Agony

Did anyone else hear the Terry Gross interview with Andre Agassi on Wednesday? Zoiks.

Agassi was plugging his autobiography, written with memoirist J.R. Moehringer, about his Dickensian childhood of repetitive, painful drudgery and loneliness. He hates tennis; he has always hated tennis; he was forced/pressured/coerced to play and win at tennis by his father, an Armenian immigrant howling with need.

The Fresh Air interview is almost shockingly intimate and remote; maybe Agassi had already done a hundred interviews, but he sounds weary and resigned, almost scripted, a kind of okay-let’s-get-through-this-particular-talking-point rhythm, even as he relates what seems to have been the horror of his life for the past 25-30 years. Disturbing, compelling, and very sad.

I wonder if Agassi would be willing to make the case against professional tennis, or even professional sports. It’s a huge leap from where he is, I know. But it’s what I take from his story. Because you can’t create professional athletes without obsessive, incessant repetition, right? And that begins in childhood, right? And what child has the power and awareness to choose that?

You hear stage parents all the time saying things like, “I’m not choosing this, she is,” but even in cases where that appears true, I think you can’t really know. Because the parents have created the value system. They’ve brought up the kid in an environment where certain things are valued—achievement, say. Winning. If the parents create an environment of open exploration, so that a kid can find her joy and interests among the endless possibilities, and follow each to the extent that interests her, and move on when she feels ready—and where she isn’t rewarded for “success” or criticized for “failure”—does she choose obsessive repetition of a single pursuit, on the public stage?

I doubt it.

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