He draws up a plan. He outlines a proper diet. And no more Mr. Nice Guy, he says. No
more lapses, no more fast food, no more shortcuts.
Above all, he’s going to keep me on a strict schedule. Eat, exercise, lift, hit, at precise
times of day.
I’m ranked number 141 in the world, the lowest I’ve been ranked in my adult life, the low- est I’ve dreamed of being ranked. Sportswriters say I’m humbled. They love saying this. They couldn’t be more wrong. I was humbled in the hotel room with Brad. I was humbled smoking meth with Slim. Now I’m just glad to be out here.
Every shot is an educated guess, and I’m no longer educated. I’m as green as I was in ju- niors. It took me twenty-two years to discover my talent, to win my first slam—and only two years to lose it.
I’ve negotiated a long-term deal with Nike, which will pay me tens of millions over the next decade. I’ve bought my parents a house. I’ve taken care of everyone on my team. Now I’m financially able to think larger, to widen my lens, and in 1997, though I’ve hit rock bottom, or because I’ve hit rock bottom, I’m ready.
What more can we do? How can we make a bigger difference in their lives?
Stan says, You have to figure out a way to occupy more of their day. Otherwise it’s one step forward, two steps back. You really want to make a difference? You want to have a lasting impact? You need more of their day. In fact, you need all of their day.
Perry and I resolve to build the best charter school in America.
No matter where you are in life, there is always more journey ahead.
I’m going to be different. But even if I can’t, even if I’m finished, even if I lose everything, I’m still going to be different.
we must all care for one another—this is our task in life. But also we must care for ourselves, which means we must be careful in our decisions, careful in our relationships, careful in our statements. We must manage our lives carefully, in order to avoid becoming victims. I feel as if he’s speaking dir- ectly to me, as if he’s aware that I’ve been careless with my talent and my health.
I go to Key Biscayne. I want to win, I’m crazy to win. It’s not like me to want a win this badly. What I normally feel is a desire not to lose. But warming up before my first-rounder, I tell myself I want this, and I realize precisely why. It’s not about my comeback. It’s about my team. My new team, my real team. I’m playing to raise money and visibility for my school. After all these years I’ve got what I’ve always wanted, something to play for that’s larger than myself and yet still closely connected to me. Something that bears my name but isn’t about me. The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy.
I feel a remarkable confidence in my game, and a new purpose for being on the court—so how come I still feel all this fear? Doesn’t the fear ever go away?
Fear is your fire, Andre.
I feel only a cool gratitude and a steely resolve, which I maintain in part by waking early every morning, writing out my goals. After putting them on paper, saying them aloud, I also say aloud: No shortcuts.
I run two miles through Rock Creek Park, the same park where I gave my rackets away in 1987. With every step I’m close to passing out, but I don’t care. This run, even if it brings on heatstroke, will give me peace of mind tonight in that all-important ten minutes before I fall asleep. I now live for that ten minutes. I’m all about that ten minutes. I’ve been cheered by thousands, booed by thousands, but nothing feels as bad as the booing inside your own head during those ten minutes before you fall asleep.
Always an island. One way or another, we spend all our time together on islands. We are islands. Two islands. And I can’t recall when it was different.
Oh Andre, she says again. You don’t understand. You just don’t get it. This isn’t about us—this is about you individually and me individually.
I eat something, watch TV, go to bed early. In the morning I phone Perry and tell him I want the fastest divorce in the history of divorce.
I give my platinum wedding band to a friend and point him to the nearest pawnshop. Take their first offer, I tell him. When he brings me the cash I make a donation to my new school in the name of Brooke Christa Shields. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, she will forever be one of the original benefactors.
He says it’s all par for the course. He tells me that for the last few years my mind has been a swamp—stagnant, fet- id, seeping in every direction. Now it’s time for my mind to be a river—raging, channeled, and therefore pure. I like it. I tell him I’ll try to keep this image in mind.
Gil’s philosophy in all things is to seek the pain, woo the pain, recognize that pain is life. If you’re heartbroken, Gil says, don’t hide from it. Wallow in it. We hurt, he says, so let’s hurt.
feeling pain’s a hard way To know you’re still alive.
I like the house, it’s more my style than the French Country place where she and I lived in Pacific Palisades, but it doesn’t have a fireplace. I can’t think without a fireplace. I must have fire.
So I hire a guy to build one.
I think about Mandela. I think about the promises I’ve made to myself and others. I reach for the phone and dial Brad.
Come to Vegas. I’m ready to play.
He says he’s on his way.
Unbelievable. He could dump me—no one would blame him—but instead he drops everything the moment I call. I love the guy.
He says no. He says Steffi would never agree to break her regular prepara- tion schedule for a practice session with a stranger. She’s too regimented. Also, she’s shy. She’d be highly uncomfortable. But Brad is persistent, and Heinz must have some trace of ro- mantic in him. He suggests Brad and I book the court for right after Steffi’s practice session, then arrive early. Heinz will then casually suggest that Steffi hit a few balls with me.
I tie my shoes quickly. I pull a racket out of the bag and walk onto the court—then impuls- ively whip off my shirt. It’s shameless, I realize, but I’m desperate. Steffi looks and does a barely detectable double take. Thank you, Gil.
We start to hit. She’s flawless, of course, and I’m struggling to get the ball over the net.
The net is your biggest enemy. Relax, I tell myself. Stop thinking.
But I can’t help myself. I’ve never seen a woman so beautiful. Standing still, she’s a goddess; in motion, she’s poetry. I’m a suitor, but also a fan.
Brad treats her like Rafter or Pete. She has strengths, she has weaknesses. He breaks down her game, coaches me up.
The conversation continues over the next two days. At dinner, in the steam room, at the hotel bar, the three of us talk about nothing but Steffi. We’re plotting, using military jargon, like recon and intel. I feel as if we’re planning a land and sea invasion of Germany.
WE DECIDE THAT I’LL wait for Steffi to win her first match—a foregone conclusion—and when she does, I’ll phone. J.P. preps me for the call. He plays the role of Steffi. We rehearse every scenario. He throws me every line she might possibly utter.
We fax drafts back and forth. Her team, my team. Lawyers and publicists have a go at it. Brooke adds a word, I delete a word. Faxes and more faxes. What began with faxes ends with faxes.
Brad and I run down to the lobby every morning, buy up all the newspapers, then sit over breakfast and scan every page, looking for the headline. For the first time in my memory I can’t wait for newspapers to report about my private life. Each day I say a prayer: Let this be the day that Steffi learns I’m free.
I tell myself: Just win one set. Winning one set off this guy would be an accomplishment. One set—try for that. Scaling down the task makes it seem manageable and makes me looser.
Don’t think, Andre. Turn off your mind.
I make Moyá run. And run. I establish a sadistic rhythm, chanting to my- self: Run, Moyá, run. I make him run laps. I make him run the Boston Marathon.
I win the second set, and the crowd is cheering. In the third set I run Moyá more than I’ve run the last three opponents combined, and suddenly, all at once, he’s cooked. He wants no part of this. He didn’t sign on for anything like this.
In the hotel elevator, I feel Gil staring again. Gil, what is it?
I have a feeling.
I feel like you’re on a collision course. With what?
I’m not sure I believe in destiny.
Brad, Gil, and I enter the arena a few seconds before Springsteen comes onstage. As we run down the aisle, several people spot me and point. A man yells my name. Andre! Allez, Andre! A few more men take up the cry. We slip into our seats. A spotlight scans the crowd—and suddenly lands on us. Our faces appear on the giant video screen above the stage. The crowd roars. They begin to chant: Allez, Agassi! Allez, Agassi! Some sixteen thousand people—about the same number as the crowd at Roland Garros—are chanting, cheer- ing, stomping their feet. Allez, Agassi! It has a lilt the way they chant it, a bouncing rhythm like a children’s nursery rhyme. Deet-deet, da da da. It’s contagious. Brad chants too. I stand, wave. I’m honored. Inspired. I wish I could play the next match right now. Here. Allez, Agassi!
I stand once more, my heart in my throat. Then, at last, the Boss comes on.
I stare at my food, silent.
Brad and Gil discuss me as if I’m not at the table.
He’s OK physically, Gil says. He’s in fine condition. So give him a good speech, Brad.
Coach him up.
What do you want me to say?
Think of something.
Brad takes a swig of beer and turns to me. OK, Andre. Look. Here’s the deal. I need
twenty-eight minutes from you tomorrow. What?
Twenty-eight minutes. It’s a sprint through the tape. You can do it. You’ve got five games to win, that’s all, and that shouldn’t take any more than twenty-eight minutes.
Brad knows my mind, the way it works. He knows that order, specificity, a clear and precise goal, are like candy to me. But does he also know the weather? For the first time it crosses my mind that Brad isn’t a coach but a prophet.
I fight back to deuce. I hold. The set is now tied. Having averted disaster, I’m suddenly loose, happy. It’s so typical in sports. You hang by a thread above a bottomless pit. You stare death in the face. Then your opponent, or life, spares you, and you feel so blessed that you play with abandon. I win the fourth set and the match. I’m in the final.
My first look is to Brad, who’s excitedly pointing to his watch and the digital play clock on the court.
Twenty-eight minutes. On the dot.
The people, the press, are fascinated by my improbable run. Everyone can identify with it. They see something of themselves in my comeback, in my return from the dead.
I go to the window. I feel sick. I think about this last year, these last eighteen months, these last eighteen years. Millions of balls, millions of decisions. I know this is my final chance to win the French Open, my final chance to win all four slams and complete the set, which means my fi- nal shot at redemption. The idea of losing scares me, and the thought of winning scares me nearly as much.
Brad says nothing. I think of Nick, standing in about the same spot, saying nothing to me during the rain delay when I lost to Courier eight years ago. Some things never change. Same elusive tournament, same queasy feeling, same callous reaction from my coach.
I yell at Brad: Are you kidding me? You’re going to pick this moment, of all moments, to decide not to talk? Of all times, this is the moment you’re finally going to shut the hell up?
He stares. Then starts screaming. Brad, who never raises his voice to anybody, comes apart.
What do you want me to say, Andre? What is it that you want me to say? You tell me he’s too good. How the fuck would you know? You can’t judge how he’s playing! You’re so con- fused out there, so blind with panic, I’m surprised you can even see him. Too good? You’re making him look good.
Just start letting go. If you’re going to lose, at least lose on your own terms. Hit the fucking ball.
And if you’re not sure where to hit it, here’s an idea. Just hit it to the same place he hits it. If he hits a backhand crosscourt, you hit a backhand crosscourt. Just hit yours a little better. You don’t have to be better than the whole fucking world, remember? You just have to be bet- ter than one guy.
He leans in, ready to obliterate this second serve. As a returner you’re always guessing about your opponent’s psyche, and Medvedev knows my psyche is in tatters after missing five serves in a row. He’s guessing, therefore, with a high degree of certainty, that I won’t have the stomach to be aggressive. He expects a nice soft kick serve. He thinks I have no other choice. He steps up, well inside the baseline, sending me a message that he anticipates a softie, and when he gets hold of it he’s going to ram it down my throat. He wears a look on his face that unmistakably says: Go ahead, bitch. Be aggressive. I dare you.
This moment is the crucial test for both of us. This is the turning point in the match, per- haps in both of our lives. It’s a test of wills, of heart, of manhood. I toss the ball in the air and refuse to back down. Contrary to Medvedev’s expectations, I serve hard and aggressive to his backhand. The ball takes a wicked skidding bounce. Medvedev stretches out and shovels the ball to the center of the court. I hit a forehand behind him. He gets there, hits a backhand at my feet. I bend, play an awkward forehand volley that lands on the line, he shovels it over the net, and then I tap it ever so lightly back over, where it dies, a huge winner for such a soft shot.
Now we play on my terms. I move Medvedev side to side, hit the ball big, do everything Brad said to do. Medvedev is a step slower, notably distracted. He’s had too long to think about winning. He was five points away, five points, and it’s haunting him. He’s going over and over it in his mind. He’s telling himself, I was so close. I was there. The finish line! He’s living in the past, and I’m in the present. He’s thinking, I’m feeling. Don’t think, Andre. Hit harder.
I have two match points. I need to win this thing right now, or I’m going to have to serve out the match, and I don’t want that. If I don’t win this thing right now, maybe I don’t win at all. If I don’t win this thing right now, I’ll be in Medvedev’s shoes, haunted by how close I was. If I don’t win this thing right now, I’ll have to think about the French Open in my old age, in my rocking chair, mumbling about Medvedev with a plaid blanket over my legs. I’ve already obsessed about this tournament for the last ten years. I can’t bear the idea of ob- sessing about it for another eighty. After all this work and sweat, after this improbable comeback and this miraculous tournament, if I don’t win this thing right now, I’ll never be happy, truly happy, again. And Brad will have to be institutionalized.
Championship point. Half the crowd is yelling my name, the other half is yelling, Ssssh. I hit another sizzling first serve, and when Medvedev steps to the side and takes a chick- en-wing swing, I’m the second person to know that I’ve won the French Open. Brad is the first. Medvedev is third. The ball lands well beyond the baseline. Watching it fall is one of the great joys of my life.
I raise my arms and my racket falls on the clay. I’m sobbing. I’m rubbing my head. I’m terrified by how good this feels. Winning isn’t supposed to feel this good. Winning is never sup- posed to matter this much. But it does, it does, I can’t help it. I’m overjoyed, grateful to Brad, to Gil, to Paris—even to Brooke and Nick. Without Nick I wouldn’t be here. Without all the ups and downs with Brooke, even the misery of our final days, this wouldn’t be possible. I even re- serve some gratitude for myself, for all the good and bad choices that led here.
I walk off the court, blowing kisses in all four directions, the most heartfelt gesture I can think of to express the gratitude pulsing through me, the emotion that feels like the source of all other emotions. I vow that I will do this from now on, win or lose, whenever I walk off a ten- nis court. I will blow kisses to the four corners of the earth, thanking everyone.
I’m drinking champagne out of my trophy. Gil is drinking a Coke and he’s physically incapable of not smiling. Every now and then he puts his hand on mine—it’s as heavy as a dictionary—and says, You did it.
Halfway across the Atlantic, I realize that we’re going to land on Steffi’s birthday. What are the chances? What if we bump into her? It would be nice to have something for her.
I should make some kind of birthday card now. But with what?
I notice that the airplane’s first-class menu is kind of cool. On the cover is a photo of a country church under a sliver of moon. I combine two covers into one card and along the in- side I write: Dear Steffi, I wanted to take this opportunity to wish you a happy birthday. How proud you must feel. Congratulations on what I know is only a sliver of what is out there for you.
I punch holes in the two menus. Now I just need something to hold them together. I ask the flight attendant if she has any string or ribbon. Maybe some tinsel? She gives me a bit of raffia coiled around the neck of a champagne bottle. I carefully weave the raffia through the holes. It feels as though I’m stringing a tennis racket.
She’s coming, dude, she’s coming.
I look up like an Irish setter. If I had a tail it would be wagging. She’s thirty yards off, wear- ing tight-fitting blue warm-up pants. I notice for the first time that she walks slightly pi- geon-toed, like me. Her blond hair is pulled back in a ponytail and gleaming in the sun. It looks, yet again, like a halo.
I stand. She gives me the European double-cheek kiss.
Congratulations on the French, she says. I was so happy for you. I had tears in my eyes. Me too.
Congratulations to you as well, I say. You paved the way. You warmed up the court for me.
Luckily, no fans or photographers are around, so she seems relaxed, in no hurry. I’m
oddly relaxed as well. Brad, however, is making small squeaking noises, like air being slowly let out of a balloon.
Oh, I say. Hey. I just remembered. I have a gift for you. I knew it was your birthday, so I made you a card. Happy Birthday.
She takes the card, looks at it for several seconds, then looks up, touched. How did you know it was my birthday?
Thank you, she says. Really.
She walks away quickly.
THE NEXT DAY she’s coming off the practice courts just as Brad and I arrive. This time there are mobs of fans and reporters all around and she seems painfully self-conscious. She slows, gives us a half wave, and in a stage whisper says: How can I reach you?
I’ll give my number to Heinz.
Another day passes.
I’m in agony. Wimbledon starts Monday, and I can’t sleep, can’t think. Sleeping pills are
powerless against this kind of anxiety.
She had better call, Brad says, or you’re going to lose in the first round. Saturday night, just after dinner, the phone rings.
Hi. It’s Stefanie.
While talking to her I go skiing around the living room in my sweat socks. I schuss across the wood floors. Brad pleads with me to stop, to sit in a chair. He’s sure I’m going to break a leg or tweak a knee. I settle into an easy cross-country motion around the perimeter of the room. He smiles and tells Perry, We’re going to have a good tournament. It’s going to be a good Wimbledon.
Listen, I tell Stefanie, back in Key Biscayne you said you didn’t want any misunderstandings with me. Well, I don’t want any misunderstandings with you either. So I need to tell you, I just need to say before we go any further, that I think you are beautiful. I respect you, I admire you, and I would absolutely love to get to know you better. That’s my goal. That’s my only agenda. That’s where I am. Tell me this is possible. Tell me we can go to dinner.
With the silence stretching to an uncomfort- able length, the moment sliding away, all I can come up with is this:
Six years is a long time.
Yes, she says. Yes it is.
If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. I’ve lived that.
She doesn’t say anything. But it’s the way she doesn’t say anything. I’ve struck a chord.
I knock my fist against my forehead. Think, Andre, think.
I hear Brad cough in the next room. I know what the cough means. It’s the morning of the final. An athlete should never change his routine on the morning of a final. I’ve had coffee every morning of the tournament. I should be having coffee now.
I imagine Borg phoning me again to congratulate me. Andre? Andre, it’s me. Björn. I envy you.
Pete wakes me from my fantasy. Unreturnable serve. Unreturnable serve. Blur. Ace. Game, Sampras.
I stare at Pete in shock. No one, living or dead, has ever served like that. No one in the history of the game could have returned those serves.