Book Club: Shop Talk

by: Steve Tignor | July 14, 2010

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58108773 The book club returns this week, as freelance tennis writer Kamakshi Tandon and I talk about Patrick McEnroe's "Hardcourt Confidential," written with Tennis Magazine's Peter Bodo.

Hi Steve,

I know you haven't yet read Andre Agassi's book because of all the hoopla that surrounded its release, so it's interesting that both the Pete Sampras and Agassi anecdotes you picked out have a lot of resonance with what's in Agassi's book, Open.

Sampras' bad tipping has been throughly hashed by this point, but the tales of how Agassi destroyed the Davis Cup team atmosphere in the 2005 quarterfinals are fresher and very entertaining -- definitely the best section of the book, and a must-read for anyone who watched that infamous loss. As McEnroe relates, Agassi spent a lot of time haranguing Bob Bryan about his "actress chick." It clearly wasn't a one-off thing -- in "Open," Agassi makes a similar crack about actresses when Sampras tells him about his relationship with Bridgette Wilson. Brooke Shields really scarred him, apparently.

I did enjoy
Hardcourt Confidential -- Pete Bodo kindly let me cajole his copy and I read it in snatches during the French Open. And why not? This is essentially an industry book, and not too many of those come our way.
It's chatter about pro tennis -- players' games, their personalities, matches, tournaments, player development, Hawyeye, strings, trends -- the kind of shop talk we have ourselves, and the kind of things that are interesting if you're interested in tennis. And because Patrick is a thoughtful guy with
well-considered views, it's a good conversation. There's some generic filler, but you're always going to get that unless the person writing is utterly unconcerned about sales.

The theory in the book I found most compelling -- and embedded immediately -- relates to Sampras' and Roger Federer's Grand Slam tallies. Roy Emerson's record of 12 Slams stood for three decades before Sampras broke it with 14 Slams the early 2000s. Then Federer came along and moved the bar up to 16 just a few years later.

The way McEnroe looks at it, it's not that Sampras and Federer's totals are outsize -- everyone else in between was too low. We often talk about how players didn't play this Slam or that Slam in the past, and so their totals are lower than they might have been. But the flip side of that is
that players now play every Slam, and build their whole season around the majors. It's only natural that they'll rack up more. (You could say the same for the Masters events, where both Rafael Nadal and Federer caught up relatively quickly to Agassi, who set his record at a time when the events didn't have the same participation they do now.)

"Emmo's record would have fallen more quickly, and new records would have been established on more of a steady curve, had the Australian Open evolved as a "can't miss" Grand Slam event along with the other three. The truth is that for almost two decades we were living in a world with just three majors."

McEnroe definitely doesn't bare everything. He keeps his own family life largely private and has mostly praise for his current employers. (Though there is a description of the frazzled debate at ESPN during the U.S. Open over whether to ask Serena about the 'foot default' in the doubles trophy presentation the next day.)

But he also says a lot of things he doesn't have to, either. Given how demure Patrick has been in the past, there are a surprising amount of shots at his brother John (they really don't seem to be getting along these days, do they? Maybe Patrick is less inclined to be a doormat for the sake of keeping the peace). On two occasions he also sharply criticizes one of his Davis Cup stalwarts, James Blake. These aren't entirely new sentiments -- he's called John difficult and Blake stubbon before -- but here we get some examples of what's been driving those earlier comments.

"There was only one problem [with his father recommending him for a job on Don Imus' radio show]. When my brother John got wind of the idea, he blew his stack. 'Why didn't you throw my name out there,' he complained.

Dad was smart. He said, 'John. The job pays something like two hundred bucks a day. Do you really want to establish that as your market value?'

'Maybe you're right. Maybe it would be a good thing for Patrick.'"

"I learned quickly that James needed to be handled with kid gloves, and tried to remember it in every subsequent tie. Some time later, we finally got James to drop down to a compromise 64 pounds of string tension. We almost threw a party to celebrate."

So there's quite a bit of substance here, but skillfully packaged so as not to be too noticeable. A bit like Patrick himself.

However, as you said, there's a lot of Pete Bodo in the book too. That was one of my side amusements -- going through the book thinking, 'That's pure Pete,' then, 'This is Patrick'...'and Pete again'...'Patrick.'

The comments about Cincinnati and Monte Carlo you quoted are prefect examples of Pete's fingerprints showing through, and I wonder whether its content Patrick actively or passively accepted. There's a section on Toni Nadal that seems to draw directly from Pete and Jon Wertheim's interesting interview with him at Wimbledon a couple of years ago, and a part on anti-doping that also has familiar ehoes (including a couple of errors about technical details, unfortunately).

Of course, it could cut both ways. They say that couples become more alike over time -- I don't know if that applies to writer-ghostwriter combos, but that's what I found myself thinking when I saw Pete write a piece a few days ago on revamping Davis Cup format. He's always been a staunch Davis Cup traditionalist (I'm one too), but Davis Cup captain Patrick advocates reform
because it's a challenge to get the top players to play all the time. So who knows, maybe Patrick sees the appeal of a plain, simple life with limited cultural amenities in Cincinnati.

Some will be annoyed by the way the book jumps from one topic to another without much of an overarching structure. I don't entirely understand it myself, though it does add to ther eminscing, memoir feel. As long as it's an honest attempt to communicate the person's thoughts and experiences, I'm pretty easygoing about the structure and content of such accounts.

My earlier reservations about the Patrick-Pete interweaving aside, these kind of books are appetizing because you get to go back and fill in pieces of the historical puzzle, adding knowledge about new details of matches you saw and players you remember.

We've already had books from three of the fab four of U.S. tennis -- Sampras, Agassi and Chang (his was a while back), with Jim Courier the only holdout. (Come on, Jim, we want to hear your Bollettieri stories, too.) Now here's Patrick McEnroe's, which adds another set of memories, another career (his own), and also kicks off the process of looking at the next generation -- Andy Roddick, Blake, etc. Interestingly, Pete Bodo has ghostwritten two out of these four chronicles -- Sampras and PMac -- ironic perhaps, because as I understand he was focused on thigns other than tennis for part of this period.

The result of this literary influx, though, is that we've gotten a lot of added background on this era -- their early memories, what was going on in their personal lives at various times and their feelings towards one another.

Agassi's book was full of these little new details, often rather memorable
'A wig? A wig?!!' 'No underwear?!!!'
'Tanking the AO semifinal against Chang?!'

PMac's book won't rock your preconceptions about him or his brother John or anyone else in quite the same way, but it adds a little gleams of color to most of the big names he discusses, as well as the nature of his own varied work in the field.
"In my role as head of USTA player development, I run into dozens of guys who were good players, even name players; a number of them were so talented it could take your breath away. And now they're working at clubs, feeding balls to little kids, looking for a way to get back into the action. Some of them are now living with their parents. They hit me up for jobs, and it hurts a little to say no to them."
"The Bryans are technical, like golfers. Mike likes to have some little thing every week, especially if you can pack it into a neat slogan: Stay down on the return, like you're sitting in a chair... Most Davis Cup weeks, Mike likes to take a day off. I'd gladly give it to him, too, only he never comes right out and asks. He find something wrong, some that needs fixing instead... [he] always tries to sneak his girlfriends into the hotel for the week, even though my 'official' policy always was no wives or girlfriends until the tie is about to begin. Mike tries to hide his girls, so they end up stuck in his room, watching TV, while we have a good time at our team dinners... What makes it doubly funny is that Andy Roddick, even after all these years, and after getting engaged, still called me before the team dinner on Saturday night in Birmingham and asked, "Is it okay if (my fiancee) Brooklyn comes along?"
"Brazil won the doubles, so the tie was still live on Sunday. Like an idiot, I decided to wear a nice blue shirt to work. Within minutes of arriving on site and just as I was about to go on air, I started to get those black sweat stains on my shirt. I put on my jacket, tugged it this way and that, but it was no use; I couldn't disguise the stains... Suddenly, I had a brainstrom. I asked for a bottle of water. I took jacket off, unscewed the cap and dumped the water all down the front of my shirt."
"He told me Roger didn't have anyone to warm up with for the final. Would I mind hitting with him?... I was eager to "feel" what his shots were like. It may be hard for a spectator to tell, but every player's game is like a fingerprint... I wanted to touch his genius, even if it was at racket's length... He works at the ball, it's like the thing has different properties every time he addresses it. One moment, it's shaped like an egg from topsping; the next, it's got so much backspin you can almost hear it purring. What I felt, mostly, was his control; the ball seemed to follow a different command with each shot... It felt like my side of the court was twice the size of his."

What anecdotes did you mine for your memory bank, Steve?



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