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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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Go stand there, my father tells me.

He hands me a racket, points me to the other side of the court, aims the machine at my head. Demonstrate, he says.

I'm having shuddering, violent flashbacks. Peter positions himself behind me and watches while I hit. Ahh, he says. Ja. Good.

My father clicks the dial until the balls are coming almost in twos. I don't have time to bring back my racket and hit the second ball. Peter scolds me for missing. He takes the racket, pushes me aside. This, he says, is the shot you should have had. You never had this shot. He shows me the famous Stefanie Slice, which he claims to have taught her.

My father is livid. He comes around the net, shouting: That slice is bulls--- ! If Stefanie had this shot, she would have been better off. He then demonstrates the two-­handed backhand he taught me. With this shot, my father says, Stefanie would have won 32 Slams!

The two men can't understand each other, yet they're having a heated argument. I turn my back, concentrate on hitting balls. I hear Peter mention my rivals, Sampras and Patrick Rafter, and my father responds with Stefanie's nemeses, Monica Seles and Lindsay Davenport. My father then uses a boxing analogy, and Peter howls in protest.

I was a boxer, too, Peter says -- and I would have knocked you out.

I cringe, knowing what's coming. I wheel just in time to see Stefanie's 63-year-old father take off his shirt and tell my 69-year-old father: Look at me. Look at the shape I'm in. I'm taller than you. I can keep you at bay with my jab.

My father says, You think so? Come on! You and me.

Peter is trash-­talking in German, my father is trash-­talking in Assyrian, and they're both putting up their fists. They're circling, feinting, bobbing and weaving, and just before one of them throws hands, I step in, push them apart.

They're winded, sweating. My father's eyes are dilated. Peter's chest is beaded with sweat. They see, however, that I'm not going to let them mix it up, so they go to neutral corners. I turn off the dragon, and we all walk off the court.

At home, Stefanie kisses me and asks how it went.

I'll tell you later, I say, reaching for the tequila.

I don't know when a margarita has ever tasted so good.

2006

Everyone travels to New York for my last U.S. Open. The whole team: Stefanie, our children, my parents, my brother Philly, Gil, my friend Perry Rogers, my coach Darren Cahill. We invade the Four Seasons, colonize my favorite Manhattan restaurant, Campagnola. The children smile to hear the applause as we walk in. To my ear, the applause sounds different this time. It has a subtext. They know this isn't about me, it's about all of us finishing something special together.

In the first round I play Andrei Pavel, from Romania. My back seizes up midway through the match, but despite standing stick straight I tough out a win. I ask Darren to arrange a cortisone shot for the next day. Even with the shot, I don't know if I'll be able to play my next match.

I certainly won't be able to win. Not against Marcos Baghdatis. He's ranked No. 8 in the world. He's a big strong kid from Cyprus, in the midst of a great year. He's reached the final of the Australian Open and the semis of Wimbledon.

And then somehow I beat him, in five furious, agonizing sets. Afterward I'm barely able to stagger up the tunnel and into the locker room before my back gives out. Darren and Gil lift me onto the training table, while Baghdatis's people hoist him onto the table beside me. He's cramping badly. A trainer says the doctors are on the way. He turns on the TV above the table, and everyone clears out, leaving just me and Baghdatis, both of us writhing and groaning in pain.

The TV flashes highlights from our match. SportsCenter. In my peripheral vision I detect slight movement. I turn to see Baghdatis extending his hand. His face says, We did that. I reach out, take his hand, and we remain this way, holding hands, as the TV flickers with highlights of our savage battle. We relive the match, and then I relive my life.

Finally the doctors arrive. It takes them and the trainers half an hour to get Baghdatis and me on our feet. Gil and Darren lead me out to the parking lot. It's two in the morning. Christ, Darren says. The car is several hundred yards away. I tell him I can't make it.

No, of course not, he says. Wait here and I'll bring it around. He runs off.

I need to lie down while we wait. Gil sets my tennis bag on the concrete, and I sit, then lie back, using the bag as a pillow.

I look up at the stars. So many stars. I look at the light stanchions that rim the stadium. They seem like bigger, closer stars.

Suddenly, an explosion. A sound like a giant can of tennis balls being opened. One stanchion goes out. Then another, and another.

I close my eyes. It's over.

No. Hell, no. It will never really be over.

The next morning I'm hobbling through the lobby of the Four Seasons when a man steps out of the shadows. He grabs my arm.

Quit, he says.

What?

It's my ­father -- or a ghost of my father. He looks ashen. He looks as if he hasn't slept in weeks.

Pops? What are you talking about?

Just quit. Go home. You did it. It's over.

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 wonder boy I might soon have to face. He's sick of the whole miserable thing. He sounds as if -- is it possible?

Yes, I see it in his eyes.

I know that look.

He hates tennis.

To purchase a copy of Open, go here.

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