A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played
Wandering through the Louvre after losing his first French Open, Andre Agassi was dumbstruck, he recalls in his memoir, by “a painting from the Italian Renaissance” of “a young man, naked, standing on a cliff.” The man hugs a tree limb with one arm. With his other arm he clutches a woman holding two infants over a chasm while an old man, “perhaps his father,” Agassi conjectures, clings to the young man’s neck, clasping “a sack of what looks like money.”
The painting is not Italian but French, not Renaissance but Romantic; it is Anne-Louis Girodet’s Scene of the Flood, from 1806. But never mind. The analogy is what’s important: Agassi’s father, burdensome and grasping, hanging on the shoulders of Agassi, who, vulnerable, exposed, bears the impossible weight of expectations.
The sight of the picture is among several uncanny details in a book in which Agassi’s life unfolds almost like a tale preordained, a clue-strewn riddle of self-discovery laid before him, decades in the unraveling. By memoir’s end, the tennis player has finally solved the riddle, opening a model charter school in the worst part of Las Vegas, his hometown, for disadvantaged children to receive the education he never had but always wanted, and settling down with the woman he had dreamed of years before when she was, not just for her opponents but also for him, unconquerable. He calls her Stefanie, another child prodigy of an impossible tennis father—Steffi Graf.
“It’s destiny,” his coach, Brad Gilbert, had predicted about their marriage at a time, just after Agassi won his first French Open in 1999, when Graf would hardly speak with him. “Only two people in the history of the world have won all four slams and a gold medal—you and Steffi Graf. The Golden Slam. It’s destiny that you two should be married,” Gilbert explained cryptically, then scribbled “2001—Steffi Agassi” on an airline brochure.
As prophesied, the two did marry, in 2001, Agassi having wooed his silent, reticent fellow superstar by saying he hated tennis, a refrain to which the memoir incessantly returns. In response, Graf gave him “a look that says, Of course. Doesn’t everybody?,” convincing Agassi that she was definitely his soul mate. They shared, along with preternatural physical gifts and competitiveness, an understanding of the downside of a tennis career and a determination not to repeat with their own children what had been inflicted on them. Oh yes, and he thought her legs weren’t bad, either.
Finally, Agassi comes to love tennis, which had been a life forced on him, but now had given him a wife and, with the school, something to play for other than just himself or his father’s approval. “From punk to paragon” is how Bud Collins, the tennis…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.