He fought his way
out with his fists, all the way to the 1948 and '52 Olympics as a boxer for
Iran, but when he arrived in the U.S. at age 22 with a couple of bucks, a
couple of words of English and a new first name--Mike--he didn't choose his
Olympic sport, the immigrants' sport, as his ticket into the big tent. He chose
tennis. All his life he had been an outsider, a Christian Armenian in a Muslim
Persian city. In his new land he was going to walk his yet-to-be-born children
right up to the elite and hit 'em where they lived, where they played--in their
He settled in
Vegas and set to work. His eldest child, Rita, had the gift, but she hit
puberty and hit the road, middle finger raised to her old man's relentless
tennis regimen as she ran off with, of all people, tennis legend Pancho
Gonzalez. His next child, Phillip, didn't quite have the foot speed or audacity
that it took to play with the pros. His third, Tami, bumped her ceiling playing
at Texas A&M.
That left Andre.
Last child. Last chance.
Meet the future
Number 1 tennis player in the world! Mike crows as he takes his four-year-old
around the casino showroom where he serves as a host.
He builds a tennis
court in his backyard. Andre enters a tunnel. As long as he remains inside it
and never comes up to see the big picture--how vast the world is, how rife with
challengers, how monstrous the odds stacked against him--he can go about the
task of fulfilling his father's vision.
Dad plucks him
from school a half hour early to get him on the court before Mike leaves for
his night job at the casino. Weekends and summer days, Mike wakes up on a few
hours' sleep and herds Andre onto the court where the 32 garbage cans
await--each filled with 300 balls--along with the 11 machines that Dad has
custom-welded to spit balls with different spins from different angles, one
every two to three seconds ... for the first of Andre's three-a-day workouts.
Thousands of balls struck each day, 365 days a year, including Christmas and
the day after a surgeon reattaches the piece of finger sliced off by a kid's
blade when the 10-year-old Andre goes ice skating, which, dammit, he never
should've done. Day off to heal? Kid can rip a forehand with a cast on his left
hand. Don't pull the racket that far back, son--shorter the backswing, bigger
the pop, like a boxer's straight right. C'mon, step inside the baseline, hit
the ball early, crush it--lower, deeper, closer, farther, more topspin,
more--go for broke on every shot!
Now Andre's hands
are as fast as those phenomenal eyes, so swift that 20 years later he will
enter a cage with a pitching machine set to throw 90-mph fastballs and hit them
with a bat while running toward the machine. But what about the fire that he'll
need to dominate the world, the desperation that drove Mike to the Olympics and
America? There are four bedrooms and two bathrooms in his house, plumbing,
electricity--and no Muslim bullies in sight. Well, then, Mike will be the
bully. Mike will be the fire. Mike will snarl at Andre when his game goes sour
during junior tournaments in Utah, Nevada and California. Mike will bring a
hammer to a tennis match and bang on the railing in disgust. Mike will scream
at officials and get thrown off the grounds. Mike will drive home, obsessing
over each shot no matter how good it was because it could've been better.
That's when Andre wins, which is virtually always. When he loses....
He races off the
court and hides behind a tree at age nine, sobbing in anticipation of the fire,
after he drops the deciding tiebreaker in the final of the 12-and-under
nationals. Runner-up trophies get left on the table at awards ceremonies or
heaved in the trash.
What's a kid to
do? Appeal to Mom? She's a peach, but tennis issues she leaves to her husband.
Confront Dad? Sure, Andre is scared to, but it's more complicated than that. He
loves his dad. Dad goes to war if anyone tries to take advantage of his son,
gives Andre all his soul and heart, and his heart is as big as all Persia. In
the middle of the night, if a friend has lost his job, Mike will go shopping
and leave a heap of groceries on the friend's front step. He'll tip five bucks
on a 50-cent cup of coffee, give people cars, nurse injured birds back to
health, hard-boil eggs for them to sit on, end up with a half-dozen pigeons
living in his house. But Andre can't, for the life of him, figure out why a
game means so much to this man, why it feels as if it's his responsibility to
keep his father and his father's home happy.
Mike grows anxious. He knows there's no player in Vegas good enough to compel
his kid to keep improving. He knows, after his experience with his first
daughter, that fathers and teenagers and tennis courts with 32 bins of balls
are Vesuvius waiting to happen. Something has to give. Someone has to go.