Open: An Autobiography (cont.)
Another time my father reaches across me and points his handgun at another driver. He holds the gun level with my nose. I stare straight ahead. I don't move. I don't know what the other driver has done wrong, only that it's the automotive equivalent of hitting into the net. I feel my father's finger tensing on the trigger. Then I hear the other driver speed away, followed by a sound I rarely hear -- my father laughing. He's busting a gut.
Such moments come to mind whenever I think about telling my father that I don't want to play tennis. Besides loving my father and wanting to please him, I don't want to upset him. I don't dare. Bad stuff happens when my father is upset. If he says I'm going to play tennis, if he says I'm going to be No. 1 in the world, that it's my destiny, all I can do is nod and obey.
Besides the occasional exhibition with a top-ranked player, my public matches are mostly hustle jobs. I have a slick routine to lure in the suckers. First, I pick a highly visible court, where I play by myself, knocking the ball all over the place. Second, when some cocky teenager or drunken casino guest strolls by, I invite him to play. Third, I let him beat me, soundly. Finally, in my most pitiful voice I ask if he'd like to play for a dollar. Maybe five? Before he knows what's happening, I'm serving for the match and 20 bucks.
I don't tell my father about my side business. Not that he'd think it was wrong. I just don't feel like talking to my father about tennis any more than is absolutely necessary. Then my father stumbles into his own hustle. It happens at Cambridge Racket Club in Vegas. As we walk in one day, my father points to a man talking with Mr. Fong, the owner.
That's Jim Brown, my father whispers. Greatest football player of all time.
He's an enormous block of muscle wearing tennis whites and tube socks. He's complaining to Mr. Fong about a money match that fell through. My father steps forward.
You looking for a game?
Yeah, Mr. Brown says.
My son Andre will play you.
Mr. Brown turns. He looks at me, then back at my father.
I ain't playing no eight-year-old boy!
Look, Mr. Brown says, I don't play for fun, O.K.? I play for money.
My son will play you for money.
I feel a bead of sweat start down my armpit.
Yeah? How much?
My father laughs and says, I'll bet you my f------ house.
I don't need your house, Mr. Brown says. I got a house. Let's say ten grand.
Done, my father says.
I walk toward the court.
Slow down, Mr. Brown says. I need to see some money up front.
I'll go home and get it, my father says. I'll be right back.
My father hurries out the door. I feel a heaviness in the center of my chest. What happens to me, to my father, to my mother and my three siblings, if I lose my father's life savings?
I've played under this kind of pressure before, when my father, without warning, has chosen an opponent and ordered me to beat him. But it's always been another kid, and there's never been money involved. This thing with Mr. Brown is different, and not just because my family's life savings are riding on the outcome. Mr. Brown disrespected my father, and my father can't punch him out. He needs me to do it. So this match will be about more than money. It will be about respect and manhood and honor -- against the greatest football player of all time.
Slowly I become aware that Mr. Brown is watching me. Staring. He walks over and shakes my hand. His hand is one big callus. He asks how long I've been playing, how many matches I've won, how many I've lost.
I never lose, I say quietly.
His eyes narrow. Mr. Fong pulls Mr. Brown aside and says: Don't do this, Jim.
Guy's asking for it, Mr. Brown whispers. Fool and his money.
You don't understand, Mr. Fong says. You are going to lose, Jim.
What the hell are you --? He's a kid.
That's not just any kid.
You must be crazy.
Mr. Brown walks back toward me and starts firing questions.
How much do you play?
No -- how long do you play at one time? An hour? Couple of hours?
My father's back. He's got a fistful of hundreds. He waves it in the air. But Mr. Brown has had a change of heart.
Here's what we'll do, Mr. Brown tells my father. We'll play two sets, then decide how much to bet on the third.
Whatever you say.
We play on Court 7, just inside the door. A crowd has gathered, and they cheer themselves hoarse as I win the first set 6--3. Mr. Brown shakes his head. He talks to himself. He bangs his racket on the ground. He's not happy, which makes two of us. I feel as if I might have to stop playing at any moment, because I need to throw up.
Still, I win the second set 6-3.
Now Mr. Brown is furious. He drops to one knee, laces his sneakers. My father approaches him.
So? Ten grand?
Naw, Mr. Brown says. Why don't we just bet $500.
Whatever you say.
My body relaxes. I want to dance along the baseline, knowing I won't have to play for $10,000.
Mr. Brown, meanwhile, is playing a less relaxed game. He's suddenly junking, drop-shotting, lofting lobs, angling the ball at the corners, trying backspin and sidespin and all sorts of trickery. He's also trying to run me back and forth, wear me out. But I can't be worn out, and I can't miss. I beat Mr. Brown 6-2.
Sweat running down his face, he pulls a wad from his pocket and counts out five crisp hundreds. He hands them to my father, then turns to me. Great game, son.
He shakes my hand. His calluses feel rougher -- thanks to me.
He asks what my goals are, my dreams. I start to answer, but my father jumps in.
He's going to be No. 1 in the world.
I wouldn't bet against him, Mr. Brown says.
The talent assembled at Wimbledon is stunning. There's Jim Courier, ranked No. 1, fresh off two Grand Slam victories. There's Pete Sampras, who keeps getting better. There's Stefan Edberg, who's playing out of his mind. I'm the 12th seed, and the way I've been playing I should be seeded lower.
In the quarters I go up against Boris Becker, who's reached six of the last seven Wimbledon finals. This is his de facto home court. But I've been seeing his serve well lately. I win in five sets, played over two days.
In the semis I face John McEnroe, a three-time Wimbledon champion. He's 33, nearing the end of his career, and unseeded. The fans want him to win, of course. Part of me wants him to win also. But I beat him in three sets. I'm in the final.
I'm expecting to face Pete, but he loses his semi to Goran Ivanisevic, a big, strong serving machine from Croatia. I've played him twice before, and both times he's shellacked me in straight sets. I have no chance against him. It's a middleweight versus a heavyweight. The only suspense is whether it will be a knockout or a TKO.