Agassi's anecdotes shine brightest
Andre Agassi's revealing autobiography is can't-put-down good
It's hard to make a case that Agassi's meth use distorted his achievements
Tennis doesn't understand the idea of "absence makes the heart grow fonder"
I'm sure you're slammed with questions about Andre Agassi's admission of drug use and his lying to the ATP about the reasons for a positive test. Whether he should or shouldn't have written about this aside, what effect does this have on his legacy? This is, after all, a guy with a positive image who we now know probably should have been suspended.
It was all-Andre, all the time this week. Never mind that the WTA just held its year-end championships. Before we talk specific issues, I want to urge everyone to read this book (which will be released on Monday). It is can't-put-down good. I kept recalling David Foster Wallace's famous lament about Tracy Austin's unrevealing memoir and thinking, "He sure couldn't accuse Andre of that!" Agassi takes the reader to a 350-page therapy session. The writing here is exceptional -- pacing, word choice, narrative arc, recurring themes. The balance between tennis content and "story content" is well-struck. Hardcore fans will get their diet of Bernd Karbacher and polyester strings. But those knowing or caring little about tennis will simply enjoy the personal journey of a flawed but ultimately sympathetic figure. The crystal meth admission got the headlines, but I can name 10 more surprising/compelling anecdotes and figures.
What effect does the meth bombshell have on Agassi's legacy? I suspect the answer will be different in a month, when people have actually read the entire book, and not simply a blurb. Right now, Agassi is taking a hit -- fueled, surprisingly, by criticism from current players -- both for the drug use and the lies he conveyed to a gullible tribunal.
But because the drug use was not performance-enhancing and because it was undertaken in 1997 when Agassi was winning nothing, it's hard to make the case that it distorted his achievements or robbed the competition. Not that Agassi is too worried either way. As he takes pains to point out, he doesn't much care for tennis. Not as a sport. Not as a profession. Not as an institution. For someone so perceptive about the technical side of the sport and the "process" of hitting a ball, he ain't losing sleep about his perceived status in the Kingdom of Tennis.
I like Andre's revelation that he lost the 1990 French Open final because his wig was falling off. Because you see, that's what autobiographies are all about -- telling your side of the story that everyone's forgotten, and if it somehow tarnishes the achievements of Andres Gomez -- one of the nicest guys in tennis, the only Ecuadorean Grand Slam champion and one of the most in-form players of the clay-court circuit that year -- well, so be it!
I suppose that collateral damage is, necessarily, an unpleasant consequence of writing a brutally honest nonfiction book. Reputations take a hit, myths are exploded, achievements are recast in lesser light. Agassi seldom comes off as petty or a bitter guy simply settling old scores. He backs up most of his assertions. But from Andres Gomez to Boris Becker to Jeff Tarango to sportswriter Mike Lupica to the sensationally self-absorbed Brooke Shields, there's substantial roadkill here.
Now that I know the obstacles Agassi had to overcome to claim his fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth Grand Slam titles, well, I think I admire him even more than before.
I presume Jay is talking about Agassi's kicking his crystal meth habit. Without giving away too much, here's what is frustrating: It's not entirely clear what effect this had on his career. Did the meth hamper his training or his tennis in the long term? Did Gil Reyes, the real hero of the book, ever know? What made him quit? Was it hard? Any temptation to backslide? For such an explosive revelation, you wish there had been more context and "follow-up care," as it were. But to Jay's point, leaving the drug use aside, it is hard to read this book and not admire Agassi even more than before. Beginning with his tyrannical father and ending with his tyrannical body, Agassi overcame plenty.
Keep the "haters" at bay. Serena Williams' best tennis is easily top-250 material on the men's side. And all men are just lucky she wasn't born male. Who is her equal? Roger Federer? Not physical enough. Rafael Nadal? Not dominant enough (yet). Andy Murray? Too much of a pusher (and too tactical). Pete Sampras? Didn't win on all surfaces.
As similar questions/assertions keep coming in, I feel like this topic exploded on us a bit. I tried make a half-facetious point that Serena's physique and temperament make the prospect of her playing a low-ranked male pro particularly intriguing. But just so we're clear: Serena would stand no chance of challenging, much less beating, any of the opponents Conrad names. Great, now let's avoid this topic for at least a few years!
Re: your statement about Margaret Court. Fact is, she won like 11 Australian Opens when absolutely no other real players went to the penal colony of the South Pacific.
Just to refresh: This e-mail was published in last week's mailbag. And this arrived in response ...
Really? Someone from Berlin wants to get into a national history insult contest?
In your gesicht, Berlin. Global Smackdown 2010. It's on.
This is more an observation rather than a question. The ATP lacks anticipation. For instance, by the time the NFL get here, people are ready for it. In contrast, by the time the ATP winds up its season, casual fans are asking whether the season hadn't already wrapped up after the U.S. Open. Besides, players need time to recover from an endless season.
A number of people -- including Andy Roddick -- have made this same point. Apart from enabling athletes to recover physically and emotionally from a draining season, one of the benefits of a real offseason is that it leaves people missing the sport and excited for Opening Day. You go through a little withdrawal. You read about your favorite player in repose (and hopefully not the police blotter), you hold your fantasy draft. Less is more. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. All that. In tennis? Let's just say if baseball were tennis, pitchers and catchers would be reporting to Florida and Arizona on Monday!
What happened to the "further investigation" by the USTA regarding Serena's actions at the U.S. Open?
No kidding. I heard an announcement was coming the first week of October. Since then, radio silence. I don't envy the administrators on this one. No matter how this plays out, there will be a lot of anger and unhappy constituents.
It is comeback time for many former top players. Do you know if anybody could convince Jennifer Capriati of making a return in 2010?
She needs no persuading. What she needs is a healthy shoulder.
Your point last week regarding athletes' uneven performances made me think of a match from 2006 where Roger Federer, at his absolute apex, nearly lost in Tokyo to Takao Suzuki, ranked No. 1,078 at the time. [Federer won 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3)]. That would have been a crazy upset.
But it didn't happen. Just when you thought we had exhausted the "why Federer is great" file, here's another point: When was the last time he took a bad loss at a major? By my reckoning, it was the French in 2003 (a first-round loss to Luis Horna), before he had achieved much.