I remember watching Andre Agassi play early in his career. He had a ton of talent but the image outpictured anything else he might have been. I scoffed when Barbra Streisand called him the Zen master. I felt self satisfied in my opinion when he dropped down to 141 in the ATP rankings. He was a very clean hitter but not a very heady player. He could hit you off the court but not out-think you.

Then he was smart enough to start working with Brad Gilbert and learned how to outmaneuver his opponent. Then he improved his conditioning. Then he improved his return of serve, if that was possible. Then I read Gilbert’s book, I’ve Got Your Back, Winning Ugly for coaches I suppose you could call it. Gilbert describes his friend as a gracious, intelligent warrior who remade himself and his game to get to the top and stay at the top well into his thirties.

The final thing that got me was Agassi’s introductory speech for his wife, Steffi Graf, when she was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004. I’m telling you, I cannot read it without tears in my eyes. For instance:

“From the roar of voices inside the lines of center court to the quietness of a child’s bedroom, that generous soul, that unbending strength, that soft spoken integrity has not been shaken. The arena of tennis simply gave you a platform and an opportunity to refine those inner qualities even more.”

My favorite part of sports, besides playing them, is the opportunity to read the ongoing biographies that constitute the sports pages. Each season I get to know an athlete a little better. Did they face their demons down and reach their potential? Did they live up to their huge contract? Did they win the gold medal an entire country expected them to win? Sometimes they fail horribly. Mayhem and murder even. And sometimes they grow into themselves and become deeply caring human beings. Here is someone who suffered from a common but debilitating sports disease: the athlete who plays sports in a futile attempt to win the praise of a critical parent who never praises you and is never satisfied with your accomplishments. Agassi had already won slams when his father said, “Well, he could have been President by now. Why isn’t he President? He could have been.” Andre dealt with it. He got the counseling he needed and learned to compete for his love of tennis, not his father’s.

Which brings us to yesterday’s match against Joachim Johansson. Johansson set a new record by serving 51 aces in the match with Agassi. Richard Kracijek set the record of 49 aces in a five set match. Johansson needed only four. At one point Johansson had 27 winners to Agassi’s 7. But Agassi protected his service game, got to the tiebreaker in the last three sets, and won each one. This was a masterly display of patience and, above all, mental toughness. No throwing fits or turning to your coach and whining, not even a “come on!” Just put your hard hat on and keep working at it until you find the slightest opening or weakness you can exploit. Agassi kept changing his service return position – he was almost in the shade at one point – moved his serve around and did anything he possibly could to give Johansson a different look. It was enough. Just enough. That was a great testament to his transition from a power hitter to a mentally tough master technician.

Practice and Competition Report: played two sets with M., 7-5, 4-6
Solutions Analysis:
1. Trunk twist is everything. If I swing the racket with my arm only, the ball dribbles over the net. If I twist my trunk and step into the ball, I hit it solidly and deep. This is particularly useful if I get pulled out wide because I can still hit a solid shot without a lot of footwork if I make sure to twist and hit.
2. When M. gets behind, she hits the ball short then lobs me when I come in. She also starts to hit more junk: short balls and spin. To counter this I should hit shorts balls to the corners of the service box before she hits them. Also, I need to keep the ball deep to make it harder to hit short balls.
3. I got tired in the middle of the second set, understandable for my first match in two and a half months I suppose.
4. Lost rhythm on my serve. See Sean Brawley about this.
Success Analysis: improved my slice serve. You actually do have to hit the side of the ball, just like they always said.

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