Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Book Club: Life Inside the Shadow
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Book Club: Life Inside the Shadow 07/13/2010 - 2:19 PM

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. 


“The smaller the ball, the better the writing.” That was George Plimpton’s theory of sports journalism, anyway. There’s a snobbish ring to the phrase, which isn’t surprising considering the source. And I’m not sure it’s technically true. I haven’t read a whole lot of memorable ping-pong literature, have you?

But, relatively speaking, tennis uses a small ball, and it has produced some great writing, journalists and observers who stand with the best—Deford, Forbes, Bodo, Rex Bellamy. What it seems to do as well as any other sport these days, though, is the memoir, both from its stars and its second-tier players. In the past few years, we’ve had Andre Agassi’s confessional blockbuster, James Blake’s personal history, Vince Spadea’s edgy tour diary, and now Hardcourt Confidential. For a niche sport, that seems like a pretty high story output.

McEnroe’s stories mix the personal with the observational; the most memorable feature him as a witness to the whims and quirks of the more talented players around him. McEnroe and his ghostwriter, Pete Bodo, chose to build it as a series of non-chronological vignettes, which was a smart move. It gives the book a breezy feel; you aren’t forced, the way you are with the standard autobiography, to slog through his early days before you get to the “confidential” stuff. This approach also fits with the youngest McEnroe’s personality, which has always been to play the friendly, rational kid brother to the more self-absorbed genius of Johnny Mac.

Speaking of Pete, knowing him far better than I know Patrick, I can see a lot of his worldview in these pages. For example: The ATP’s Cincinnati tournament inspires this musing about Europeans' misapprehension of Midwestern values: “They don’t understand how we actually like a plain, comfortable life, even if it lacks many of the cultural amenities they’re used to.” Contrast that with a description of the Monte Carlo event: “The Monte Carlo Country Club is an enclave of the rich, royal, and powerful. Patrons and club members regularly have lunch on the terrace while watching the players—or is that peons?—grunting and sweating on the main stadium court.” Remind you of anyone?

It’s hardly a surprise that there would be a lot of Pete in the book—he wrote the sentences, and he and Patrick share a down-to-earth sensibility. Pete also brings his biggest strength, that is, his perceptiveness about people’s characters, and the ways those characters can be contradictory. Early on, McEnroe’s doubles partner, Richey Reneberg, is described as a “calm, nice guy who had a rebellious streak,” someone who, under his friendly veneer, liked to invent nicknames for his opponents. It took Patrick's memory and Pete's storytelling skill to put that mini-portrait of Reneberg together.

From there Patrick and Pete move on to the bigger fish—Sampras, Agassi, Blake, Roddick, etc. These stories will be the highlight of the book for most fans, and Patrick, while respectful as always, isn’t afraid to shed a little negative, human light on each star.

He says that one part of Sampras enjoys being a jerk, a hard a---. He’s had to learn to say no to people, and he’s come to relish the role a little. We knew he was cheap, but I don’t think I understood how deep that streak ran until I read McEnroe’s story about how Sampras, when they were teammates at the Word Team Cup one year, called Patrick afterward, claiming he had “gotten too much money” for what he'd contributed.

But the best section of the book belongs to Agassi, and how he helped wreck the U.S. Davis Cup team’s camaraderie and mojo during their loss to Croatia in 2005. Agassi, high maintenance, high-strung, and controlling, hates the courts Patrick has selected. (“I can’t get any progress!” he shouts to his coach, Darren Cahill; meaning, in Agassi-speak, that he can’t get the ball to penetrate.) He comes unglued in his loss to Ljubicic and screams in agony at Cahill. He insists on ordering for everyone at dinner and having a lengthy group wine tasting at the table, while the rest of the team, who are essentially college kids, just wants to get the hell out of there. And he rides Bob Bryan so hard about his actress girlfriend (“when are you going to dump that actress chick?”) that Bob loses confidence on court, he and his brother go down in the doubles, and Croatia walks away with the upset.

While the book isn't exactly a "confidential" in the sexy sense—though we do learn that Patrick had a fling with a swimsuit model in Paris (nice work!)—the Sampras and Agassi stuff is worth the price of admission. Patrick, through Pete, plays the role of the normal guy who has to deal with the quirks of genius. He’s the right guy for this job, since he’s had to learn to live with the quirkiest tennis genius of all, his older brother. Still, what he’s willing to reveal about that brother seems to have its limits. I was ready for more crazy, and maybe ugly, Johnny Mac stories, and also for some insight into the difficulties that must come with living in such a colossal sibling shadow. Patrick does acknowledge being called, insultingly, a “professional brother” at one point, but we don’t get much soul-searching on the subject. That’s not the book he chose to write, and it’s really not his or Pete’s style.

The most vivid McEnroes are the parents. John Sr., drives both of his boys crazy with his mania for family, and for tennis. A child of Irish immigrants, he became a partner at a prestigious New York law firm and built a family compound on Long Island—he’s the Joe Kennedy of tennis, and his pride in his boys’ accomplishments is touching. But it’s Kay, Patrick’s mother, who seems to have had the more lasting influence on her youngest son. She labelled him a “plugger” when he was a kid—he wasn't overly talented, but he kept pushing. Patrick seems to have lived that concept of himself out every day of his life. And it's worked: It's given him the level-headed perspective needed to live inside his brother's shadow, and make the most of it.

OK, Kamakshi, I know you were enjoying this book as you read it. Was there anything that surprised you, about Patrick or the people he describes? Was it confidential enough for you?



Posted by Liz 07/13/2010 at 02:42 PM

I read the book though I generally don't enjoy Bodo's prose. I, too, felt like there was a lot of him in this book... for me, too much. I thought the bizarre organization of the book was hard to overcome. To me, it didn't feel like a book that was organized around the tennis calendar, as they claim. It just didn't feel organized at all.

I was most interested in the sections about Davis Cup and the USTA development system, so those made it worth the read to me. I thought the "juiciest" detail was Patrick's suggestion that he's the one that gave Roddick the "excuse" of enduring a strain after last year's Wimbledon final, so it would look like he didn't quit on Davis Cup. That felt like a detail he included to sell books rather than one that really meant anything to me as a Roddick or McEnroe fan. It felt kind of hypocritical for Patrick to set himself up as the good friend/nice guy who gave Andy an easy "out," since he then turned around less than a year later to tell the "truth" about the incident.

Posted by skip1515 07/13/2010 at 02:45 PM

Regarding the Sampras and Agassi stories, I think it fair to say that the great tennis players, like the greats in any endeavor, get accustomed to being the center of whatever activity is going on at the moment, whether it's their chosen metier or not. Absolute attention corrupts absolutely, so to speak. It's dangerous to think that anyone can surf above all that attention and not be affected.

Things may have been different in the sports world before today's huge money – though whoever thinks Dimaggio wasn't given free desserts at restaurants is kidding themselves – but with the number of people who surround and depend on a champion these days, they are closer to movie stars than ever.

This tasty taste of the book means I'll have to be doubly sure to get it soon. Thanks.

Posted by Rob 07/13/2010 at 03:18 PM

Regarding the story about Sampras asking for some of Patrick's earnings: If true, he was being greedy, not cheap. There's a difference. However, this smacks of Sampras being a wise-_ss and being cocky ... a side that shouldn't be taken too seriously.

Posted by skip1515 07/13/2010 at 03:19 PM

Sorry: "DiMaggio" (The Yankee Clipper deserves to have his name spelled correctly.)

Posted by Steve 07/13/2010 at 04:16 PM

ok, greedy rather than cheap. let's just say money is a theme with him. patrick didn't seem to think it was a joke; he was confused by the whole thing.

thanks, skip. agassi comes across as a classic "piece of work."

Posted by SimonSays 07/13/2010 at 05:16 PM

the part where you describe about Sampras, i find nothing wrong with what he said and did.. its business

Posted by Steve 07/13/2010 at 05:30 PM

when dimaggio had been retired for a while, he was introduced in a line of people to queen elizabeth and her husband. when he heard his name announced, her husband pulled back his hand and said, stunned, "THE joe dimaggio?"

anyway, read the book; pat mac doesn't totally kill sampras. he kind of admires his hard edge, and he seems more amused by andre than anything else.

Posted by Or 07/13/2010 at 05:40 PM

Simonsays -

I'm not sure I follow. From what I understood - and Steve, correct me if I'm wrong (I haven't read the book (can't get it in Israel, I have to order through Amazon or something), Sampras was against the earning being split equally, and wanted it to be split according to individual contribution?

Sorry, that's greedy, considering how much money Pete made in his career and how much Patrick did.

Posted by Steve 07/13/2010 at 05:49 PM

world team cup had a complicated prize money system. pat mac and reneberg were on it with pete, and they ended up getting a lot of money. sampras didn't like it and called patrick about it—"hey you guys got too much money." but that's what they ended up getting.

Posted by Archana 07/13/2010 at 05:51 PM

I bought this book to kill time while I was camping overnight for wimbledon tickets. Its a decent book.It served my purpose.

Posted by Or 07/13/2010 at 06:00 PM

Interesting about Agassi - this is a story of how he was late in his career. I bet the US DC team became a lot more balanced when he was off it. I didn't follow tennis in 2005, but I'm surprised Agassi played DC that year, considering his age and health issues.

Posted by wilson75 07/13/2010 at 06:45 PM

Full disclosure I haven't read the book only a few reviews and some excerpts on Amazon. But I don't understand why Pmac felt the need to include in his book that Sampras is cheap. Agassi covered that territory in his book already. Seems like piling on to me. Either his editors felt that there needed to be more juicy stories in the book or he's still angry at Sampras for rejecting his offer to be a USTA coach because the salary was big enough

Posted by ladyjulia 07/13/2010 at 06:59 PM

I read the book recently and was also expecting something more about John McEnroe but there wasn't much. From that angle, I wasn't very satisfied with the book. But overall, interesting anecdotes.

I don't really see why Patrick rehashed the tipping incident in his book. There's been enough about Pete and money already.

Posted by wilson75 07/13/2010 at 07:20 PM

that should be "wasn't big enough"

Posted by Larry 07/13/2010 at 08:27 PM

I admired P-Mac as a player. I started getting into the game when he was struggling to break through in singles. When he did, I was happy for him.

I was pretty lukewarm about his announcing for a while. He has gotten better.

I've always been a little unclear as to why Patrick wanted to juggle so many jobs at once. Looks like either he's naturally hyper or it's a matter of competing with John. He seems to be a very good coach, and was wise to hire Jose Higueras, who I think is close to a coaching genius.

The gossip about Pete and Andre. Okay, we knew Andre was weird already...

Posted by BrooklynNY 07/13/2010 at 09:18 PM

Pete Sampras is still my favorite tennis player.

Posted by ndk 07/13/2010 at 10:09 PM

Pete B. remarked on his blog that Sampras was fair with their financial dealings on the autobiography he co-wrote with Sampras. At the Sampras HOF induction speech, Paul, his coach, remarked that Sampras donates a lot of money to charity etc. and doesn't make it a public announcement of it. Paul Annacone was one of the highest-paid coaches on the ATP tour. Not sure if I would call Pete S. greedy from what I have read.. I am not sure what you call someone that is tight with money, but fair?

Posted by fedistennis 07/13/2010 at 10:10 PM

Meh. I rushed out get this book based on some of the excerpts posted here in the recent past. Turns out they were the best parts. I expected a lot more insider info on the players, what they're really like, etc. Actually was too much info about PMac himself; sorry, but he was a second tier player and I expected this book to be more about his insider info on others. The comments here have focused mostly on the Sampras and Agassi parts(old news.) What struck me was the very negative picture of Blake, which hetried to smooth over by repeatedly "saying but Blake is a nice guy." I don't know....I kinda liked PMac before, but I walked away from this book feeling vaguely that it's PMac I now think less of. Can't really put my finger on why, and maybe it's Bodo's writing (a frequent turn off for me)but this seemed like a petty, somewhat bitter book, a little self-aggrandizing, and a lot ho-hum.

Posted by reckoner 07/14/2010 at 12:26 AM

have yet to read this book but it sounds like most of the observations and insight actually paint a picture with a scope cast decidedly on 20 yrs in the trenches of "AMERICAN" tennis as opposed to just chronicling 20 yrs of the sport per se

i guess that angle makes sense though, since we have here w/ pat mcenroe the story of a middling american journeyman-type tennis player who later became a middling american media-type broadcast person, being ghostwritten by a middling american journeyman-type media-type writing person in bodo

Posted by wilson75 07/14/2010 at 08:18 AM

Larry: I think he's still competing with John. He wasn't a great player but he aims to be the greatest administrator in American tennis.

Posted by Sam 07/14/2010 at 08:31 AM

Steve, in Agassi's book, he casts a negative shadow on himself and along the way points out the fellings he had for other players. But in this book, while Mcnroe is quick to point out the negativities of every player including accusing Rafa about deliberately taking time between shots and many more locker room conversations, I did not see any of his negativities being exposed. For a guy who is quick to judge others, does he want us to believe that he is a super nice guy, I don't beleive it.
By the way, didn't Mr.Bodo write a column in ESPN stating how Agassi vroke an unwritten player's code by commenting about Sampras tipping habit, then how did he co-author the book which re-inforces the same theme. Actually the tipping is more benign than what Mcnroe is accusing since many are bad tippers but not all of them are greedy.
Agassi's book did not become a block buster just for the "juicy" details but there was more to that book about a flawed individual and why he turned out that way. Guess Mcnroe (and Bodo) did not realize that.

Posted by Sam 07/14/2010 at 08:35 AM

Sorry it should be feelings, not fellings.

Posted by GEM Tennis 07/14/2010 at 09:39 AM

So does everyone recommend this book? It sort of sounds like a combination of what is already out there... and I'm not that interested in reading about PMac. I like the guy, but is there value to the book or am I just killing time by picking this one up?

Posted by Sam 07/14/2010 at 10:38 AM

Read the book if you want to kill some time, that's my personal opinion by the way but might not be everyone else's.

Posted by Dave Fowler 07/14/2010 at 11:48 AM

"I haven't read a whole lot of memorable ping pong literature"

Try "Bounce" by Matthew Syed (Harper Collins 2010). Collins is more than a ping-pong player ( and delivers a book that addresses sporting issues far beyond the small, green table.

Posted by Kim 07/14/2010 at 01:35 PM

Steve, it would have been more honest if Patrick potrayed the otherside of him and his brother, not just Pete and Andre.

Posted by Curly 07/14/2010 at 01:42 PM

PMac, one assumes, has far too many current conflicts of interest to be particularly elucidating or truthful. The the descriptions of Samp and Ag do bolster a suspected pathology of the famous that you can probably multiply by 10. Samp and Ag may have good reason to hate each other, but money and attention conquer all...Back to MSG to kiss and make up for $$$. Oh, I'm sorry, that's right -- Andre did text an apology to Sampras. (If you don't find irony in that, please live on a mountaintop for two years).

The incidents of Hit for Haiti II were fascinating and worth 10,000 words. Said a truckload about both characters. Not so much to relish the obvious weaknesses, but we saw the unvarnished truth, which was beautiful.

I assume Pete B. and Steve T. were as riveted as the rest of us, with soul-bearing and body language you couldn't have paid $100M to elicit voluntarily. Stranger than fiction, the very two active players who have earned away the Samp/Ag mantles, already exceeded their talents and accomplishments, were on court, in the flesh, steps away, half-observing, half-participating, half blown out of their minds, no doubt!

David Foster Wallace would have had an unparalleled heyday with a write-up of that... charity event. As for me, I'd like to thank all characters for the best play I've seen in 20 years, and more entertaining information about Samp and Ag than any book.

Posted by Jay 07/14/2010 at 03:33 PM

Add me to the comments by kim, Curly and pov. I'm not really interested in this book for the same reasons as listed by those other posters. What ever happened to the idea that you write a memoir/reflections-type book at the end of your career. That would probably take some of the conflicts noted by Curly off the table.

More color of the Pat/JMac relationship would have piqued my interest as they've had three careers in common--players, DC coaches and commentators. Where they stand as players goes without saying, but a comparison of their other careers might be interesting.

Regarding Pete and Andre--well, those of us who watched saw all we need to...unfortunately.

A few years ago, on a TennisChannel interview, Pete S. was asked whether he and Andre remained in touch. Pete mentioned that Andre regularly invited the Samprases to his annual fundraising gala, and sometimes Pete and his wife have attended. My question to Andre and Pete would be if Pete had made a sizable contribution to Andre's charity(ies), would Andre still consider Pete to be a cheapskate, or does the fact that Andre has tagged Pete this way mean that Pete has never given to Andre's philanthropic endeavors. Of course, if Pete has, that would give him the perfect way to stop the rumors (if he cares).

Posted by sisu 07/14/2010 at 05:18 PM

Curly and Jay - really liked reading your thoughts.

Posted by Kim 07/15/2010 at 05:37 AM

Steve, just a quick question, didn't the Bryan brothers just recently dedicate a song to Andre Agassi saying that he was their inspiration. Now, if Agassi was really hard to a point that Bob Bryan lost his confidence and a match, I would presume that he would have perceived the whole experience as a nightmare and would have never considered Agassi as an inspiration forget dedicating a song in their album, right. Just thought that was interesting. Our perceptions of an incident depends on what we think of the persons involved and generally attribute our feelings to subjects invloved. We see what we want to see and hear what we want to listen.

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