The head of security yells, OK, everyone, it’s showtime!
By careful prearrangement, Baghdatis stays three paces ahead as we move toward the light. Suddenly a second light, a blinding ethereal light, is in our faces. A TV camera. A reporter asks Baghdatis how he feels. He says something I can’t hear.
Now the camera is closer to my face and the reporter is asking the same question.
Could be your last match ever, the reporter says. How does that make you feel?
I answer, no idea what I’m saying. But after years of practice I have a sense that I’m saying what he wants me to say, what I’m expected to say. Then I resume walking, on legs that don’t feel like my own.
The temperature rises dramatically as we near the door to the court. The buzzing is now deafening. Baghdatis bursts through first. He knows how much attention my retirement has been getting. He reads the papers. He expects to play the villain tonight. He thinks he’s prepared. I let him go, let him hear the buzzing turn to cheers. I let him think the crowd is cheering for both of us. Then I walk out. Now the cheers triple. Baghdatis turns and realizes the first cheer was for him, but this cheer is mine, all mine, which forces him to revise his expectations and reconsider what’s in store. Without hitting a single ball I’ve caused a major swing in his sense of well-being. A trick of the trade. An old-timer’s trick.
The crowd gets louder as we find our way to our chairs. It’s louder than I thought it would be, louder than I’ve ever heard it in New York. I keep my eyes lowered, let the noise wash over me. They love this moment; they love tennis. I wonder how they would feel if they knew my secret. I stare at the court. Always the most abnormal part of my life, the court is now the only space of normalcy in all this turmoil. The court, where I’ve felt so lonely and exposed, is where I now hope to find refuge from this emotional moment.
I cruise through the first set, winning 6–4. The ball obeys my every command. So does my back. My body feels warm, liquid. Cortisone and adrenaline, working together. I win the second set, 6–4. I see the finish line.
In the third set I start to tire. I lose focus and control. Baghdatis, meanwhile, changes his game plan. He plays with desperation, a more powerful drug than cortisone. He starts to live in the now. He takes risks, and every risk pays off. The ball now disobeys me and conspires with him. It consistently bounces his way, which gives him confidence. I see the confidence shining from his eyes. His initial despair has turned to hope. No, anger. He doesn’t admire me anymore. He hates me, and I hate him, and now we’re sneering and snarling and trying to wrest this thing from each other. The crowd feeds on our anger, shrieking, pounding their feet after every point. They’re not clapping their hands as much as slapping them, and it all sounds primitive and tribal.
He wins the third set, 6–3.
I can do nothing to slow the Baghdatis onslaught. On the contrary, it’s getting worse. He’s twenty-one, after all, just warming up. He’s found his rhythm, his reason for being out here, his right to be here, whereas I’ve burned through my second wind and I’m painfully aware of the clock inside my body. I don’t want a fifth set. I can’t handle a fifth set. My mortality now a factor, I start to take my own risks. I grab a 4–0 lead. I’m up two service breaks, and again the finish line is within sight, within reach. I feel the magnetic force, pulling me.
Then I feel the other force pushing. Baghdatis starts to play his best tennis of the year. He just remembered he’s number eight in the world. He pulls triggers on shots I didn’t know he had in his repertoire. I’ve set a perilously high standard, but now he meets me there, and exceeds me. He breaks me to go 4–1. He holds serve to go 4–2.
Here comes the biggest game of the match. If I win this game, I retake command of this set and reestablish in his mind—and mine—that he was fortunate to get one break back. If I lose, it’s 4–3, and everything resets. Our night will begin again. Though we’ve bludgeoned each other for ten rounds, if I lose this game the fight will start over. We play at a furious pace. He goes for broke, holds nothing back—wins the game.
He’s going to take this set. He’ll die before he loses this set. I know it and he knows it and everyone in this stadium knows it. Twenty minutes ago I was two games from winning and advancing. I’m now on the brink of collapse.
He wins the set, 7–5.
The fifth set begins. I’m serving, shaking, unsure my body can hold out for another ten minutes, facing a kid who seems to be getting younger and stronger with every point. I tell myself, Do not let it end this way. Of all ways, not this way, not giving up a two-set lead. Baghdatis is talking to himself also, urging himself on. We ride a seesaw, a pendulum of high energy points. He makes a mistake. I give it back. He digs in. I dig in deeper. I’m serving at deuce, and we play a frantic point that ends when he hits a backhand drop shot that I wing into the net. I scream at myself. Advantage Baghdatis. The first time I’ve trailed him all night.
Shake it off. Control what you can control, Andre.
I win the next point. Deuce again. Elation.
I give him the next point. Backhand into the net. Advantage Baghdatis. Depression.
He wins the next point also, wins the game, breaks to go up 1–0.
We walk to our chairs. I hear the crowd murmuring the first Agassi eulogies. I take a sip of Gil Water, feeling sorry for myself, feeling old. I look over at Baghdatis, wondering if he’s feeling cocky. Instead he’s asking a trainer to rub his legs. He’s asking for a medical time-out. His left quad is strained. He did that to me on a strained quad?
The crowd uses the lull in the action to chant. Let’s go, Andre! Let’s go, Andre! They start a wave. They hold up signs with my name.
Thanks for the memories, Andre!
This is Andre’s House.
At last Baghdatis is ready to go. His serve. Having just broken me to take the lead in the match, he should have a full head of steam. But instead the lull seems to have disrupted his rhythm. I break him. We’re back on serve.
For the next six games we each hold. Then, knotted at four–all, with me serving, we play a game that seems to last a week, one of the most taxing and unreal games of my career. We grunt like animals, hit like gladiators, his forehand, my backhand. Everyone in the stadium stops breathing. Even the wind stops. Flags go limp against the poles. At 40–30, Baghdatis hits a swift forehand that sweeps me out of position. I barely get there in time to put my racket on it. I sling the ball over the net—screaming in agony—and he hits another scorcher to my backhand. I scurry in the opposite direction—oh, my back!—and reach the ball just in time. But I’ve wrenched my spine. The spinal column is locked up and the nerves inside are keening. Goodbye, cortisone. Baghdatis hits a winner to the open court and as I watch it sail by I know that for the rest of this night my best effort is behind me. Whatever I do from this point on will be limited, compromised, borrowed against my future health and mobility.
I look across the net to see if Baghdatis has noticed my pain, but he’s hobbling. Hobbling? He’s cramping. He falls to the ground, grabbing his legs. He’s in more pain than I. I’ll take a congenital back condition over sudden leg cramps any day. As he writhes on the ground I realize: All I have to do is stay upright, move this goddamned ball around a little while longer, and let his cramps do their work.
I abandon all thought of subtlety and strategy. I say to myself, Fundamentals. When you play someone wounded, it’s about instinct and reaction. This will no longer be tennis, but a raw test of wills. No more jabs, no more feints, no more footwork. Nothing but roundhouses and haymakers.
Back on his feet, Baghdatis too has stopped strategizing, stopped thinking, which makes him more dangerous. I can no longer predict what he’ll do. He’s crazed with pain, and no one can predict crazy, least of all on a tennis court. At deuce, I miss my first serve, then give him a fat, juicy second serve, seventy-something miles an hour, on which he unloads. Winner. Advantage Baghdatis.
Shit. I slump forward. The guy can’t move, but he still crushes my serve?
Now, yet again, I’m one slender, skittish point away from falling behind 4–5, which will set up Baghdatis to serve for the match. I close my eyes. I miss my first serve again. I hit another tentative second serve just to get the point going and somehow he flubs an easy forehand. Deuce again.
When your mind and body teeter on the verge of all-out collapse, one easy point like that feels like a pardon from the governor. And yet, I nearly squander my pardon. I miss my first serve. I make my second and he returns it wide. Another gift. Advantage Agassi.
I’m one point from a commanding 5–4 lead. Baghdatis grimaces, bears down. He won’t yield. He wins the point. Deuce number three. I promise myself that if I gain the advantage again, I won’t lose it.
By now Baghdatis isn’t merely cramping, he’s a cripple. Awaiting my serve, he’s fully bent over. I can’t believe he’s managing to stay on the court, let alone give me such a game. The guy has as much heart as he has hair. I feel for him, and at the same time tell myself to show him no mercy. I serve, he returns, and in my eagerness to hit to the open court, I hit far wide. Out. A choke. Clearly, a choke. Advantage Baghdatis.
He can’t capitalize, however. On the next point he hits a forehand several feet beyond the baseline. Deuce number four.
We have a long rally, ending when I drive a deep shot to his forehand that he misplays. Advantage Agassi. Again. I promised myself I wouldn’t waste this opportunity if it came around again, and here it is. But Baghdatis won’t let me keep the promise. He quickly wins the next point. Deuce number five.
We play an absurdly long point. Every ball he hits, moaning, catches a piece of the line. Every ball I hit, screaming, somehow clears the net. Forehand, backhand, trick shot, diving shot—then he hits a ball that nicks the baseline and takes a skittish sideways hop. I catch it on the rise and hit it twenty feet over him and the baseline. Advantage Baghdatis.
Stick to basics, Andre. Run him, run him. He’s gimpy, just make him move. I serve, he hits a vanilla return, I send him side to side until he yowls in pain and hits the ball into the net. Deuce number six.
While waiting for my next serve, Baghdatis is leaning on his racket, using it as an old man uses a walking stick. When I miss a first serve, however, he creeps forward, crablike, and with his walking stick he whacks my serve well beyond the reach of my forehand. Advantage Baghdatis.
His fourth break point of this game. I hit a timid first serve, so paltry, so meek, my seven-year-old self would have been ashamed, and yet Baghdatis hits a defensive return. I hit to his forehand. He nets. Deuce number seven.
I make another first serve. He gets a racket on it but can’t get it over the net. Advantage Agassi.
I’m serving again for the game. I recall my twice-broken promise. Here, one last chance. My back, however, is spasming. I can barely turn, let alone toss the ball and hit it 120 miles an hour. I miss my first serve, of course. I want to crush a second serve, be aggressive, but I can’t. Physically I cannot. I tell myself, Three-quarter kick, put the ball above his shoulder, make him go side to side until he pukes blood. Just don’t double-fault.
Easier said than done. The box is shrinking. I watch it gradually diminish in size. Can everyone else see what I’m seeing? The box is now the size of a playing card, so small that I’m not sure this ball would fit if I walked it over there and set it down. I toss the ball, hit an alligator-armed serve. Out. Of course. Double fault. Deuce number eight.
The crowd screams in disbelief.
I manage to make a first serve. Baghdatis hits a workmanlike return. With three-quarters of his court wide open, I punch the ball deep to his backhand, ten feet from him. He scampers toward it, waves his racket limply, can’t get there. Advantage Agassi.
On the twenty-second point of the game, after a brief rally, Baghdatis finally whips a backhand into the net. Game, Agassi.
During the changeover I watch Baghdatis sit. Big mistake. A young man’s mistake. Never sit when cramping. Never tell your body that it’s time to rest, then tell it, Just kidding! Your body is like the federal government. It says, Do anything you like, but when you get caught, don’t lie to me. So he’s not going to be able to serve. He’s not going to be able to get out of that chair.
And then he gets out and holds serve.
What’s keeping this man up?
Oh. Yes. Youth.
At 5–all, we play a stilted game. He makes a mistake, goes for the knockout. I counterpunch and win. I lead, 6–5.
His serve. He goes up 40–15. He’s one point from pushing this match to a tiebreaker.
I fight him to deuce.
Then I win the next point, and now I have match point.
A quick, vicious exchange. He hits a wild forehand, and as it leaves his strings I know it’s out. I know I’ve won this match, and at the same moment I know that I wouldn’t have had energy for one more swing.
I meet Baghdatis at the net, take his hand, which is trembling, and hurry off the court. I don’t dare stop. Must keep moving. I stagger through the tunnel, my bag slung over my left shoulder, feeling as if it’s slung over my right shoulder, because my whole body is twisted. By the time I reach the locker room I’m unable to walk. I’m unable to stand. I’m sinking to the floor. I’m on the ground. Darren and Gil arrive, slip my bag off my shoulder and lift me onto a table. Baghdatis’s people deposit him on the table next to me.
A trainer tells me the doctors are on the way. He turns on the TV above the table. Something to do while you wait, he says.
I try to watch. I hear moans to my left. I turn my head slowly and see Baghdatis on the next table. His team is working on him. They stretch his quad, his hamstring cramps. They stretch his hamstring, his quad cramps. He tries to lie flat, his groin cramps. He curls into a ball and begs them to leave him be. Everyone clears out of the locker room. It’s just the two of us. I turn back to the TV.
Moments later something makes me turn back to Baghdatis. He’s smiling at me. Happy or nervous? Maybe both. I smile back.
I hear my name coming from the TV. I turn my head. Highlights from the match. The first two sets, so misleadingly easy. The third, Baghdatis starting to believe. The fourth, a knife fight. The fifth, the never-ending ninth game. Some of the best tennis I’ve ever played. Some of the best I’ve ever seen. The commentator calls it a classic.
In my peripheral vision I detect slight movement. I turn to see Baghdatis extending his hand. His face says, We did that. I reach out, take his hand, and we remain this way, holding hands, as the TV flickers with scenes of our savage battle.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Good luck to all Evo 2011 participants! This is from Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open.
at 4:52 PM