Professional tennis is teeming with fascinating characters, many of whom have cast shadows so long that they have become widely known for their deeds both on and off the court. The Williams sisters, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and so many more have become larger-than-life characters in the drama of international tennis as they move from grand slam to grand slam, Melbourne to Paris, London, and New York each year, with many other stops in between.
Several tennis legends have published autobiographies recently that would make superb gifts for both casual tennis enthusiasts and those who spend weekends glued to the Tennis Channel. Below are my recommendations for gift-giving-two books that give insight into the tennis strokes and personal challenges of highly successful players and shed light on the evolution of the sport as well. I also describe two other recently published tennis memoirs that I found less compelling and therefore not on my short list of recommended gifts.
Open by Andre Agassi (New York: Random House, 2009)
Hot off the presses, this autobiography drew a great deal of attention as a result of two revelations: Andre Agassis wore a hairpiece on court and used crystal methylene while an active player on the tour and then lied about it when he failed a drug test. Even without these two startling news items, an Agassi memoir was bound to be juicy, since he projected an image of rebellion and nonconformity during his younger years and was married to the beautiful starlet Brooke Shields.
Agassi’s book is very much in his own voice and traces his history from a Las Vegas childhood dominated by his tennis-mad Armenian/Iranian father to his years in a prison-like Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, to his success on the pro tour despite inner turmoil and a difficult relationship with the press. Although he remains a work in progress, Andre’s narrative makes clear how his marriage to fellow tennis superstar Stefanie Graf stabilized his life and how he has become a beloved humanitarian and elder statesman of the sport of tennis in his retirement.
This book is not only full of plot and character, but it is written in a fast-paced and readable style that holds the reader’s attention through 386 pages. The printed hardcopy version has quite a few black and white photographs of Andre through the years. There is also an audiobook version on CD or available for download to MP3 player, although it is not read by Agassi himself.
Open is available in bookstores and may be purchased on line from Amazon ($11.75 in hardcover), Barnes and Noble or Borders ($17.37 in hardcover). Not available for electronic readers as of this writing.
Getting a Grip: On my Body, My Mind, My Self by Monica Seles (New York: The Penguin Group, 2009)
Monica Seles is three years younger than Andre Agassi and was a classmate of his at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, which she found to be somewhat less oppressive than he did. Coming to Florida from the former Yugoslavia at age 13, Monica marveled at the wonderful tennis facilities and training equipment which were vastly more extensive than any she had encountered. In her book, she describes how she became fascinated by tennis at a young age and how her supportive parents and older brother helped her achieve her tennis dreams.
She won her first grand slam tournament at age 16 and began a professional rivalry with Steffi Graf (Agassi’s second wife) that was a central feature of her career. In fact, Seles was stabbed in the back, near her spine, on court during a 1993 tournament in Germany by a crazed fan of Graf. Although the wound healed, Seles remained out of tennis and in seclusion for 2 ½ years after the attack, which affected her deeply. She refused to play in Germany again. After her comeback, she achieved considerable success, including representing her adopted USA at the Olympics. She was fairly inactive after 2004 and officially retired in 2008.
As evidence of her recovery from fear and insecurity, in 2008 she participated as a celebrity contestant on the U.S. television program “Dancing with the Stars,” which she recounts in some detail in her book. Although she was not a “natural” at ballroom dancing and was voted off quickly, she seems to have taken the experience in stride. The reader of her account senses that she is proud to have given it her all even if it was difficult for her. Getting a Grip is the story of Monica’s development into a woman comfortable in her own skin, just as Open is the story of Andre’s evolution from bad boy into humanitarian.
Getting a Grip is available on line from Amazon ($17.16 in hardcover), Barnes and Noble ($18.37 in hardcover), and Borders ($26.00 in hardcover). Amazon sells a Kindle ebook edition for $9.99 and bn.com sells an ebook version for the Nook (their new Kindle competitor), but the Nook is presently sold out and on backorder.
Not on Shortlist: Serena Williams and Pete Sampras Tennis Memoirs
Serena Williams recently published On the Line (with Daniel Paisner, New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2009), a memoir of her life in tennis. Although Serena is an outstanding player, I am less interested in her life details than those of other top players. In my opinion, it is clear that she is not a serious tennis professional but someone with enough raw talent to simply show up at the grand slams and play her way into the tournaments. She is often very, very rough during the early rounds and sometimes has lost early as a result.
I am also disillusioned and disappointed by her uncouth behavior at the 2009 U.S. Open. In an extended rant, she threatened and cursed at the linesperson who called a foot fault during the women’s semifinal. This scene resulted in Serena paying a fine and incurring additional sanctions from the USTA. She has yet to apologize or accept responsibility for the outburst. This behavior resulted in her forfeiting the final point of the match-a very unhappy way for Kim Clijsters to win this grand slam semifinal just 18 months after giving birth to her first child.
For tennis fans interested in Serena’s book, On the Line is widely available in hardcover and there is an audiobook edition read by the author herself.
If there is anything wrong with Pete Sampras and therefore his memoir it is that it lacks an engaging plot. Pete starts right out saying that he knew from an early age that tennis was his destiny; he works very hard, is very good, and guess what-he turns into one of the world’s best all-time tennis players. His harmonious Greek American family supports him and sacrifices so he can have the lessons, equipment, etc. that he needs to develop. A lucky move to Southern California as a child gave Pete the opportunity to learn tennis in a place where broad participation was supported and valued.
Pete was not only a straightforward, reserved, hard-working child, but that is exactly the kind of adult tennis player he turns into. This is all fortunate and laudable, but as the subject of a memoir, somewhat boring! His style of play was boring (big serve, next big serve, another big serve), his interviews were boring, and the lack of drama or conflict makes his book boring for all but the most devoted Sampras fans and tennis historians.
The Sampras memoir A Champion’s Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis (New York: Crown Publishers, 2008) is available in hardcover, paperback, and an audiobook version not narrated by Sampras. It is also available for the Kindle ebook reader and for MP3 download.
By the way, if you are the tennis aficionado in your household, feel free to drop hints that you would love to receive one or more of these autobiographies as a gift. Or, just buy them for yourself!
Player autobiographies cited above
Personal observation of professional tennis