A Tennis-Ball-Shaped Anvil (and Other Things That Weigh on Us)

“Advantage, Service, Fault, Break, Love, … Every Match Is a Life in Miniature.”

Sam Guthrie / 2.6.20

“It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.” – Andre Agassi

Stumbling across Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open was like overhearing a parishioner’s confession to a priest. It doesn’t take the tennis legend long to tell readers that, contrary to common perception, he hated tennis. Where sports fans and tennis enthusiasts assumed they were watching one of the greatest American athletes, Andre confesses that who you saw was a man tortured by perfection, imprisoned to a game he was forced to play, and desperate for any fleeting sense of relief.

At the age of two, a racket was placed in Andre’s hands. For Andre’s father, his son was the golden child, the chosen one, the tennis star destined for glory and the means by which the Agassi family would reap financial benefits. While friends hung out at the pool, Andre was confined to the backyard tennis court where he returned balls from an unrelenting ball machine engineered by his unrelenting father. Both the machine and father were incapable of mercy, a sick mimicking of bombardment on a boy whose request for rest was drowned out by his father’s repeated demand, “Hit harder!”

Losing crippled Andre. He recalls his first loss at age 8 and the effect his father’s mindset had on his own: “After years of hearing my father rant at my flaws, one loss has caused me to take up his rant. I’ve internalized my father — his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage — until his voice doesn’t just feel like my own, it is my own. I no longer need my father to torture me. From this day on, I can do it all by myself.”

Each loss was a death blow, each victory a quick and fleeting high. Tennis was a zero-sum game, and when success is the expectation then everything else is devastating. Andre writes,I’ve been cheered by thousands, booed by thousands, but nothing feels as bad as the booing inside your own head during those ten minutes before you fall asleep.” Naturally, Andre tried to quiet those boos with anything that gave him a sense of security. For the early part of his career, security was wrapped up in his image, particularly his iconic hair. Other times, it was romantic relationships. Most often, Andre made sure to surround himself with people that would support, protect, and care for him. 

The most unlikely member of Andre’s inner circle was Gil Reyes. The six-foot, barrel-chested strength coach knew nothing about tennis, hated the heat, and stuck out like a sore thumb at tennis matches. Gil was also everything Andre’s father wasn’t. What Gil offered Andre was almost always predicated on Andre’s need rather than his success. In the gym, Gil would put a workout on hold if Andre needed to voice his frustrations or anxieties. During difficult times, Gil would accompany Andre on evening drives. They’d listen to their mixtape of sad songs, Gil speaking the lyrics, naming their shared pain. Before matches, Andre would sip a special drink Gil concocted that helped prepare him for the match. Gil was present and kind. His loyalty didn’t predicate on accomplishment but seemed to increase with failure. Whatever Gil offered, Andre willingly received its remedy.

In St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he confesses that left to his own devices, he will always choose to do what he knows he shouldn’t. And while we may be prone to label Paul’s conflict into good choices and bad choices, I fear that his confession has just as much to do with motive than action. And if that’s the case, then there is no shadow where the guilty or “righteous” can hide. In a different time, from a different voice, we hear a similar confession from Agassi about the never-ending pursuit to feel worthy. Where Andre hid in tennis’ shadow, so do we often find our shade in a strange mix of worthwhile endeavors, healthy habits, and beneficial rituals. We run ourselves ragged to think well of ourselves, to think that we’ve made it or we’re on the way to making it. And then we hit a roadblock, failure, misstep, lapse in judgment. We lash out because our performance is a matter of life or death. Not in the most extreme ways but in the small ways: not achieving the right job title, the type of marriage you hoped for, the relationship with your grown children, your alcoholism you’ve closeted and normalized. There is a dragon that we fight continually, a dragon that doesn’t tire. It is a machine we wage war against but also wages within us. Always whispering “not enough, more, more, more, hit harder.”

Francis Spufford writes that “If you don’t give the weight in your chest it’s true name, you can’t even begin.” Open is Andre Agassi’s confession of the tennis-ball-shaped anvil that sat on his chest and the clear example of the upside-down liberation that comes when we name what hurts. It is a familiar refraction of St. Paul’s confession so many years ago. A confession that was heard by an unblinking, redeeming, and living God. The God who provides the only hope for rescue and relief and works best with the defeated. Through whom we come to love what we previously hated, our loves continually re-ordered and shaped by our deliverance. 

“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”


One response to “A Tennis-Ball-Shaped Anvil (and Other Things That Weigh on Us)”

  1. Luke says:

    Grew up a huge Andre Agassi fan in the late 90s. Therefore I was more than a little excited to get an autobiography from him all those years ago. And reading it as a young twenty something I can say I definitely did not get everything out of it you got.

    But I can see certainly track with all of that now. May have to dig it out and see what I key in on this time.

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