When the room-service guy knocks at the door, she asks me to wait in the kitchen. She
says she doesn’t want to be seen together. She feels uncomfortable about our date. Guilty. She can imagine the room-service guy going back to tell his fellow room-service guys. She has a boyfriend, she reminds me.
Stefanie eats faster than I and doesn’t touch her wine. I realize she’s not a foodie
We talk about my foundation. She’s fascinated to hear about the charter school I’m build- ing; she has her own foundation, which gives psychological counseling to children scarred by war and violence in places like South Africa and Kosovo.
She gives me the double-cheek kiss, which is starting to feel like a karate self-defense move. She runs inside.
Come on. How fast are you?
She points down the beach, at a red balloon in the distance.
See that red dot down there?
You’d never beat me to that.
She smiles. Off she goes. I go tearing after her. It feels as if I’ve been chasing her all my life, and now I’m literally chasing her. At first it’s all I can do to keep pace, but near the finish line I close the gap. She reaches the red balloon two lengths ahead of me. She turns, and peals of her laughter carry back to me like streamers on the wind.
I’ve never been so happy to lose.
I’M IN CANADA, she’s in New York. I’m in Vegas, she’s in Los Angeles. We stay connected by phone. One night she asks for a rundown of my favorites. Song. Book. Food. Movie.
It came out several years ago. It’s called Shadowlands. It’s about C. S. Lewis, the writer. I hear a sound like the phone dropping.
That’s impossible, she says. That’s simply not possible. That’s my favorite movie.
It’s about committing, opening yourself to love.
Yes, she says. Yes, it is, I know.
We are like blocks of stone … blows of His chisel which hurt us so much are what make us perfect.
Back to Germany. I have some—some unfinished business.
I know what this means. She’s going to talk to her boyfriend, tell him about me, break things off. I feel a goofy smile spread across my face.
I reach the semis. I’m scheduled to play Kafelnikov. Stefanie phones and says she’ll come. But she won’t sit in my box. She’s not ready for that.
She watches from the upper deck, wearing a baseball cap pulled low over her eyes. Of course the CBS cameras pick her out of the crowd, and McEnroe, doing commentary, says U.S. Open officials should be ashamed, not getting Steffi Graf a better seat.
He leads two sets to one, a commanding lead at this tournament. No one ever comes back from such a deficit in the final here. It hasn’t happened in twenty-six years. I see in Martin’s eyes that he’s feeling it, and waiting for me to show the old cracks in my mental armor. He’s waiting for me to crumble, to revert to that jittery, emotional Andre he’s played so often in years past.
When are you going to see Stefanie again?
She’s still here.
What do you mean?
I cup my hand over my mouth and whisper: It’s still Date Three. She hasn’t left. Well—what?
I assume she’ll leave eventually, go back to Germany, get her stuff, but we don’t talk about it, and I don’t want to bring it up. I don’t want to do anything to disrupt things.
The way you’re not supposed to wake a sleepwalker.
I run up and down Gil Hill until I see visions. I run in the morning, I run in the evening. I run on Christmas Eve
I feel it, I’m on a collision course with Pete again, and sure enough we face off in the semis. I’ve lost four of the last five times we’ve played, and he’s as good this day as ever. He hits me with thirty-seven aces, more than he’s ever notched against me. But I’ve got Christmas Eve with Gil. Two points from losing the match I mount a furious comeback. I win the match and become the first man since Laver to reach the final in four straight slams.
Brad tells the Washington Post: He’s got a 27–1 match record over the last four Grand Slams. Only Rod Laver, Don Budge, and Steffi Graf have ever done better.
At the news con- ference after my win against Medvedev I told reporters that I could now leave tennis with no regrets. But one year later I realize that I was wrong. I will always have one regret—that I can’t go back and relive the 1999 French Open again and again.
I look up at my box. Stefanie has her head down. She’s never seen me lose like this.
Later I tell her that I don’t understand why I sometimes come apart—still. She gives me in- sights from her experience. Stop thinking, she says. Feeling is the thing. Feeling.
She says it’s one thing not to think, but you can’t then decide to feel. You can’t try to feel. You have to let yourself feel.
You can’t play, Gil says, unless you feel inspired. That’s your nature. That’s always been your nature, since you were nineteen years old. But you can’t feel inspired unless the people around you are OK. I love you for that.
I wish him the best, and I mean it. To my mind, being with the right woman is true happiness.
Are Stefanie and I ready for a perfect stranger in the house? I’m a stranger to myself—what will I be to my son? Will he like me?
We’ve had a great run, Andre, but we’ve gone as far as we can go. We’re growing stag-
nant. Creatively. I’ve burned through my bag of tricks, buddy.
Stefanie will murder me. I need to even this boy’s hair out before she gets home. But in my frantic attempt to even out the hair, I make it shorter. Before I know what’s happened, my son is balder than I. He looks like Mini-Me.
It’s my fifty-first tournament victory, my seven hundredth victory overall. And yet I have no doubt I’ll remember this tournament less for beating Federer than for that one belly laugh. I wonder if the laugh had something to do with the win. It’s easier to be free and loose, to be yourself, after laughing with the ones you love.
when Pete serves for a match, he’s a coldblooded killer.
It doesn’t matter where I am, strictly speaking, because parts of me are still in Russia and France and the last dozen places I’ve played. And the biggest part of me, as always, is home with Stefanie and Jaden.
I fear that I won’t be able to tell Jaden all that I’ve seen and learned. So every night, wherever I am, I jot a few lines to him. Random thoughts, impressions, lessons learned.
Always value others, Jaden. There is so much peace in taking care of people.
Jaden, if you ever feel overwhelmed with something like I was tonight, just keep your head down and keep working and keep trying. Face it at its worst and realize it’s not so bad. That will be your chance for peace.
More like a near-life experience. It’s how a person talks when he almost didn’t live.
I just need to reach the finals and I’ll be ranked number one again. And I do. I beat Jürgen Melzer, 6–4, 6–1, and go out with Darren and Gil to celebrate. I throw down several vodka-cranberries. I don’t care that I’m playing in the final against Roddick tomorrow—I’m already ranked number one.
Which is why I beat him. That perfect blend of caring and not caring, the best preparation.
One minute, I’m almost serving for the match, the next minute he’s raising his arms in conquest. Tennis.
Reporters want to know why I keep going. I explain that this is what I do for a living. I have a family and a school to support. Many people benefit from every tennis ball I hit.
Maybe they’re confused because I don’t tell them the full story, don’t explain my full motiv- ation. I can’t, since I’m only slowly becoming aware of it myself. I play and keep playing be- cause I choose to play. Even if it’s not your ideal life, you can always choose it. No matter what your life is, choosing it changes everything.
My biggest hope for my child is that he’s focused on something.
I reach the quarters, where again I face Federer. I can’t win a set. He dis- misses me like a teacher with a dense pupil. He, more than any of the young guns taking con- trol of the game, makes me feel my age. When I look at him, with his suave agility, his shot- making prowess and puma-like smoothness, I remember that I’ve been around since the days of wooden rackets.
Reporters say it was a massacre. They ask if I feel bad about beating him.
I say: I would never want to deprive anybody of the learning experience of losing.
He’s like me before I met Brad: thinks he needs to win every point. He doesn’t know the value of letting the other guy lose.
I can’t beat this guy, I know I can’t, so I may as well just try to give a good show. Freed from thoughts of winning, I instantly play better. I stop thinking, start feeling. My shots become a half-second quicker, my decisions become the product of instinct rather than logic.
I’ve heard old-timers say that the fifth set has nothing to do with tennis. It’s true. The fifth set is about emotion and conditioning. Slowly I leave my body. Nice knowing you, body. I’ve had several out-of-body experiences over my career, but this one is healthy. I trust my skill, and I step out of its way. I remove myself from the equation.
If there is to be a final decision in this match, one final decision on this night of 100,000 decisions, I want that final decision to be mine. I irrevocably commit. He serves, as expected, to my backhand. It hangs just where I thought it would hang, like a soap bubble. I feel all the hairs on my body rise. I feel the crowd rise.
When Blake hugs me at the net, we know we’ve done something special. But I know it better, because I’ve played eight hundred more matches than he has. And this match stands apart from the others. I’ve never been more intellectually aware, never felt the need to be more intellectually aware, and I take a certain intellectual pride in the finished product. I want to sign it.
I win the set. It’s not possible, but I’m in the final of the U.S. Open at thirty-five years old.
I’m reminded how slight the margin can be on a tennis court, how narrow the space between greatness and mediocrity, fame and anonymity, happiness and despair. We were playing a tight match. We were dead even. Now, due to a tiebreak that made my jaw drop with admiration, the rout is on.
When I broke into tennis, I was like most kids: I didn’t know who I was, and I rebelled at being told by older people. I think older people make this mistake all the time with younger people, treating them as finished products when in fact they’re in process.
What people see now, for better or worse, is my first formation, my first incarnation. I didn’t alter my image, I discovered it. I didn’t change my mind. I opened it.
People see my self-exploration as self-expression.
I watch Stefanie watching the kids, smiling, and I think of the four of us, four distinct personalities. Four different surfaces. And yet a matching set. Complete. On the eve of my final tournament, I enjoy that sense we all seek, that know- ledge we get only a few times in life, that the themes of our life are connected, the seeds of our ending were there in the beginning, and vice versa.
He says he prays for me to retire. He says he can’t wait for me to be done, so he won’t have to watch me suffer anymore. He won’t have to sit through my matches with his heart in his mouth. He won’t have to stay up until two in the morning to catch a match from the other side of the world, so he can scout some new wonderboy I might soon have to face. He’s sick of the whole miserable thing.
The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. Over the last twenty-one years I have found loyalty: You have pulled for me on the court, and also in life. I have found inspiration: You have willed me to succeed, sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I have found generosity: You have given me your shoulders to stand on, to reach for my dreams—dreams I could have never reached without you. Over the last twenty-one years I have found you, and I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life.
I won’t let myself down the way others have. It’s up to me to change the course of my future and I will never give up.
Life is a tennis match between polar opposites. Win- ning and losing, love and hate, open and closed. It helps to recognize that painful fact early. Then recognize the polar opposites within yourself, and if you can’t embrace them, or recon- cile them, at least accept them and move on. The only thing you cannot do is ignore them.
In the same way that she wastes no movement on the court, she never wastes words. J.P. points out that the three most influential people in my life—my father, Gil, Stefanie—aren’t native English speakers. And with all three, their most powerful mode of communication may be physical.
I hope he and his sister feel that same pride in this book ten years from now, and thirty, and sixty. It was written for them, but also to them. I hope it helps them avoid some of the traps I walked right into. More, I hope it will be one of many books that give them comfort, guidance, pleasure. I was late in discovering the magic of books. Of all my many mistakes that I want my children to avoid, I put that one near the top of the list.