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Fine, fine. How were the bones? Stefanie gives them sandwiches and juice and hustles them out the door again. They have a playdate, she says. Dont we all. Now I can take a nap. At thirty-six, the only way I can play a late match, which could go past midnight, is if I get a nap beforehand. Also, now that I know roughly who I am, I want to close my eyes and hide from it.
When I open my eyes, one hour has passed. I say aloud, Its time. No more hiding. I step into the shower again, but this shower is different from the morning shower.
The afternoon shower is always longertwenty-two minutes, give or takeand its not for waking up or getting clean. The afternoon shower is for encouraging myself, coaching myself.
Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself.
No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players. Pitchers, golfers, goalkeepers, they mutter to themselves, of course, but tennis players talk to themselvesand answer. In the heat of a match, tennis players look like lunatics in a public square, ranting and swearing and conducting Lincoln-Douglas debates with their alter egos. Because tennis is so damned lonely.
Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis playersand yet boxers have their corner men and managers. Even a boxers opponent provides a kind of companionship, someone he can grapple with and grunt at.
In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him, but never touch him or talk to him, or anyone else. The rules forbid a tennis player from even talking to his coach while on the court. People sometimes mention the track-and-field runner as a comparably lonely figure, but I have to laugh.
At least the runner can feel and smell his opponents. Theyre inches away. In tennis youre on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement, which inevitably leads to self-talk, and for me the self-talk starts here in the afternoon shower.
This is when I begin to say things to myself, crazy things, over and over, until I believe them. For instance, that a quasi-cripple can compete at the U.
That a thirty-six-year-old man can beat an opponent just entering his prime. Ive won matches in my career, fifth on the all-time list, and many were won during the afternoon shower. With the water roaring in my earsa sound not unlike twenty thousand fansI recall particular wins.
Not wins the fans would remember, but wins that still wake me at night. Squillari in Paris. Blake in New York. Pete in Australia. Then I recall a few losses. I shake my head at the disappointments. I tell myself that tonight will be an exam for which Ive been studying twenty-nine years. Whatever happens tonight, Ive already been through it at least once before.
If its a physical test, if its mental, its nothing new. I dont want it to be over. I start to cry. I lean against the wall of the shower and let go. Make him work for everything. No matter what happens, hold your head up. And for Gods sake enjoy it, or at least try to enjoy moments of it, even the pain, even the losing, if thats whats in store.
I think about my opponent, Marcos Baghdatis, and wonder what hes doing at this moment. Hes new to the tour, but not your typical newcomer. Hes ranked number eight in the world. Hes a big strong Greek kid from Cyprus, in the middle of a superb year. Hes reached the final of the Australian Open and the semis of Wimbledon.
I know him fairly well. During last years U. Open we played a practice set. Typically I dont play practice sets with other players during a Grand Slam, but Baghdatis asked with disarming grace.
A TV show from Cyprus was doing a piece about him, and he asked if it would be all right if they filmed us practicing. Sure, I said. Why not? I won the practice set, 62, and afterward he was all smiles. I saw that hes the type who smiles when hes happy or nervous, and you cant tell which. It reminded me of someone, but I couldnt think who.
I told Baghdatis that he played a little like me, and he said it was no accident. He grew up with pictures of me on his bedroom wall, patterned his game after mine.
In other words, tonight Ill be playing my mirror image. Hell play from the back of the court, take the ball early, swing for the fences, just like me. Its going to be toe-to-toe tennis, each of us trying to impose our will, each of us looking for chances to smoke a backhand up the line. He doesnt have an overwhelming serve, nor do I, which means long points, long rallies, lots of energy and time expended.
I brace myself for flurries, combinations, a tennis of attrition, the most brutal form of the sport. Of course the one stark difference between me and Baghdatis is physical. We have different bodies. He has my former body. Hes nimble, fast, spry.
Ill have to beat the younger version of myself if I am to keep the older version going. I close my eyes and say: Control what you can control. I say it again, aloud. Saying it aloud makes me feel brave. I shut off the water and stand, shivering. How much easier it is to be brave under a stream of piping hot water. I remind myself, however, that hot-water bravery isnt true bravery. What you feel doesnt matter in the end; its what you do that makes you brave.
Time to make the Gil Water. I sweat a lot, more than most players, so I need to begin hydrating many hours before a match. I down quarts of a magic elixir invented for me by Gil, my trainer for the last seventeen years. Gil Water is a blend of carbs, electrolytes, salt, vitamins, and a few other ingredients Gil keeps a closely guarded secret.
Hes been tinkering with his recipe for two decades. He usually starts force-feeding me Gil Water the night before a match, and keeps forcing me right up to match time.
Then I sip it as the match wears on. At different stages I sip different versions, each a different color. Pink for energy, red for recovery, brown for replenishment. The kids love helping me mix Gil Water. They fight over who gets to scoop out the powders, who gets to hold the funnel, who gets to pour it all into plastic water bottles. No one but me, however, can pack the bottles into my bag, along with my clothes and towels and books and shades and wristbands.
My rackets, as always, go in later. No one but me touches my tennis bag, and when its finally packed, it stands by the door, like an assassins kit, a sign that the day has lurched that much closer to the witching hour. At five, Gil rings from the lobby. He says, You ready? Time to throw down. Its on, Andre. Its on. Nowadays everyone says Its on, but Gil has been saying it for years, and no one says it the way he does.
When Gil says Its on, I feel my booster rockets fire, my adrenaline glands pump like geysers. I feel as if I can lift a car over my head. Stefanie gathers the children at the door and tells them its time for Daddy to leave. What do you say, guys? Jaden shouts, Kick butt, Daddy! Kick butt, Jaz says, copying her brother. Stefanie kisses me and says nothing, because theres nothing to say.
Black shirt, black tie, black jacket. He dresses for every match as if its a blind date or a mob hit. Now and then he checks his long black hair in the side mirror or rearview. I sit in the backseat with Darren, my coach, an Aussie who always rocks a Hollywood tan and the smile of a guy who just hit the Powerball.
For a few minutes no one says anything. Then Gil speaks the lyrics of one of our favorites, an old Roy Clark ballad, and his deep basso fills the car: Just going through the motions and pretending we have something left to gain He looks to me, waits.
He laughs. I laugh. For a second I forget my nervous butterflies. Butterflies are funny. Some days they make you run to the toilet. Other days they make you horny. Other days they make you laugh, and long for the fight.
Deciding which type of butterflies youve got going monarchs or moths is the first order of business when youre driving to the arena. Figuring out your butterflies, deciphering what they say about the status of your mind and body, is the first step to making them work for you.
One of the thousand les- sons Ive learned from Gil. I ask Darren for his thoughts on Baghdatis. How aggressive do I want to be tonight? Tennis is about degrees of aggression. You want to be aggressive enough to control a point, not so aggressive that you sacrifice control and expose yourself to unnecessary risk.
My questions about Baghdatis are these: How will he try to hurt me? If I hit a backhand cross-court to start a point, some players will be patient, others will make a statement right away, crush the ball up the line or come hard to the net.
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Since Ive never played Baghdatis outside of our one practice set, I want to know how hell react to conservative play. Will he step up and jack that routine crosscourt, or lie back, bide his time? Darren says, Mate, I think if you get too conservative on your rally shot, you can expect this guy to move around it and hurt you with his forehand.
I see. As far as his backhand goes, he cant hit it easily up the line. He wont be quick to pull that trigger. So if you find he is hitting backhands up the line, that definitely means youre not putting enough steam on your rally shot. Does he move well? Yes, hes a good mover.
But hes not comfortable being on the defensive. Hes a better mover offensively than defensively. We pull up to the stadium. Fans are milling about. I sign a few autographs, then duck through a small door. I walk down a long tunnel and into the locker room.
Gil goes off to consult with security. He always wants them to know exactly when were going out to the court to practice, and when were coming back. Darren and I drop our bags and walk straight to the training room. I lie on a table and beg the first trainer who comes near me to knead my back. Darren ducks out and returns five minutes later, carrying eight freshly strung rackets. He sets them atop my bag. He knows I want to place them in the bag myself. I obsess about my bag.
I keep it meticulously organized, and I make no apologies for this anal retentiveness. The bag is my briefcase, suitcase, toolbox, lunchbox, and palette. I need it just right, always. The bag is what I carry onto the court, and what I carry off, two moments when all my senses are extra acute, so I can feel every ounce of its weight. If someone were to slip a pair of argyle socks into my tennis bag, Id feel it.
The tennis bag is a lot like your heartyou have to know whats in it at all times. Its also a question of functionality. I need my eight rackets stacked chronologically in the tennis bag, the most recently strung racket on the bottom and the least recently strung on the top, because the longer a racket sits, the more tension it loses.
I always start a match with the racket strung least recently, because I know thats the racket with the loosest tension. My racket stringer is old school, Old World, a Czech artiste named Roman. Hes the best, and he needs to be: a string job can mean the difference in a match, and a match can mean the difference in a career, and a career can mean the difference in countless lives.
When I pull a fresh racket from my bag and try to serve out a match, the string tension can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because Im playing for my family, my charitable foundation, my school, every string is like a wire in an airplane engine.
Given all that lies beyond my control, I obsess about the few things I can control, and racket tension is one such thing. So vital is Roman to my game that I take him on the road. Occasionally, feeling lost and lonely in some foreign city, Ill sit with Roman and watch him string a few rackets.
Its not that I dont trust him. Just the opposite: Im calmed, grounded, inspired by watching a craftsman. It reminds me of the singular importance in this world of a job done well. The raw rackets come to Roman in a great big box from the factory, and theyre always a mess. To the naked eye they look identical; to Roman theyre as different as faces in a crowd. He spins them, back and forth, furrows his brow, then makes his calculations. At last he begins. He starts by removing the factory grip and putting on my grip, the custom grip Ive had since I was fourteen.
My grip is as personal as my thumbprint, a by-product not just of my hand shape and finger length but the size of my calluses and the force of my squeeze.
Roman has a mold of my grip, which he applies to the racket. Then he wraps the mold with calfskin, which he pounds thinner and thinner until its the width he wants.
A millimeter difference, near the end of a four-hour match, can feel as irritating and distracting as a pebble in my shoe. With the grip just so, Roman laces in the synthetic strings.
He tightens them, loosens them, tightens them, tunes them as carefully as strings on a viola. Then he stencils them and vigorously waves them through the air, to let the stenciling dry. Some stringers stencil the rackets right before match time, which I find wildly inconsiderate and unprofessional. The stencil rubs off on the balls, and theres nothing worse than playing a guy who gets red and black paint on the balls.
I like order and cleanliness, and that means no stencil-specked balls. Disorder is distraction, and every distraction on the court is a potential turning point. Darren opens two cans of balls and shoves two balls in his pocket. I take a gulp of Gil Water, then a last leak before warm-ups. James, the security guard, leads us into the tunnel. As usual hes squeezed into a tight yellow security shirt, and he gives me a wink, as if to say, We security guards are supposed to be impartial, but Im rooting for you.
James has been at the U. Open almost as long as I have. Hes led me down this tunnel before and after glorious wins and excruciating losses. Large, kind, with tough-guy scars that he wears with pride, James is a bit like Gil. Its almost as though he takes over for Gil during those few hours on the court, when Im outside Gils sphere of influence.
There are people you count on seeing at the U. Openoffice staffers, ball boys, trainersand their presence is always reassuring. They help you remember where and who you are. James is at the top of that list. Ever since , when a spectator in Hamburg rushed onto the court and stabbed Monica Seles during a match, the U.
Open has positioned one security guard behind each players chair during all breaks and changeovers. James always makes sure to be the one behind my chair. His inability to remain impartial is endlessly charming. During a grueling match, Ill often catch James looking concerned, and Ill whisper, Dont worry, James, Ive got this chump today. It always makes him chuckle. Now, walking me out to the practice courts, hes not chuckling. He looks sad. He knows that this could be our last night together.
Still, he doesnt deviate from our pre-match ritual. He says the same thing he always says: Let me help you with that bag. No, James, no one carries my bag but me. I vowed then and there that I would always carry my own. OK, James says, smiling. I know, I know. I remember. Just wanted to help. Then I say: James, you got my back today? I got your back, baby. I got it. Dont worry about nothing. Just take care of business.
We emerge into a dusky September night, the sky a smear of violet and orange and smog. I walk to the stands, shake hands with a few fans, sign a few more autographs before practicing. There are four practice courts, and James knows I want the one farthest from the crowd, so Darren and I can have a little privacy as we hit and talk strategy.
I groan as I guide the first backhand up the line to Darrens forehand. Dont hit that shot tonight, he says. Baghdatis will hurt you with that. And you say he moves well? Yes, quite well. We hit for twenty-eight minutes. I dont know why I notice these detailsthe length of an afternoon shower, the duration of a practice session, the color of Jamess shirt. I dont want to notice, but I do, all the time, and then I remember forever.
My memory isnt like my tennis bag; I have no say over its contents. Everything goes in, and nothing ever seems to come out. My back feels OK. Normal stiffness, but the excruciating pain is gone. The cortisone is working. I feel goodthough, of course, the definition of good has evolved in recent years.
Still, I feel better than I did when I opened my eyes this morning, when I thought of forfeiting. I might be able to do this. Of course tomorrow there will be severe physical consequences, but I cant dwell on tomorrow any more than I can dwell on yesterday. Back inside the locker room I pull off my sweaty clothes and jump in the shower. My third shower of the day is short, utilitarian.
No time for coaching or crying. I slip on dry shorts, a Tshirt, put my feet up in the training room. I drink more Gil Water, as much as I can hold, because its six thirty, and the match is nearly one hour off.
There is a TV above the training table, and I try to watch the news. I cant. I walk down to the offices and look in on the secretaries and officials of the U. Theyre busy. They dont have time to talk. I step through a small door. Stefanie and the children have arrived. Theyre in a little playground outside the locker room.
Jaden and Jaz are taking turns on the plastic slide. Stefanie is grateful, I can tell, to have the children here for distraction.
Shes more keyed up than I. She looks almost irritated. Her frown says, This thing should have started already! Come on! I love the way my wife spoils for a fight. I talk to her and the children for a few minutes, but I cant hear a word theyre saying. My mind is far away.
Stefanie sees. She feels. You dont win twenty-two Grand Slams without a highly developed intuition. Besides, she was the same way before her matches. She sends me back into the locker room: Go. Well be here. Do what you need to do. She wont watch the match from ground level.
Its too close for her. Shell stay in a skybox with the children, alternately pacing, praying, and covering her eyes. I can tell which of his trays is for me: the one with the two giant foam donuts and two dozen precut strips of tape. I lie on one of six training tables, and Pere sits at my feet.
A messy business, getting these dogs ready for war, so he puts a trash can under them. I like that Pere is tidy, meticulous, the Roman of calluses. First he takes a long Q-tip and applies an inky goo that makes my skin sticky, my instep purple. Theres no washing off that ink.
My instep hasnt been ink-free since Reagan was president. Now Pere sprays on skin toughener. He lets that dry, then taps a foam donut onto each callus. Next come the strips of tape, which are like rice paper. They instantly become part of my skin. He wraps each big toe until its the size of a sparkplug. Finally he tapes the bottoms of my feet. He knows my pressure points, where I land, where I need extra layers of padding. I thank him, put on my shoes, unlaced.
Now, as everything begins to slow down, the volume goes up. Moments ago the stadium was quiet, now its beyond loud. The air is filled with a buzzing, a humming, the sound of fans rushing to their seats, hurrying to get settled, because they dont want to miss a minute of whats coming.
I stand, shake out my legs. I wont sit again. I try a jog down the hall. Not bad. The back is holding. All systems go. Across the locker room I see Baghdatis.
Hes suited up, fussing with his hair in front of a mirror. Hes flicking it, combing it, pulling it back. Wow, he has a lot of hair. Now hes positioning his headband, a white Cochise wrap. He gets it perfect, then gives one last tug on his ponytail. A decidedly more glamorous pre-match ritual than cushioning your toe calluses. I remember my hair issues early in my career. For a moment I feel jealous. I miss my hair. Then I run a hand over my bare scalp and feel grateful that, with all the things Im worried about right now, hair isnt one of them.
Baghdatis begins stretching, bending at the waist. He stands on one leg and pulls one knee to his chest. Nothing is quite so unsettling as watching your opponent do pilates, yoga, and tai chi when you cant so much as curtsy. He now maneuvers his hips in ways I havent dared since I was seven. And yet hes doing too much. Hes antsy. I can almost hear his central nervous system, a sound like the buzz of the stadium. I watch the interaction between him and his coaches, and theyre antsy too. Their faces, their body language, their coloring, everything tells me they know theyre in for a street fight, and theyre not sure they want it.
I always like my opponent and his team to show nervous energy. A good omen, but also a sign of respect. Baghdatis sees me and smiles. I remember that he smiles when hes happy or nervous, and you can never tell which.
Again, it reminds me of someone, and I cant think who. I raise a hand. Good luck. He raises a hand. We who are about to die I duck into the tunnel for one last word with Gil, whos staked out a corner where he can be alone but still keep an eye on everything.
He puts his arms around me, tells me he loves me, hes proud of me. I find Stefanie and give her one last kiss. Shes bobbing, weaving, stomping her feet. Shed give anything to slip on a skirt, grab a racket, and join me out there. Creation Tutorial. Video Tutorial. Quick Upload Explore. Case Studies.
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I count to three, then start the long, difficult process of standing. With a cough, 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. But I wake as if ninety-six. After three decades of sprinting, stopping on a dime, jumping high and landing hard, my body no longer feels like my body, especially in the morning. I run quickly through the basic facts. My name is Andre Agassi. We have two children, a son and daughter, five and three.
My last U. 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 in a whisper I say: Please let this be over.
Now, from the next room, I hear Stefanie and the children. My overwhelming desire to see and touch them, plus a powerful craving for caffeine, gives me the inspiration I need to hoist myself up, to go vertical. Hate brings me to my knees, love gets me on my feet.
I glance at the bedside clock. Seven thirty. Stefanie let me sleep in. 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 anti-theft steering wheel locks to my spine.
How can I play in the U. Open with the Club on my spine? Will the last match of my career be a forfeit? I was born with spondylolisthesis, meaning a bottom vertebra that parted from the other vertebrae, struck out on its own, rebelled. When the nerves protest their cramped quarters, 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. Told to change, my muscles join the spinal rebellion, and soon my whole body is at war with itself. Gil, my trainer, my friend, my surrogate father, explains it this way: My body has been saying that for a long time, I tell Gil.
Since January, however, my body has been shouting it. My body has moved to Florida and bought a condo and white Sansabelts.
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 thirteenth 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. 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. He needed to get that needle almost flush against the nerves, he said, without actually touching.
If it were to touch the nerves, even if it were to only nick the nerves, the pain would ruin me for the tournament. It could also be life-changing. In and out and around, he maneuvered the needle, until my eyes filled with water. Finally he hit the spot. 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.
Words to live by, Doc. Soon the pain felt wonderful, almost sweet, because it was the kind that you can tell precedes relief. But maybe all pain is like that. I limp out to the living room of our suite. My son, Jaden, and my daughter, Jaz, see me and scream. Daddy, Daddy! They jump up and down and want to leap on me. I stop and brace myself, stand before them like a mime imitating a tree in winter. They stop just before leaping, because they know Daddy is delicate these days, Daddy will shatter if they touch him too hard.
I pat their faces and kiss their cheeks and join them at the breakfast table. Jaden asks if today is the day. And then after today are you retire? A new word he and his younger sister have learned. When they say it, they always leave off the last letter.
Not if I win, son. If I win tonight, I keep playing. But if you lose—we can have a dog? To the children, retire equals puppy. Stefanie and I have promised them that when I stop training, when we stop traveling the world, we can download a puppy. Yes, buddy, when I lose, we will download a dog. He smiles. He hopes Daddy loses, hopes Daddy experiences the disappointment that surpasses all others.
Going to see the bones. I look at Stefanie. I think of my twisted vertebrae. I think of my skeleton on display at the museum with all the other dinosaurs. Tennis-aurus Rex. Jaz interrupts my thoughts. She hands me her muffin. She needs me to pick out the blueberries before she eats it. Our morning ritual. Each blueberry must be surgically removed, which requires precision, concentration. Stick the knife in, move it around, get it right up to the blueberry without touching.
The time is drawing near. The non-place we exist as athletes. I close my eyes, try to think about tonight, but my mind drifts backward. My mind these days has a natural backspin. Not yet. I get up and walk around the table, test my balance. When I feel fairly steady I walk gingerly to the shower.
Under the hot water I groan and scream. I bend slowly, touch my quads, start to come alive. My muscles loosen. My skin sings.
My pores fly open. Warm blood goes sluicing through my veins. I feel something begin to stir. The last drops of youth. Still, I make no sudden movements. I let my spine sleep in.
Standing at the bathroom mirror, toweling off, I stare at my face. Red eyes, gray stubble—a face totally different from the one with which I started.
But also different from the one I saw last year in this same mirror. I see that golden-haired boy who hated tennis, and I wonder how he would view this bald man, who still hates tennis and yet still plays. Would he be shocked? The finish line at the end of a career is no different from the finish line at the end of a match.
The objective is to get within reach of that finish line, because then it gives off a magnetic force. But just before you come within range, or just after, you feel another force, equally strong, pushing you away. I remind myself that it will require iron discipline to cope with these forces, and whatever else comes my way. Back pain, bad shots, foul weather, self-loathing. Life will throw everything but the kitchen sink in your path, and then it will throw the kitchen sink.
I lie on the bed with a glass of water and read. When my eyes get tired I click on the TV. Tonight, Round Two of the U. My face flashes on the screen. A different face than the one in the mirror.
My game face. I study this new reflection of me in the distorted mirror that is TV and my anxiety rises another click or two. Was that the final commercial? The final time CBS will ever promote one of my matches?
Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. But if tennis is life, then what follows tennis must be the unknowable void.
The thought makes me cold. Stefanie bursts through the door with the kids. Fine, fine. How were the bones? Blake in New York. The afternoon shower is always longer—twenty-two minutes.
I step into the shower again. At least the runner can feel and smell his opponents. Of all the games men and women play. With the water roaring in my ears—a sound not unlike twenty thousand fans—I recall particular wins.
I say aloud. Pete in Australia. Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players—and yet boxers have their corner men and managers. The afternoon shower is for encouraging myself. This is when I begin to say things to myself. I want to close my eyes and hide from it. Stefanie gives them sandwiches and juice and hustles them out the door again. Whatever happens tonight. No more hiding. In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy. Now I can take a nap.
Because tennis is so damned lonely. In the heat of a match.
When I open my eyes. Then I recall a few losses. I shake my head at the disappointments. Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself. Not wins the fans would remember. No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players. The rules forbid a tennis player from even talking to his coach while on the court. People sometimes mention the track-and-field runner as a comparably lonely figure. For instance. They have a playdate.
Squillari in Paris. That a thirty-six-year-old man can beat an opponent just entering his prime. At thirty-six. I think about my opponent. How much easier it is to be brave under a stream of piping hot water. Take it one point at a time. I say it again. In other words. He grew up with pictures of me on his bedroom wall. I down quarts of a magic elixir invented for me by Gil. He has my former body.
I start to cry. Open we played a practice set. Why not? I won the practice set. I said. It reminded me of someone. I lean against the wall of the shower and let go. I brace myself for flurries. We have different bodies. A TV show from Cyprus was doing a piece about him. No matter what happens. I close my eyes and say: Control what you can control.
I shut off the water and stand. Saying it aloud makes me feel brave.
Open : an autobiography
I sweat a lot. I know him fairly well. Gil Water is a blend of carbs. I told Baghdatis that he played a little like me. I remind myself. Marcos Baghdatis. Make him work for everything. Of course the one stark difference between me and Baghdatis is physical. Time to make the Gil Water. My rackets. Kick butt. I sit in the backseat with Darren. Other days they make you horny. Jaden shouts. Just going through the motions and pretending we have something left to gain— He looks to me.
What do you say. You ready? Time to throw down. I feel my booster rockets fire. He usually starts force-feeding me Gil Water the night before a match. Gil rings from the lobby. Pink for energy. They fight over who gets to scoop out the powders. He says. One of the thousand les-. At five. For a second I forget my nervous butterflies.
Then I sip it as the match wears on. At different stages I sip different versions. Black shirt. The kids love helping me mix Gil Water. Stefanie kisses me and says nothing. Gil keeps a closely guarded secret. Butterflies are funny. Some days they make you run to the toilet. Figuring out your butterflies. For a few minutes no one says anything. No one but me. I laugh. Jaz says. He laughs. Then Gil speaks the lyrics of one of our favorites.
Now and then he checks his long black hair in the side mirror or rearview. Other days they make you laugh. I say. No one but me touches my tennis bag. I feel as if I can lift a car over my head. I keep it meticulously organized. I need it just right. I need my eight rackets stacked chronologically in the tennis bag. I sign a few autographs. My questions about Baghdatis are these: How will he try to hurt me? If I hit a backhand cross-court to start a point. How aggressive do I want to be tonight?
Tennis is about degrees of aggression. I think if you get too conservative on your rally shot. Darren and I drop our bags and walk straight to the training room. Darren says. Gil goes off to consult with security. I ask Darren for his thoughts on Baghdatis.
Does he move well? The bag is what I carry onto the court. I obsess about my bag. You want to be aggressive enough to control a point. I lie on a table and beg the first trainer who comes near me to knead my back. As far as his backhand goes. He sets them atop my bag. I always start a match with the racket strung least recently.
So if you find he is hitting backhands up the line. If someone were to slip a pair of argyle socks into my tennis bag. We pull up to the stadium. Fans are milling about. He knows I want to place them in the bag myself. The bag is my briefcase. I see. Will he step up and jack that routine crosscourt. Darren ducks out and returns five minutes later. I walk down a long tunnel and into the locker room. I like order and cleanliness.
Roman laces in the synthetic strings. A millimeter difference. I obsess about the few things I can control. Disorder is distraction. My grip is as personal as my thumbprint. James has been at the U. He tightens them. The raw rackets come to Roman in a great big box from the factory. Then he wraps the mold with calfskin. He starts by removing the factory grip and putting on my grip.
Just the opposite: He spins them. At last he begins. I take a gulp of Gil Water. Old World. Darren opens two cans of balls and shoves two balls in his pocket. With the grip just so. Roman has a mold of my grip.
Open: An Autobiography
My racket stringer is old school. When I pull a fresh racket from my bag and try to serve out a match. Given all that lies beyond my control. To the naked eye they look identical. The stencil rubs off on the balls. Some stringers stencil the rackets right before match time. So vital is Roman to my game that I take him on the road. It reminds me of the singular importance in this world of a job done well.
We security guards are supposed to be impartial. Open almost as long as I have. Then he stencils them and vigorously waves them through the air. He looks sad. I walk to the stands. I know. James always makes sure to be the one behind my chair. There are people you count on seeing at the U. They help you remember where and who you are.
I vowed then and there that I would always carry my own. I remember. I got it. Baghdatis will hurt you with that. James is at the top of that list. And you say he moves well? It always makes him chuckle. We hit for twenty-eight minutes. Trust me.
Then I say: Open—office staffers. He knows that this could be our last night together. James is a bit like Gil. Just take care of business. During a grueling match. Ever since We emerge into a dusky September night. He says the same thing he always says: Let me help you with that bag.
James says. His inability to remain impartial is endlessly charming. Seeing him. I got your back. There are four practice courts.Who better than my old man to create and maintain tension? I find Stefanie and give her one last kiss. She tries a smile but it ends up a wince. I make my second and he returns it wide. As the ball rises slowly to its mouth, it shrieks.
When I was four he had me hitting with tennis greats who passed through town.