Re: Andre Agassi autobiography "Open"
Practice session at Key Biscayne in 1999
The next tournament where Steffi and I are both scheduled to play is Key Biscayne. Brad tells me to relax, he’ll get me close. He knows Steffi’s coach, Heinz Gunthardt. He’ll talk to Heinz about setting up a practice session.
The moment we arrive in Key Biscayne, Brad phones Heinz, who’s surprised by the proposition. He says no. He says Steffi would never agree to break her regular preparation schedule for a practice session with a stranger. She’s too regimented. Also she’s shy. She’d be highly uncomfortable. But Brad is persistent, and Heinz must have some trace of romantic in him. He suggests Brad and I book the court for right after Steffi’s practice session, then arrive early. Heinz will then casually suggest that Steffi hit a few balls with me.
It’s all set, Brad says. High noon. You. Me. Steffi. Heinz. Let’s get this party started.
On the appointed day, Brad and I get to the court 40 minutes early. I’ve never been so breathless. I’ve played 7 times in the final of a Grand Slam and I never felt like this. We find Heinz and Steffi deeply absorbed in their practice session. We stand off to the side, watching. After a few minutes Heinz calls to Steffi to the net and says something to her. He points to us.
She says a few words to Heinz, and Heinz says a few words, and then she shakes her head. But when she jogs back to the baseline, Heinz waves me onto the court.
I tie my shoes quickly. I pull a racket out of the bag and walk onto the court – then impulsively whip off my shirt. It’s shameless, I realize, but I’m desperate. Steffi looks and does a barely detectable double take. Thank you, Gil.
We start to hit. She’s flawless, of course, and I’m struggling to get the ball over the net. The net is your biggest enemy. Relax, I tell myself. Stop thinking. Come on, Andre, it’s only a practice session.
But I can’t help myself. I’ve never seen a woman so beautiful. Standing still, she’s a goddess; in motion, she’s poetry. I’m a suitor, but also a fan. I’ve wondered for so long what Steffi Graf’s forehand feels like. I’ve watched her on TV and at tournaments and I’ve wondered how that ball feels when it comes flying off her racket. A ball feels different off every player’s racket – there are minute but concrete subtleties of force and spin. Now, hitting with her, I feel her subtleties. It’s like touching her, though we’re 40 feet apart. Every forehand is foreplay.
She hits a series of backhands, carving up the court with her famous slice. I need to impress her with my ability to take that slice and do whatever I want with it. But it’s harder than I thought. I miss one. I yell to her: you’re not going to get away with that again!
She says nothing. She hits another slice. I sit down on my backhand and hit the ball as hard as I can.
She nets the return.
I yell: That shot pays a lot of bills for me!
Again, nothing. She merely hits the next one deeper and slicier.
Generally, during my practice sessions, Brad likes to keep busy. He chases balls, offers pointers, runs his mouth. Not this time. He’s sitting in the umpire chair, his eyes peeled, a lifeguard on a shark-infested beach.
Whenever I look in his direction he mutters one word. Beautiful.
Around the edges of the court, people are beginning to gather, to gawk. A few photographers snap photos. I wonder why. Is it the rarity of a male and female player practicing? Or is it that I’m catatonic and missing every 3rd ball? From a distance, it looks as if Steffi is giving a lesson to a shirtless, grinning mute.
After we hit for 1 hour and 10 minutes, she waves and comes to the net.
Thank you very much, she says.
I trot to the net and say, The pleasure was all mine.
I manage to act nonchalant, until she starts to use the net post to stretch out her legs. All the blood rushes to my head. I need to do something physical or I might lose consciousness. I’ve never stretched before, but now seems like a good time to start. I put a leg on the net post and pretend my back is flexible. We stretch, talk about the tour, complain about the travel, compare notes on different cities we’ve enjoyed.
I ask, What’s your favorite city? When tennis is over, where do you imagine living?
Oh. It’s a tie, I think. Between New York and San Francisco.
I think: Have you ever thought of living in Las Vegas?
I say: My 2 favorites also.
She smiles. Well, she says. Thanks again.
We do the European double-cheek kiss.