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Posted: Friday October 30, 2009 2:04PM; Updated: Friday October 30, 2009 2:29PM
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'I Hate Tennis'

Story Highlights

Andre Agassi discusses life as a pro tennis player and his early development

Agassi is candid thoughout, assessing other players and his own demons

By Andre Agassi

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Erick Rasco/SI

Excerpted from Open: An Autobiography, by Andre Agassi. © 2009 ALA Publishing LLC. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.

I open my eyes and don't know where I am or who I am. Not all that ­unusual -- I've spent half my life not knowing. Still, this feels different. This confusion is more frightening. More total.

I look up. I'm lying on the floor beside the bed. I remember now. I moved from the bed to the floor in the middle of the night. I do that most nights. Better for my back. Too many hours on a soft mattress causes agony.

I count to three, then start the long, difficult process of standing. With a groan, I roll onto my side, then curl into the fetal position, then flip over onto my stomach. Now I wait, and wait, for the blood to start pumping.

I'm a young man, relatively speaking. Thirty­-six. But I wake as if 96. After two decades of sprinting, stopping on a dime, jumping high and landing hard, my body no longer feels like my body. Consequently my mind doesn't feel like my mind. I run quickly through the basic facts. My name is Andre Agassi. My wife's name is Stefanie Graf. We have two children, a son and a daughter, five and three. We live in Las Vegas but currently reside in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City, because I'm playing in the 2006 U.S. Open. My last U.S. Open. In fact my last tournament ever. I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have.

As this last piece of identity falls into place, I slide to my knees and wait. In a whisper I say: Please let this be over.

Then: I'm not ready for it to be over.

The fatigue of these final days has been severe. Apart from the physical strain, there is the exhausting torrent of emotions set loose by my pending retirement. Now, rising from the center of the fatigue comes the first wave of pain. I grab my back. It grabs me. I feel as if someone snuck in during the night and attached one of those antitheft ­steering-wheel locks to my spine. How can I play in the U.S. Open with the Club on my spine?

I was born with spondylolisthesis, meaning that a bottom vertebra parted from the other vertebrae, struck out on its own, rebelled. (It's the main reason for my ­pigeon-toed walk.) With this one vertebra out of sync, there's less room for the nerves inside the column of my spine, and with the slightest movement the nerves feel that much more crowded. Throw in two herniated disks and a bone that won't stop growing in a futile effort to protect the whole damaged area, and those nerves start to feel downright claustrophobic. When they send out distress signals, a pain runs up and down my leg that makes me suck in my breath and speak in tongues. At such moments the only relief is to lie down and wait. Sometimes, however, the moment arrives in the middle of a match. Then the only remedy is to alter my game -- swing differently, run differently, do everything differently. That's when my muscles spasm. Everyone avoids change; muscles can't abide it. Told to change, my muscles join the spinal rebellion, and soon my whole body is at war with itself.

Gil Reyes, my trainer, my friend, my surrogate father, explains it this way: Your body is saying it doesn't want to do this anymore.

My body has been saying that for a long time, I tell Gil. Since January, however, my body has been shouting it. My body doesn't want to ­retire -- my body has already retired. My body has moved to Florida and bought a condo and white Sansabelts. So I've been negotiating with my body, asking it to come out of retirement for a few hours here, a few hours there. Much of this negotiation revolves around a cortisone shot that temporarily dulls the pain. Before the shot works, however, it causes its own torments.

I got one yesterday, so I could play tonight. It was the third shot this year, the 13th of my career, and by far the most alarming. The doctor, not my regular doctor, told me brusquely to assume the position. I stretched out on his table, face-down, and his nurse yanked down my shorts. The doctor said he needed to get his ­seven-inch needle as close to the inflamed nerves as possible. But he couldn't enter directly, because my herniated disks and the bone spur were blocking the path. His attempts to circumvent them, to break the Club, sent me through the roof. First he inserted the needle. Then he positioned a big machine over my back to see how close the needle was to the nerves. In and out and around he maneuvered the needle, until my eyes filled with water.

Finally he hit the spot. Bull's-eye, he said.

In went the cortisone. The burning sensation made me bite my lip. Then came the pressure. I felt infused, embalmed. The tiny space in my spine where the nerves are housed began to feel vacuum packed. The pressure built until I thought my back would burst.

Pressure is how you know everything's working, the doctor said.

Words to live by, Doc.

1977

I'm seven years old, talking to myself, because I'm scared, and because I'm the only person who listens to me. Under my breath I whisper: Just quit, Andre, just give up. Put down your racket and walk off this court, right now. Wouldn't that feel like heaven, Andre? To just quit? To never play tennis again?

But I can't. Not only would my father, Mike, chase me around the house with my racket, but something in my gut, some deep unseen muscle, won't let me. I hate tennis, hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing, keep hitting all morning, and all afternoon, because I have no choice. No matter how much I want to stop, I don't. I keep begging myself to stop, and still I keep playing, and this gap, this contradiction between what I want to do and what I actually do, feels like the core of my life.

At the moment my hatred for tennis is focused on the dragon, a ball machine modified by my fire-­belching father and set up on the court he built in our yard in Las Vegas. Midnight black, mounted on big rubber wheels, the dragon is a living, breathing creature straight out of my comic books. It has a brain, a will, a black heart -- and a horrifying voice. Sucking another ball into its belly, the dragon makes a series of sickening sounds. As pressure builds inside its throat, it groans. As the ball rises slowly to its mouth, it shrieks. And when the dragon takes dead aim at me and fires a ball 110 miles an hour, the sound it makes is a bloodthirsty roar. I flinch every time.

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