The other day as I was working out on an elliptical trainer at my health club, I was channel surfing. I happened to come across a replay of the final game of Andre Agassi’s pro tennis career, which had taken place the previous day. Agassi was down two sets to one, and down six games to five in the fourth set. It was the third round of the 2006 U.S. Open.
For most of the past 15 years, I had largely forgotten about the sport that I had once loved, though I had paid some attention to Agassi’s career through newspapers and magazines.
In my youth I was decidedly unathletic. When I played any sport with my friends—usually basketball, football, or baseball—I was invariably the last player chosen.
But somehow, if you put a racquet into my hand and placed me onto a tennis court, I suddenly and inexplicably became the undisputed champion of that little socio-athletic world. None of my friends—most of whom were otherwise far more athletic than I—could come anywhere near me on the tennis court.
I could hit the ball more accurately than they could. I developed a strong two-handed topspin backhand that made most of my opponents afraid to come to the net. And I could get to just about any ball—including balls that most recreational players would not even try to reach.
I would read my tennis magazines voraciously and practice and apply the skills I read about. Thus I learned to hit the ball at the apex of its toss on my serve, and to move forward and hit the ball on the rise on my ground strokes.
My hometown was Barnesville, Ohio. The nearest city of any import, Pittsburgh, Pa., was 90 miles away. I regret that I never had access to coaching, or tournament play, or a school tennis team. I think that if these luxuries had been within my grasp, I could have become an excellent tennis player, at least at the high school level.
While I was an avid spectator of other sports, tennis held a special place for me, because tennis was, in terms of my status within my social group, the great equalizer.
I grew up watching Connors, McEnroe, Borg, and Lendl.
Connors was hated for his on- and off-court antics, but he was a thrill to watch simply because of his stubbornness—he would never give up on any point, even if a match or a set was far out of reach. After losing soundly (6-1, 6-1, 6-2) to McEnroe in the 1984 Wimbledon finals, Connors was asked whether he would concede that the younger McEnroe was now the better player, and Connors famously replied, “Never.”
McEnroe’s game was aggressive but also poetic. He would fearlessly charge the net at the slightest opportunity. His volleys and drop shots could seemingly defy the laws of physics and geometry.
Borg played a defensive game of attrition: He would simply stand slightly behind the baseline and hit every ball to the other side no matter what. I always thought that playing him must be like playing against an infinite wall—no matter where you hit the ball, it would always come back to you.
Lendl’s game had no flair and no need for it. Like Borg, Lendl played from the baseline, but Lendl simply hit the ball so hard that most of his opponents could not keep up. He would basically pummel his opponent into submission. Lendl’s game was cold and ruthless, and Lendl was the perfect villain.
I remember watching (on television) a young Agassi defeat an aging Connors in a five-set thriller in the quarterfinals of the 1989 U.S. Open.
At that time, Agassi was a brash, disrespectful upstart who loved to be hated. (This role was very similar to the role that Connors had played in his youth.) But over the course of the next decade plus, the world got to watch Agassi slowly mature into a classy, revered veteran who sincerely cares about his family, his fans, and the world.
Here is a rare tennis star who truly loves his fans, who appreciates them, who seems to sincerely believe that he couldn’t have done this without them, and who almost seems to do this for them. Agassi makes the fan feel like he (the fan) has a name, a face. He makes the fan feel like a part of it.
As I exercised and watched Agassi’s swan song, I was transported away from the health club; away from the dozens of other people working out in close quarters; and away from the ubiquitous blaring techno music whose pulsing bass beat usually drives into my head at this health club even as I attempt to drown it out by listening to something else on my headphones.
After I watched Agassi lose the final game of his career, I stayed for his final trademark four-sides bowing-and-kissing salute, and then for his farewell speech to his fans in the stadium at Flushing Meadows. I could not help but shed a tear with him. Even through the television, his sincerity was undeniable, and it pierced every part of me that would listen.
And then, as I watched the obligatory montage (complete with John Williams-esque score) chronicling Agassi’s career, I thought about the special place that tennis had once occupied in my own life. I remembered the epic matches that I had watched on television in my youth. I remembered the joy of playing tennis with my friends and the thrill of actually dominating them in a sport, which was an otherwise unheard-of phenomenon.
Today, due to the same wrist problems that ended my piano performance aspirations several years ago, playing tennis is a distant memory. Also, since I’ve chosen to live without a TV for the past several years, watching tennis on TV is a rarity.
For just a moment, Andre Agassi helped me to reconnect with something I’d loved and lost.
Thank you, Mr. Agassi.
Thank you for sharing yourself so generously with your fans.
Thank you for showing us that it is entirely possible for a person to change for the better.
And thank you for reminding me that tennis is one of the greatest sports that ever did exist, and one of the greatest sports that ever will.
Ranjit Souri (firstname.lastname@example.org) manages a theater school and teaches writing classes in Chicago.