It’s kind of startling how much Andre Agassi and I have in common. Andre Agassi is a world-class athlete, a tennis player who dominated the courts in the 1990s with a powerful serve and a powerful personality. An eight-time Grand Slam champion, he was the first male player to win four Australian Opens, and in his spare time won an Olympic Gold Medal in tennis. He retired in 2006 and published his autobiography Open in 2009. I read the book and I am writing this thing about tennis so we’re practically twins, obvs. The resemblance is uncanny.
Open is a completely unsentimental recounting of what it cost Andre Agassi to become Andre Agassi. It’s riveting. Andre Agassi practiced and perfected his game in a brutal fishbowl, where mistakes were not tolerated and judgment was harsh. It’s not easy to grasp how truly difficult it is to become as good at anything as Andre Agassi is at tennis. You have to live and breathe it. You have to have a network around you that is as dedicated to your goal as you are. It’s relentless, grinding sacrifice. Andre Agassi’s story is one of success in elite athletic circles, but it’s also the larger story of finding out how to be who you are when stripped of the only thing you have ever done. Its humanity, vulnerability, and startling honesty puts Open it in a different class than standard glossy celebrity memoir.
As a sports fan, I am functionally enthusiastic. I don’t keep season tickets to anything, but I can hold my own when I go to a game. I know to never punt on first down and I fully understand the infield fly rule. If I’m watching a sport I’m not familiar with, I figure out how to enjoy what I am watching because I can figure out the basic scoring rules. I don’t get all the rules or nuance of play, but in most cases, there’s a kind of mathiness that makes itself evident and voila! Scoring!
And then…there’s tennis.
At first glance, there is nothing to suggest that tennis scoring is an unfathomable black hole devoid of logic and hope. It’s two people, sometimes four, a ball, a net, some rectangles. How complicated can it be? Well, I’d like to answer that without breaking down into frustrated gargling noises, but I can’t. I just don’t get tennis. I have tried. I really have, but like a greased pig at the county fair, the concepts evade me. I mean, I get the “people are hitting a ball back and forth” part. Past that, I have no idea what is happening. Tennis scoring is like, mermaids count backwards to Pi in an isolation tank with electrodes attached to their knuckles. Then, put on a Pilgrim costume, use invisible ink to write the answer down in Sanskrit, then set the paper on fire. Tennis is not that linear, though.
Tennis people, I know what you are thinking: “I can so explain tennis so you can understand it!” I appreciate your effort but I just have to stop you right there. My mental block is solid. It’s like trying to explain how to meow to an alligator. You can bring a flow chart laying out the correct vocal technique. You can play a recording to offer audio support. You can meow yourself to demonstrate. And when you are all done with all that, the alligator is just going to bite your arm off because it’s a fucking alligator. Then you have an alligator that doesn’t meow and you’re missing an arm. What I’m really saying here is, I don’t understand tennis, and I’m scared of alligators.
I was excited about reading Open because I was sure I was finally going to overcome my netblindness. Andre Agassi would help me solve my tennis problem the way I solve all my problems: with books. I mean, with Andre Agassi as my coach, how could I miss? There was no way I could read a whole book about this particular sport written by someone who knows the game in his very bones and not come out the other side with an understanding of how to tennis. Right?!?
Love Is The Loneliest Number You know how a lot of times in competitive sports, scores are predicated on accepted concepts of basic addition using whole numbers? Then there’s tennis, where you can score “love”. Because tennis uses that other kind of addition where numbers are random words that have no actual connection to numbers? To compound the fun, “love” is actually zero points. So it’s a word representing a score that actually means somebody didn’t score. As Euclid said, “That is some insane fuckery.”
Me: whatcha watching
Me: what’s the score
You: it’s lugnut-ponytail in the 4th quarter
Me: oooh close game
Deuce Morals In a tennis game, a score tied at 3 points each is called a deuce. This is a special rule in abstract wordmath, which is a real field of mathematics that I just made up. This special abstract wordmath rule states “scores tied at three are communicated by representing three with a number word that is actually related to the real number two. This is cool because we never use the number three anyway, we say FORTY to mean three, but don’t tell anyone that forty actually means three because it’s really funny watching people try to figure out what the hell the score is.” This is more commonly known as the “Who’s On First” Paradox.
Me: is it still lugnut-ponytail?
You: no it’s tied at baker’s dozen
Me: 21-21, wow
Euclid: none of this is okay
Light A Match Tennis is made up of sets, which make up games, which make up a match. If you win the most sets, you win the most games, so you win the match. Except, of course, when you win the most sets and games and don’t win the match, which is a real thing in tennis and omg I give up.
Me: game over?
You: yeah, final score was Packers 28-Vikings 21
Euclid: Packers won, cool
Me: what? HAHAHAHA Oilers, duh
Euclid: i hate it here
I counted on you, Andre-Ag Kenobi. You were my only hope. Tennis is not the sport I was looking for. The double-fault is entirely mine. It’s time to take my alligator and go.
J.R. Moehringer collaborated with Andre Agassi on Open. Moehringer’s own memoir, The Tender Bar, is a gorgeous book.