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Posted: Friday October 30, 2009 2:04PM; Updated: Friday October 30, 2009 2:29PM
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Open: An Autobiography

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As powerful as Ivanisevic's serve is under normal circumstances, in the final it's a work of art. He's acing me left and right, monster serves that the speed gun clocks as fast as 138 mph. But it's not just the speed, it's the trajectory. They land at a 75-­degree angle. Each time he serves a ball past me, I say under my breath that he can't do that every time. The match will be decided on second serves.

He wins the first set 7-6. I don't break him once. I concentrate on breathing in, breathing out, remaining patient. When the thought crosses my mind that I'm on the verge of losing my fourth Grand Slam final without a victory, I casually set it aside.

In the second set Ivanisevic gives me a few freebies, makes a few mistakes, and I break him. I take the second set. Then the third. Which makes me feel almost worse, because once again I'm a set away from a Slam.

Ivanisevic rises up in the fourth set and destroys me. I've made the Croat mad. He loses only a handful of points. As the fifth set begins I run in place to get the blood flowing and tell myself: You want this. The problem in the last three Slams was that you didn't want them enough, and you didn't bring it, so this time you need to let Ivanisevic and everyone else in this joint know you want it.

Now Ivanisevic is serving at 4-5. He double faults. Twice. He's down love-30. He's cracking under the strain. He misses another first serve. I know precisely what's happening inside Ivanisevic's body. His throat is closing. His legs are quivering. But then he quiets his body and hits a second serve to the back of the box, a beam of yellow light that barely nicks the line. A puff of chalk shoots up. Then he hits another unreturnable serve. Suddenly it's 30-all.

He misses another first serve, makes the second. I crush a return, he hits a half volley, I run in and pass him and start the long walk back to the baseline. I tell myself, you can win this thing with one swing. One swing. You've never been this close. You may never be again.

And that's the problem. What if I get this close and don't win? The ridicule. The condemnation. I pause, try to shift my focus back to Ivanisevic. I need to guess which way he's coming with his serve. O.K., a typical lefty, serving to the ad court in a pressure point, will hit a bending slider out wide, to sweep his opponent off the court. But Ivanisevic isn't typical. His serve in a pressure point is usually a flat bomb up the middle. Sure enough, here he comes, but he nets the serve. Good thing, because that thing was a comet, right on the line. Even though I guessed right, I couldn't have put my racket on it.

Now the crowd rises. I call time, to have a talk with myself, saying aloud: Win this point or I'll never let you hear the end of it, Andre. Don't hope he double-faults. You control what you can control. Return this serve with all your strength, and if you return it hard but miss, you can live with that. You can survive that. One return, no regrets.

Hit harder.

He tosses the ball, serves to my backhand. I jump in the air, swing with all my strength, but I'm so tight that the ball to his backhand side has mediocre pace. Somehow he misses the easy volley. His ball smacks the net, and just like that, after 22 years and 22 million swings of a tennis racket, I'm a Grand Slam champion.

Later in the afternoon, trembling, I dial my father in Vegas.

Pops? It's me! Can you hear me? What'd you think?

Silence.

Pops?

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 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.

1997

I'm at my house in Las Vegas, watching TV with Slim, my assistant. I'm in a bad way. Gil Reyes's 12-year-old daughter, Kacey, who broke her neck in a snow-­sledding accident, isn't doing well after surgery. Meanwhile, my wedding to Brooke Shields looms. I think all the time about postponing it, or calling it off, but I don't know how.

Slim is stressed too. He was with his girlfriend recently, he says, and the condom broke. Now she's late. He announces that there's only one thing to do. Get high.

He says, You want to get high with me?

On what?

Gack.

What the hell's gack?

Crystal meth.

Why do they call it gack?

Because that's the sound you make when you're high. Your mind is going so fast, all you can say is gack, gack, gack.

That's how I feel all the time. What's the point?

Make you feel like Superman, dude.

As if they're coming out of someone else's mouth, I hear these words: You know what? F--- it. Yeah. Let's get high.

Slim dumps a small pile of powder on the coffee table. He cuts it, snorts it. He cuts it again. I snort some. I ease back on the couch and consider the Rubicon I've just crossed. There is a moment of regret, followed by vast sadness. Then comes a tidal wave of euphoria that sweeps away every negative thought in my head. I've never felt so alive, so ­hopeful -- and I've never felt such energy. I'm seized by a desperate desire to clean. I go tearing around my house, cleaning it from top to bottom. I dust the furniture. I scour the tub. I make the beds. I sweep the floors. When there's nothing left to clean, I do laundry. All the laundry. I fold every sweater and T-shirt, and still I haven't made a dent in my energy. I don't want to sit down. If I had table silver I'd polish it. I tell Slim I could do anything right now, anyf----- thing. I could get in the car and drive to Palm Springs and play 18 holes, then drive home and make lunch and go for a swim.

I don't sleep for two days. When I finally do, it's the sleep of the dead and the innocent.

I pull out of the French Open with a tender wrist I'd hurt a few weeks earlier. I go to London for Wimbledon but can't bring myself to practice. I tell my coach, Brad Gilbert, I'm pulling out of the tournament. I'm in vapor lock.

Brad says, What the hell does vapor lock mean?

I've played the game for a lot of reasons, I say, and it just seems like none of them have ever been my own.

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