In the furnace of the sporting psyche

Last week, while I was away marking the first anniversary of my mom’s passing, Gary Smith retired from active feature-writing for/with Sports Illustrated.

Journalists (who wish they could write like Gary while knowing they never can) and readers (who wish we could look forward to a life-long supply of sportswriting with the Gary seal of quality) mourned the news.

Why is the retirement of a sportswriter that big a deal? Here is an earliest post (November 9, 2009) that attempts to capture some small part of the man’s magic:

Sport comes to us in boxes – the perimeters of our TV screens or the boundary lines of fields and courts. As much as I enjoy what goes on inside those boxes, I’ve always had the urge to bust out of them. I’ve always had the feeling that the most compelling and significant story was the one occurring beyond the game – before it, after it, above it or under it, deep in the furnace of the psyche. Conventional journalism couldn’t always carry me up to those rafters or down to those boiler rooms, so I had to break out of a few of my own little boxes as well.

That clip is from one of my favorite sports writers of all time; specifically, it is taken from the preface to Gary Smith’s Beyond the Game.

Beyond the game

Sports journalism, done right

For a flavor of how Smith writes, try these stories: The Chosen One, a December 1996 profile of Tiger Woods; Damned Yankee, the story of the man who was widely regarded as the heir to the Yogi Berra mantle until a photographer clicked a picture that changed his life forever;  Coming Into Focus, his 2006 profile of Andre Agassi;  Moment of Truth, a story written around a camera verite moment in a locker room; Blindsided by History, the tragic tale of unintended consequences arising out of segregationists’ attempts to keep black students out of an Arkansas school; and Remember his Name, the story of Pat Tillman, who turned his back on a multi-million NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals and, in the aftermath of 9/11, enlisted in the United States army in 2002 and died in action in Afghanistan in April 2004. [One of my personal favorites, though it appears to be unavailable online, is Rapture in the Deep — the story of competitive free-diving ace Pipin Ferreras and of Audrey Mestre, the woman who fell in love with him, bought into his passion for the incredibly dangerous sport, and died in 2002 while attempting to break a world record.]

The prompt for this post comes from a Joel Achenbach article I just read in the Washington Post where, against the backdrop of the internet, blogs and social media, he celebrates the craft of the extended narrative in general, and Smith’s work with Sports Illustrated in particular. From his article:

There’s endless talk in the news media about the next killer app. Maybe Twitter really will change the world. Maybe the next big thing will be just an algorithm, like Google’s citation-ranking equation. But Smith is betting that there will still be a market, somehow, for what he does. Narrative isn’t merely a technique for communicating; it’s how we make sense of the world. The storytellers know this.

They know that the story is the original killer app.

When Smith won his third National Magazine Award, Slate celebrated with an article on the man and his craft. An extended clip:

As for complexity: It is always easier, and generally more profitable, to sketch the world in blacks and whites rather than grays. As much as this calculus reigns on newspapers’ Op-Ed pages and in thumbs-up/thumbs-down movie reviews, it is an iron law in sports sections. From reading them, you’d think that every athlete, coach, or executive is either a saint or a blackguard.

That’s not Smith’s way. The only profile of him I have been able to locate appeared in a

Gary Smith

Gary Smith, courtesy ‘Talk on Tap’

magazine called PhillySport in 1989. (Smith made his name as a young sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News.) In it he explained his approach to the writer, Bruce E. Beans: “I’m looking at it not so much as ‘this is good, this is bad,’ as much as ‘this is just life’ and trying to understand it.”

That’s of a piece with the totally self-effacing way Smith writes. Today, most journalism that anybody pays attention to gives pride of place to the writer: his or her attitude, opinions, and/or experiences. Smith, by contrast, subjugates himself to his subjects, winning their trust and spending hour after hour with them, until he has the understanding and facts needed to write long, richly psychological pieces in which the word “I” never appears.

The O’Leary article, “Lying in Wait,” is a typical production. (Along with most of Smith’s work, it can be read as part of a seven-day free trial at elibrary.com.) First of all, it’s more than 8,600 words long, a positively anachronistic bulk in today’s streamlined, dumbed-down magazine cosmos. (Smith is now an anomaly even at SI, a magazine with a noble lineage of long-form journalism. Flip the page after reading one of his engrossing sagas—it’s like you’ve wandered into People.) But room to ruminate is necessary, assuming you’re trying to do justice to the tragic story of a human being’s fall from grace. Second, the article starts from an assumption of moral ambiguity. It’s a given that O’Leary did something very wrong, but for Smith, exploring the roots of that action is much more interesting than condemning it or excusing it.

Finally, it reads like a rich short story: not a minimalist piece a là Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver, but a pull-out-all-the stops production, in the manner of Gabriel García Márquez. (In the light of recent scandals, it seems important to say that Smith has never been accused of fabrication or other journalistic sins.)

Journalism that goes inside people’s heads is a tricky proposition. In the heyday of the New Journalism, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote wrote from the points of view of Joe DiMaggio, stock car driver Junior Johnson, and murderer Perry Smith, respectively, with the assurance of Virginia Woolf describing London streets through the eyes of Clarissa Dalloway. But pulling that off requires prodigious reportorial stamina, capacious insight, and darned good literary chops. It’s much easier to take your subject’s description of what he or she was thinking and just drop it in the piece, surrounded by quotation marks. In a Smith piece, you rarely see a quote until the backstretch, when he’s got his narrative hooks into you and can afford to plunk in some background info via direct testimony.

It’s a great act, if you can pull it off — but can you? Smith spends the best part of three months working on a single story — a luxury that is increasingly rare in today’s world, where journalists are lucky if they get three hours. In his piece, Achenbach underlines the conundrum:

The sages say that we’ve reached a situation where “content creation” no longer pays. Only “aggregation” is profitable. It’s a freak variant of Darwinism — the survival of the parasitic. But obviously there will be little of value to aggregate if only rich people and dilettantes can afford to type up their thoughts.

Even the TV industry faces a serious story deficit. Those prime-time police and hospital dramas cost a lot of money to make. Not so expensive, however, is Jay Leno walking out and doing a monologue. That’s one reason he’s moved to 10 p.m., five nights a week. (The most compelling stories on TV are now those crafted by reality-show producers who stitch together a narrative of who’s backstabbing whom in pursuit of a prize. It’s all in the editing.)

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there’s a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it’s expensive.”

Very expensive — but someone needs to have the vision to foot this bill, if narrative journalism of the highest class is not to die out altogether. Somewhere in the rush of ‘deadlines’ and ‘instant news’, we seem to have forgotten the journalist’s real job description — the best definition of which I once found in the preface to the DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics [at a Poynter seminar on journalism in 2003, Pulitzer winner Tom French recommended this to me as one of the best how-to books on journalism I’d ever find — and it turned out he was right]:

Here’s what I would like you to do for me: Make me laugh. Make me cry.

Show me my place in this world. Show me the world’s place in my life.

Lift me out of my skin and put me inside another’s, and show me how to live there.

Show me places I have never been to. Carry me to the ends of time and space.

Give my demons names, give my fears a face, and show me how to confront them.

Present before me heroes who will give me courage and hope.

Demonstrate for me possibilities I had never thought of.

Ease my sorrows, increase my joy.

Teach me compassion. Entertain me, enchant me, enlighten me.

Above all, tell me a story.

Update (May 6, 2014):

This is how SL Price, no slouch in the sportswriting business, greeted the news of Smith’s retirement:

It’s no exaggeration to say that every sportswriter of a certain ambition and age — let’s say from 20 to 70 — has had a Gary Smith moment. This is not fun. What starts as excitement soon becomes a swirl of puzzlement, awe and surprise; the frantic fluttering of pages forward and back; the parsing of sentences like so much Kremlinalia; some involuntary, half-baked blurts like, “How did he…?” and “Why did no one else…?” — and all of it leads back to you, you sorry bastard, and how you’re never, ever going to write a story like that, so what were you thinking getting into this business in the first place?

Yeah, exactly. Journalists — including but not confined to those who scribble on sport — go through that cycle, that starts with wanting to be Gary Smith, to knowing you can inhabit the same planet as him and, from that point of self-awareness, contenting ourselves with reading each successive story of his with slack-jawed admiration.

Price, in his post quoted from above, links to many of Price’s greatest hits; the one you find referenced most often is Lying In Wait, Smith’s 2002 profile of American football coach George O’Leary.

Why is this piece so good? James Ross Gardner, whose byline has starred in Esquire and GQ among others, and who works for the Seattle Met magazine, attempted to answer this question on behalf of Neiman Storyboard — and inter alia, points at the secret sauce that makes Smith primus inter pares among non-fiction writers:

We may as well begin the way Gary Smith begins – with a question, and near the end. Why is it that when you finish reading “Lying in Wait,” Smith’s 2002 profile of coach George O’Leary, you feel the impact so strongly? And by feel I mean physically feel. It will be different for everyone, but it hits me somewhere in the throat.

I do know that sensation is why, when asked about my favorite nonfiction writers, I rarely mention Gary Smith. I suspect I’m not alone. Listing Gary Smith comes with the obligation of explaining why Gary Smith. And anyone who’s been affected by his stories in Sports Illustrated – about coaches flattened by cancer, say, or an integrated high school team during segregation – knows that the pieces are hard to describe, that by the time you reach the end you’re emotionally drained but unable to articulate why. So I’ll talk about Tom Wolfe’s explosive sentences or David Grann’s knack for plot twists or John Hersey’s masterful pacing. But I’ll hardly ever refer to the guy at the top of my list, and that, I suppose, is a lie of omission.

Yeah. We often omit Smith’s name when listing our favorite writers, because it is beyond our ability to articulate just what it is about his writing that is par excellence. So we are content to toss in a few links to a subjective selection of his best work, season those links with a few superlatives, and leave it at that. This is what Ben Yagoda did in 2003, when Smith won the National Magazine Award for non-fiction. (Correction: …when Smith won one of his many NMA awards, I should have said: He has won it four times, which is a record; he was finalist a further 10 times, which is another record.) Here is Yagoda (Emphasis mine):

Smith is not only the best sportswriter in America, he’s the best magazine writer in America. The only injustice is that, outside the small world of editors who vote for the National Magazine Awards and the even smaller subset ofSports Illustrated readers who pay attention to bylines, he is a nobody.

Part of Smith’s obscurity is explained by his subject matter, which some view as having negligible importance. Yet such sports scribes as John Feinstein and Smith’s SIcolleagues Frank Deford and Rick Reilly have spectacularly higher profiles. (Reilly’s new monograph Who’s Your Caddy? was No. 3 last week on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list; Smith’s only book, a collection of articles called Beyond the Game, ranks 280,343 on Amazon’s list.) No, the real reason lies in his attributes as a writer, all of which go counter to powerful prevailing trends in journalistic writing: He favors obscurity over fame, complexity over simplicity, and humility over literary showmanship.

The New York Times headlined a 2008 piece on him The Sports Whisperer; Jon Friedman called him, simply, America’s Best Magazine Writer (and that is fair enough — after all, that simple declarative headline says all that needs saying).

Here is Gary Smith himself, on empathy and getting inside the skin of his subjects — and this should be mandatory reading for every person aspiring to be a journalist:

To become a longform writer and to kind of immerse yourself in different worlds, it’s almost like a double-railed track. Not only do you grow as a writer, but that other rail of the track is huge. Part of it is something you’re developing – some sense of self, getting a little more at ease in your own flesh and bones. So much of what happens in the interactions between you as the writer and the subject hinges on their trust in you, their confidence in you. And so much of that hinges on how comfortable you are. Any uneasiness you bring is going to cost you dearly.

….

As you’re walking as an outsider into these worlds all the time, how comfortable are you in doing that? If they feel your uneasiness, how easy are they going to feel about handing you their most intimate stuff to write about?

There’s almost an equivalence to that interaction, so the more they sense that you’re really there just to understand rather than judge is huge in how much they’re going to start giving … When you’re more relaxed, you listen, and you’re ready to flow with what’s being said and to hear something that’s sparking off three or four other questions in your mind. It’s because your mind is more relaxed; it’s not tense and tight and worried about getting that next question on your checklist.

Smith was once asked what he wanted his stories to do. This is what he said:

To make readers think about life and about themselves and why human beings do what they do.

PS: All these laudatory pieces I linked to above? Their real worth is in the embedded links to some of Gary Smith’s greatest work — discover, and enjoy. And while on that, editors and writers pick their favorites from the Smith oeuvre — and the result is writing gold.

 

The best book on football. Ever.

Thanks so much for the recommendations attached to yesterday’s query about great books on football — discovered some new titles, and new ways to put a dent in my credit card.

Meanwhile, my post on the best soccer book of all time is now up.  Thoughts?

I’m heading back to work — need to finish all there is to do well in time, so I can quit early, shop for beer and other essentials, and settle down in front of the TV by 7. Christiano Ronaldo’s Portugal plays Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast and then, on the stroke of midnight, the first look this Cup at Dunga’s Brazil.

Must confess I’m equal parts dread and anticipation about that second game. Brazil, at its best, invariably spell magic; for all that it lost in the quarterfinal to a combination of its own arrogance and the opportunism of the resurrected Paolo Rossi, my favorite Brazil team of all time [picking only from the ones I’ve seen in action, not experienced through reading and the grainy clips on YouTube] is the 1982 version. Equally, my least favorite lineup has to be the trophy-winning lineup of 2002, the year the team eschewed its flights of creative fancy for a hard-nosed pragmatism that produced results, but personally turned me off. Much pre-match punditry suggests that Brazil circa 2010 will be more akin to the 2002 team than to the earlier one led by the majestic Socrates — but one can still hope. [Oh, and while on hoping, I hope the samba in the stands is not stifled by the monotonous drone of those damn vuvuzelas].

Right — off to finish work. Be well all.

10,000 hours

Imitation is the sincerest form of study

Way back, before I even knew for sure that writing was what I wanted to do for a living, a friend who was then editor for a feature section in the Indian Express, based in Madras, interrupted a random crib about a badly written newspaper story with a suggestion: “You think you can do better? Try it!”

At her prodding, I spent a couple of hours trying to figure out just what was wrong with the story, and then rewriting it. She took my effort, ripped it — deservedly — to bits, and left me with a suggestion: ‘Everyday, try rewriting one news story, one editorial piece, one sports story, and one of some other type.’

The exercise was a drag, to start with. But comes a time when the process begins to fascinate you — looking under the hood of the piece to see what makes it tick, separating fact from hype and hyperbole, then figuring out how best to present those facts, crafting the piece so it has structure and style, so that each thought leads seamlessly from the previous one and sets up the next, each graf is a natural successor to the previous one…

Typically, I did this late at night while the house was asleep, laboring for three, four hours each day and, once a week, presenting my friend [I mentioned her by name once, in a blog post, and got an earful, so I’ll leave her unnamed here] with the results for her critiques.

She also gave me another valuable — and ultimately, time consuming — bit of advice. When you come across a passage that particularly appeals to you, she said, try copying it out in long hand. The point, according to her, was that writing out great passages helped you absorb a sense of the rhythms and styles of writing; over time, they’d become part of muscle memory.

I was skeptical. She was not amused. Have you, she asked me then, ever visited an art gallery? Have you seen budding artists sitting in front of great paintings, and painstakingly copying them? Why do you suppose they do that? Because the process teaches you about strokes, textures, techniques of the masters — and over time, such exercises help make these techniques an integral part of your own skills.

It didn’t make sense at the time, but I did it anyway. [It was fairly hard to refuse my friend — she had the habit of asking what passages I had liked enough to copy down, lately]. And in time, as journalism went from being a vague notion to a dream to my profession, I realized the value of her advice.

I was reminded of all this by Amit Varma’s latest column: “Give me 10,000 hours.”

Natural talent alone isn’t enough to make you good. You have to work damn hard, and practice damn hard. Some researchers have even put a number to how many hours of practice you need to achieve excellence: 10,000 hours.

Go read. [And if you are, like me, clueless when it comes to all things money, check out Deepak Shenoy’s latest].

Another visual, to drive home the message :-) And a song, to round it all off.

10,000 hours... and more

Just write

“I want to write” — those four words are one of the occupational hazards of professional journalists.

We get that all the time, in mails, in social gatherings, wherever — someone coming up to us and saying he or she wants to write, and could we please help.

What they mean, more often than not, is “I’d like to have your job — writing whatever you like, and getting published and paid for it, and having fans and all that good stuff.”

I’m not dissing those who say they want to write, and ask for advice. I get my share of those in mail, and try to respond as constructively as I possibly can. PD James however makes my point for me:

Don’t just plan to write—write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.

Exactly. You want to write? Then do just that — write. Even a decade earlier, you could claim there was a lack of “opportunity” — by which you meant, no one is willing to publish my masterpieces.

Not any more — today, you can create your own opportunities. Start a blog, and use that to publish your writing, to find your voice, to test it against the whetstone of instantaneous public criticism and thus to hone it to a fine edge.

I got that PD James quote from this source. There is way more, on the related blog. And here’s a collection of 60 tips from six writers — many of them gems.

Oh, and whatever you do — don’t do this.

Have a good weekend, you guys. See you Monday.

The angst of writing cricket

There’s a conversation I have, ad nauseum, with friends and cricket fans alike. It goes like this:

Q: Why have you stopped writing about cricket?

A: Would you believe, ennui?

*Cue puzzled/disbelieving look*

Q: Dude, get paid for watching cricket all day and writing about it? We’d kill for your job.

At which point I go, mentally, ‘You want to try doing it, day in and out, for a year, mate. Then let’s talk.’

I leave the thought unvoiced, these days, because I’ve never in the past managed to convince anyone — not even close friends — that ‘doing this for a living’ is not all it is cracked out to be. How do you explain, for instance, the difference between kicking back and watching cricket as a fan and sitting in front of the TV or in the press box, laptop open, scrutinizing each moment minutely for technical points to make, for “turning points” to identify and use to season your report, for broader narratives to expound on?

After a time, you see only the trees — the greater beauty of the forest is lost to you.

Earlier today, on Twitter, I’d linked to a lovely piece by Tom Swick, on travel writing in the age of YouTube. Partly because the piece is in itself worth a read; partly because parts of it resonated at a personal level, in context of writing about cricket.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan —  a good mate, who you likely know from his excellent writing on Cricinfo, and who you can follow on Twitter here — sent me an email that expresses exactly what I’ve been trying to say, to those who ask ‘How come now that you are in Yahoo you haven’t gone back to writing on the game?’ [Incidentally, it is not as if I couldn’t do that in Rediff, or that I was prevented — I chose not to, thanks to the sense of ennui I mentioned earlier].

Here’s Sid:

Thanks so much for sharing Tom Swick’s piece on Travel Writing. It got me to write something which you may agree with.

Here’s one part that struck a chord:

These books have done a great deal to romanticize the profession. (Tell people that you are paid to travel and write about it and you’ll be greeted by exclamations of envy.) … “Travel writer” may be the one title everyone wants except the people who have it.

I can see where Swick is coming from (and I’m sure you can as well). “Cricket writing” is a highly romanticized profession too. People gawk when told about one traveling the world to cover cricket. And that’s way off the mark. Several leading cricket writers spend close to 250 days of the year away from home. Even the ones who are assigned individual tours, are out for 50 days at a stretch. It’s an immense burden on their family lives and several end up with extremely unhealthy lifestyles (it’s difficult to be on tour and stay away from a drink or seven).

Cricket reporters go through tournaments under so much stress. One needs to file three or four stories every day and it often requires preparation, burrowing instincts and last-minute flexibility. Persistence is vital – whether it’s calling a former cricketer for an interview, or lounging around in the team hotel lobby for a stray quote or diary entry.

The additional occupational hazard is the daily press conference – often a stream of cliches that add little value. Each one of these is like a repeat of the previous – with players being highly guarded about team compositions, injury updates and team assessments. Every game is “crucial”; every opposition “cannot be taken lightly”.

A handful of writers may well bypass all these irritants – you can work for a monthly magazine, you can skip the press conferences, you can write and not report – but what even they can’t do is change the way they watch the game.

We all began as cricket fans before becoming professional cricket writers. Being in the profession, though, takes away a lot of the fizz. Of course, we’re supposed to be objective (to the point of being cynical) and stay away from flag-waving zealotry but what really rocks the boat is the gradual understanding of the players’ personalities, the system they operate in, the subtle politics, the shenanigans.

You begin to understand that X was picked over Y not necessarily because he was better but because he was from a certain zone or because he was backed by a certain agent or because he was the distant cousin of Z. You also realize how players (some of whom you might have idolized before you entered the inner circle) can be egotistic pricks and manipulative Machiavellis.

At a more basic level, you are constantly searching for narratives to write on. The multiple aspects of the game that you earlier noticed give way to a more thematic observation – trying to weave a story through a common thread. Of course there was a wonderfully athletic catch at midwicket but how does an appreciation of that play fit into the day’s story? You are forced to focus and not simply ramble along – which is basically what fans do when they watch a game together.

At some point, when all these influences come together, you start watching the game through a different prism. It’s no more the innocent past-time that made you jump up and shriek or kick the floor in anger or sulk all day. It’s now the sport that you trying to be detached from (though you’re actually very close to the epicenter). It’s a sport you think you have figured out (though you actually have very little expertise on the subject matter).

Gradually you begin to view it as another job – I’ve actually felt really frustrated when a cricketer died on a Sunday, simply because it meant more work. Soon you ask yourself – just like Swick says of travel writers – what (the heck) am I doing here? And over time, you gradually forget why you got here in the first place.

To paraphrase Swick, ‘cricket writer’ could be the one job everyone reading this, and the far larger universe not reading this, wants — except those of us who have it for the asking.

Actually, when Sid says “Over time, you gradually forget why you got here in the first place” — he is bang on the money.

Why did I get into cricket writing? Because I love the game to bits [and because when we were starting out in Rediff, none of the “established writers” wanted to join us, so someone had to do it and I got elected]. So why do I not want to write too regularly on cricket? Same answer — because I love the game to bits.

I’m fairly certain that after reading all of this, you guys will go “Huh, what the eff are you cribbing about?”. And/or have questions to ask. Go for it — and while on that, a long weekend starts now. So — no Yorker tomorrow [if you missed logging in while Aakash Chopra was live, today, here’s the transcript].

I’ll be back with the live show Monday — and over the weekend, will swing by here only if able.

Have a good weekend, all.

Eye Browse

Not that I’ve settled down sufficiently, yet, to find too much time for quality browsing, but still…

Two must read articles on writing: the first by William Zinser, is the transcript of a talk he gave to incoming international students at Columbia University. For those new to the name, Zinser is a one time feature writer who took to teaching the art and craft of journalism, and whose book On Writing Well is a must-have on the bookshelf of any journo, or indeed anyone who wants to write with clarity and precision.

The second, which I discovered via @zigzackly through @amitvarma on Twitter, s this piece in The Atlantic on the art of writing short.

Amit also generously provides the wtf news of this or any other day this week: A Bhopal politician has ‘warned’ shopkeepers in his fiefdom against the display of lingerie in their shop windows. Mannequins, he mandates, must be demurely clad in saris at all times.

If the customer wants underthings, it is presumably okay to raise the sari –discreetly, and with a chaperone present — to display those wares. Seriously, when did we convert our political system into an assembly line for the manufacture of idiots? More to the point, what impression does this politico have of those who elected him, that he believes such a ukase is necessary?

Wide Open

Before he steps out into the public glare, Sachin Tendulkar puts himself through a ritual: First, he plugs in his earphones and turns the volume of his IPod way up; he then hides his eyes and half his face under his preferred brand of shades.

The earphones and shades are the bars to a prison Tendulkar voluntarily immures himself in, not out of arrogance but of the desire of an intensely private, extremely shy person to keep the world at bay.

It is, equally, the attempt to find through artificial means the privacy denied, for two decades and counting, to one who ‘belongs’ to the nation.

The prison motif also permeates much of Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open — but in his case it is a prison constructed by circumstance, not out of choice.

Open is a searingly honest book [earliest posts here, and here]; a brilliant coming of age narrative that also serves as the prism through which we witness the entries and exits, on the world stage, of some of the most storied players of the age.

It helps that the narrative arc of Agassi’s life is almost operatic: tormented childhood, troubled teens, conflicted adulthood all marked by an internecine conflict between talent and temperament/inclination; an almost Dickensian plumbing of the depths of degradation followed by a Chicken Soup for the Sporting Soul story of redemption.

Three women power the story: the teeny-bopper crush turned live-in lover of his early twenties; the Princeton-educated supermodel/actress he happily beds and reluctantly weds, and whom he treats in his memory with an indifference bordering on contempt; and the leggy blonde tennis legend who becomes his personal Holy Grail and who, once she enters his life, propels the narrative towards a fairy-tale denouement.

Supporting the lead actors is an ensemble cast of supporting characters who in their respective ways serve as catalyst to the tale: the tyrannous father [‘bad things happen’ when his father is angry, Agassi says in the voice of the scared child, early in the book] and soft-spoken, all-accepting mother who, in the denouement, stands revealed as The Image is Everything phasepossessing unsuspected strengths; the older, less talented brother who becomes his pro bono driver and wing man; the physical trainer who is the closest thing mankind has seen to the Incredible Hulk; the Fagin-like director of the tennis academy that becomes Agassi’s teenage prison [he refers to his training there as the tennis equivalent of breaking rocks as part of a prison chain gang]; the pastor who on cue doles out dollops of Deepak Chopra-esque bromides; the best friend of his childhood who becomes his manager; and the two coaches, themselves former players of some repute, who chisel his court craft and convert him from street-fighter to a strategist of the tennis court.

And the players: a constant, dazzling parade on the other side of the net of some of the greatest names of the age. What we often tend to lose sight of is that in a career that spans 1986-2006, Agassi has storied players fade and fresh talent emerge. He has battled McEnroe, Lendl, Edberg, Connors and Becker [the latter two he treats with undisguised contempt]; he has seen the likes of Courier and Wilander emerge, soar and ebb; he With friend and rival Pete Samprashas seen the metamorphosis of Pete Sampras from a ‘no talent’ tyro to his arch-nemesis [“I wish I could emulate his spectacular lack of inspiration, and his peculiar lack of need for inspiration,” Agassi says in one of the many cathartic moments in the book]; he has played against and outlasted the greatest names of two decades and, in his twilight years, seen the emergence of Roger Federer, the player who he names, against the backdrop of their first meeting, as the one destined to be the greatest ever.

Those names, and Agassi’s photographic memory for match detail, drive large sections of the book and provide unmatched insight into what goes on in the mind of a player as he battles back from the edge.

But it is his personal journey – from traumatized boy to troubled teen; from precocious talent to chronic under-achiever; from the ‘Image is Everything’ parody to the dignified champion who, in his last hurrah at the 2006 US Open, made fans weep the bitter tears of personal loss – that gives the book its cutting edge. And Agassi’s greatest triumph is perhaps this – he handpicked the perfect collaborator.

JR Moehringer, who is thanked extensively in the afterword, had during his stint at the LA Times netted a feature-writing Pulitzer for his portrait of a river-front town that is home to the descendants of slaves, whose isolation is threatened by a proposed ferry that will link them to the mainland.

He almost netted another Pulitzer [Moehringer was a named finalist] for his searing profile of heavyweight boxer Bob Satterfield, every key stroke of which is, in the light of hindsight, a precursor to what he would do with the many dozens of hours of conversations he had with Agassi.

In an extended section of the afterword, Agassi talks of how he had identified Moehringer as the writer he wanted to work with after reading his memoir, The Tender Bar. Read these excerpts – from the author’s website and from Amazon – and the reason for the choice of

With Brooke Shields: I do? Like heck I do!

Moehringer becomes clear. The themes in his memoir — parental neglect or/and abuse; a desperate quest for identity that paradoxically triggers self-destructive behavior; the constant search for a father figure, mother, companion, seer and, always shimmering in the distance, the promise of redemption – foreshadow the themes that permeate Open.

What strikes you most forcefully as you read Open is its breathless urgency; a sense of watching events unfold in the living, breathing present, that gives an added urgency to the matches Agassi lives through, to the sense of impending cataclysm that hangs over his relationship with Brooke Shields  and to the developing destiny that drives the Agassi-Graf relationship. Moehringer achieves this by writing always in the historic present and, by putting you in the midst of the action as it is taking place, getting you to invest emotionally in the story.

You feel in a physical way the ball come off the racket as he hits the screaming forehand pass that knocks Boris Becker out at the end of a match in which Becker got Agassi’s goat by bowling kisses at his then girlfriend Brooke Shields; you feel the lung-busting, soul-searing effort that went into the quarterfinal of the 2005 US Open [one of the meticulously detailed games in the book], where Agassi

The Holy Grail: Agassi and Graf with son Jaden and daughter Jaz

came back from two sets to love to win his match against James Blake in a 5th set tie-breaker; you feel Agassi’s disappointment when he wins finally Wimbledon only to learn that Steffi Graf, the women’s champion, won’t be dancing with him after all; and as he sits in a plane, crafting a crude birthday card for Graf out of an airline menu, you root for romance to triumph.

And it is all down to Moehringer’s brilliance as amanuensis.

Moehringer constructs the story with rare skill; his tools are a pitch-perfect ear for dialog and a deft touch with portraiture, so that every character, central or peripheral, appears on the page vitally alive and fully formed.

‘Voice’ is the hardest thing for the ghost-writer to crack. Write in the voice of the protagonist — who, though skilled in his area of endeavor is likely untutored in the art of telling a story — and the narrative could end up bloodless, lifeless; write someone else’s story in your own voice, and the result rings false in the reader’s ear.

In 2006, Gary Smith [subject of an earlier post] wrote a profile of Agassi for Sports Illustrated that has since been extensively anthologized in ‘Best of…’ collections. It reads, in retrospect, like a Condensed Books version of Open — and the similarities suffice to tell you that the voice we hear, in Smith’s profile and in the autobiography, is Agassi’s own. What Moehringer brings is the skill of the top-notch practitioner of narrative non-fiction: pacing, sentence structure and a driving ‘beat’ to the words that, like a good bass line, you feel in the gut.

Sometimes, though, it all feels too pat. The villains get their comeuppance; no matter how rocky things get in the life of his friends it all comes right in the end, thanks often to the hero’s large-hearted generosity; the hero himself beats all odds, becomes world number one; woos, wins and weds the unattainable maiden…

Pat. Perfect, in a way life rarely is. And it makes you think.

We, all of us, lead two lives. The one is a messy, chaotic affair lived in the hurly-burly  present. And the other is the revisionist version that we live relive in our personal rear-view mirror. In this version there are no coincidences; everything that happens ties in neatly with everything else that happened or will happen; actions are dictated  not by knee-jerk reactions to the randomly unfolding present but by carefully calibrated reasoning; unsightly loose ends are neatly tied during this process of post hoc revision and the more obdurate ones are snipped away altogether.

Open is clearly revisionist; its silences speak to the unsightly bits that have been cauterized. And nowhere is that silence as eloquent as when Agassi speaks of his drug-taking. We know when it started and how; we have a sense of his short term gains and long-term losses; we live through him the euphoria of the high and the soul-destroying nature of the aftermath. But — and thanks to my personal experience with drugs, it is something I looked forward to reading, and was disappointed not to find — when did the self-destructive nature of what he was doing really dawn on him? How? Why? And how, after clocking up a year or more on a killer like crystal meth, did he kick the habit?

The book is silent on that, just as it is largely silent on his role in the two failed relationships that preceded his link up with Steffi Graf.

That minor quibble aside, few if any sports memoirs manage to rise beyond self-serving hagiography and into the realm of soul-searching bildungsroman. Open makes that leap effortlessly, and wins my vote for best sports book of the year/the decade, and – since tennis is the theme – finds place in a very select list that includes the seminal Rivals by Johnette Howard, the story of the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry [review by Soumya Bhattacharya] and You Cannot Be Serious, the autobiography of my all time favorite tennis player, John Patrick McEnroe.

Afterwords:

Agassi’s riffs on the players of his generation provide rare insights. Here, for the Indian in us, are his thoughts on two players. First, Ramesh Krishnan, who handed Agassi his first defeat after the latter turned pro at age 16:

My first tournament as a pro is in Schenectady, New York. I reach the final of the $100,000 tournament, then lose to Ramesh Krishnan 6-2, 6-3. I don’t feel bad, however. Krishnan is great, better than his ranking of 40-something, and I am an unknown teenager playing in the final of a fairly important tournament. It’s that ultimate rarity — a painless loss. I feel nothing but pride. In fact, I feel a trace of hope, because I know I could have played better, and I know Krishnan knows.

Next, Leander Paes, whom Agassi encounters at the Atlanta Olympics:

In the semis I meet Leander Paes, from India. He’s a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour’s quickest hands. Still, he’s never learned to hit a tennis ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips, lobs — he’s the Brad [his then coach, Brad Gilbert] of Bombay. Then, behind all this junk, he flies to the net and covers so well that it all seems to work. After an hour you feel as if he hasn’t hit one ball cleanly — and yet he’s beating you soundly. Because I am prepared, I stay patient, stay calm, and beat Paes 7-6, 6-3.

Right. Moving on:

Graf and Agassi in Louis Vuitton ad/photo Annie Liebowitz

Remember this image? From my archival collection, a link to the Louis Vuitton ad series, Journeys. Scroll down on the right nav bar to check out the eight clips in the ‘New York’ series.

Agassi talks to Katie Couric about Open: Part one, and two.

And finally — one of the most moving personal introductions I’ve ever heard: Agassi introduces Steffi Graf at her induction, in 2004, into the Hall of Fame [transcript here, if you need one]: