so we can have fun. It’s not selfishness on her part, just a mistaken im- pression that winning is normal, losing is abnormal.
After the Wimbledon debacle, I want to cancel, but Brooke re- minds me we’ve secured the entire island, our deposit is nonrefundable.
Just as I feared, from the moment we arrive, paradise feels like Super-max. On the entire island there is one house, and it’s not big enough for the three of us—Brooke, me, and my black mood.
She’s not frightened by my silence, but she doesn’t understand it, either. In her world, everyone pretends, whereas in mine some things can’t be pretended away.
No matter how much you win, if you’re not the last one to win, you’re a loser. And in the end I always lose, because there is always Pete. As always, Pete.
I’ve always had trouble shaking off hard losses, but this loss to Pete is different. This is the ultimate loss, the über-loss, the alpha-omega loss that eclipses all others. Previous losses to Pete, the loss to Courier, the loss to Gómez—they were flesh wounds compared to this, which feels like a spear through the heart. Every day this loss feels new. Every day I tell my- self to stop thinking about it, and every day I can’t. The only respite is fantasizing about retire- ment.
I didn’t understand the meaning and value of education, the hardship and stress it causes most parents and children. I’ve never thought of education like that. School was always a place I managed to escape, not a thing to be treasured.
Helping Frankie provides more satisfaction and makes me feel more connected and alive
and myself than anything else that happens in 1996. I tell myself: Remember this. Hold on to this. This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting value or meaning. This is why we’re here. To make each other feel safe.
We’re not on the same frequency. We don’t have the same bandwidth. For instance, when I try to talk with her about Frankie, about the satisfaction of helping him, she doesn’t seem to hear. After the initial fun of introducing me to Frankie, she’s cool about him, indifferent, as if he’s played his part and now it’s time for him to move offstage.
Just as I start to enjoy something, to learn from it, she casts it aside.
We eat finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off, heaping plates of egg salad and scones with jam and butter—all things expressly engineered to clog the human artery, without the benefit of tasting good.