Friday, September 09, 2005

Agassi, Sampras, and Life

This long, long New York Times Magazine piece, A 90's Kind of Rivalry, is my gift to you. Beautifully written by Peter de Jonge, it's almost impossible to find (thanks to the writer's guild lawsuit) and I'm grateful to the person who posted it on their website.

De Jonge profiles Agassi and Sampras in tandem, exploring them as athletes and as men. It's the most insightful piece of writing on tennis you'll find outside of John Feinstein's Hard Courts.

Some samples:
In many ways, their well-marketed public personas run exactly counter to the way they play. Agassi may seem daring when he screws in his earrings or laces up his black sneakers or shaves off all his body hair, but on the court, he is the far more conservative and repetitive player of the two. He is also the harder worker, the more compulsively prepared, and as some of Sampras's recent matches have shown, the better-conditioned. And while Sampras may look like the boy that every father wants his daughter to bring home, he is all but uncoachable and plays with almost reckless abandon. . . .

It is Agassi, the putative bad boy whom Nike pitches as the creator of rock-and-roll tennis, who is the born-again Christian and, if you can take his old pal Barbra Streisand's word for it, a "Zen master." A therapy graduate and a voracious reader of pop-psych authors like Marianne Williamson and Tony Robbins whom Agassi has called "one of the most evolved people I've met"), Agassi is constantly seeking reassurances that he has changed, that he is getting better. Sampras, whose favorite line from literature is "Don't ever tell anybody anything," from "The Catcher in the Rye" . . .

On the real Pete Sampras:
One of the many revelations of the time I spent with Sampras is his foul mouth. Obscenities are such a weight-bearing element in his terse syntax that with the expletives deleted, often all that's left is the name of the guilty. "[expletive] Rusedski!" he blurts out, for the sheer joy of it; later, when I remind him how frequently Brad Gilbert, Agassi's notoriously gregarious coach, brings up the fact that Gilbert is four and four in the eight times he met Sampras as a player, he says, "[expletive] Brad!" He tries to point out the meaninglessness of the statistic. "I mean, this [expletive] guy here is 1-0 against me," Sampras says, pointing to Annacone, who is wading in the shallow end with a silly grin, not quite sure whether to look proud or insulted. "You want to humble Brad, just ask him about the Slams," says Sampras, who is well aware that, despite the $5 million in prize money that Gilbert has earned in a long career as a sort of overachieving bottom-feeder, he never advanced beyond the quarterfinals in any of the four major tournaments. "Just ask him about the Slams." . . .

The more Sampras reveals of himself, the more it seems that his admiration for Agassi does not extend much beyond his ability to hit a tennis ball. When I ask what he specifically likes about Agassi, intending him to cite some attractive human quality, he draws a blank, then says, "I like the way he travels," referring to Agassi's private jet.

And about Agassi's youth:
Agassi's first tennis coach was his Armenian-born father, Mike Agassi, who had immigrated to the States after competing in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics for the Iranian boxing team. On the day that Andre first opened his eyes, Mike Agassi tied a tennis ball to a string and dangled it over his crib -- "to get him to follow the ball." When Andre was old enough to sit in a high chair, Mike taped half a Ping-Pong paddle to his hand and tossed balloons at him, "to teach him timing." And a few years later, Mike put Andre on the cement court he had built in the backyard of the family's Las Vegas home and began bombarding him with hundreds of balls a day, spat out by 11 machines capable of manufacturing every kind of spin or angle.

Mike Agassi had long harbored the goal that one of his children would be a champion. After the first three Agassis burned out early, Andre was his last, best hope. He was a pure prodigy, a toddler who hit with topspin, moving into the junior-tournament circuit at 7 and, before heturned 13, rallying with at least half a dozen pros who came through Vegas.

Through the lens of psychotherapy, Agassi now sees the earliest stages of his tennis education as a mild form of child abuse. In an interview with Tennis magazine, Jim Courier recalled a junior tournament at which Mike Agassi took Andre's runner-up trophy and threw it in the trash. These days, communication between father and son is cordial but sparse. . . .

At 13, Andre was shipped off to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, the notorious Florida tennis factory. Two days after his 16th birthday, Agassi turned professional, with Bollettieri, a law-school dropout who had never played competitive tennis, as his coach. In one early stretch as a pro, Agassi lost in the first round of nine straight tournaments, an experience that left him bawling on a Washington park bench, where he was comforted by a minister who traveled with the pro tour -- the same minister who not long before had helped Agassi become a born-again Christian.

And on Sampras's athletic genius:
According to Sampras family lore, Pete taught himself to play by hitting against a wall with a racquet he had found in the basement. One weekend morning when Pete was 9, his father, an engineer for NASA, took him to the Jack Kramer Tennis Club in Manhattan Beach, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Pete Fischer, a pediatrician who grew up in Yonkers, was just getting off the court, and Sam Sampras asked him to hit with his son. When they were through, Sam asked how much Fischer would charge to do it regularly. "Nothing," said Fischer. Thus began one of the least likely coach-athlete pairings in the history of sports. "You have to see him," says Sampras of Fischer. "He's bald with glasses, about 6 foot 2, has a bad back, is kind of hunched over and a little overweight. He's like a mad scientist. He tried to put his brain in my body." . . .

[Fischer] recalls that before he met Sampras, he had speculated with a friend what might happen "if a pure athlete, somebody like Willie Mays, had taken up tennis." And now here he was, rallying with a silent little kid whom Fischer sensed with frightening surety might indeed be tennis's Willie Mays. "He hit every ball square center, where he wanted to hit it," Fischer says. "You can't conceive of how good he was unless you were there." (In fact, until Sampras won the U.S. Open, Fischer often feared that he had disastrously tampered with history by encouraging him to play tennis instead of baseball.)

This all goes far beyond tennis. Print out the story, take it home, and read it over the weekend between matches. You won’t be sorry.


Anonymous said...

a: is there any question that some day a movie will be made about the Sampras-Agassi rivalry?
I always assumed what that piece confirmed, that Agassi was the quiet grounded one while Sampras was the diva. I guessed this was the case after Agassi left Shields and shacked up with Steffi and Sampras married Bridget Wilson. The Agassi-Shields pairing always seemed like Agassi was doing what he thought others would want him to do, marry the star. When he left her and got together with Steffi it was clear that he wanted to be with someone who shared interests and experiences. Sampras, on the other hand, married the blonde actress, another trophy for the mantle. Sampras loves his trophies, Agassi wants to be happy.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff. People who appreciate this kind of writing should enjoy John McPhee's "Levels of the Game," about a match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner in (I think) the late 1970's.

Thanks for getting this online.

George Parker