‘Chasing Points: A Season on the Pro Tennis Circuit’ by Gregory Howe (2018)

I think we all have fantasies about our dream careers.  Something we showed a little bit of aptitude and passion for, but were never realistically going to get paid to do.   The rise of reality talent shows suggests this question – could I have made it? – sits inside an awful lot of us.

For me, I did some stand-up comedy in college alongside a few people who have gone on to make a living in the comedy/entertainment world.   I was good but I knew I’d never have enough strings to my bow to achieve much more than getting laughs from a crowd of peers who shared all of my cultural references.  But getting the opportunity to tell jokes while giving speeches at weddings over the last few years, and getting brilliant feedback stirred up the old feelings of  – could I have made it? Or at least, should I have tried?

This long-winded introduction is all to make the point that when reading Chasing Point, the story of a 34 year old man’s attempts to play professional tennis, I cannot emphasis enough how much I wanted Howe to succeed.   I wanted to stop reading after each loss – and unsurprisingly there are a hell of a lot of them – and I genuinely smiled at each moment of success.

Howe had been a very good tennis player but, by his own account, not good enough that a career in the game seemed inevitable or even likely.   He continued to play in tournaments into adulthood and used tennis as a way to see the world – combining holidays with entering some local tournament.

At 34 however, Howe decided to give the game one last shot.  The book covers a year spent mostly on the Futures tour, the third rung of professional tennis, where players fight it out for a tiny number of ATP Tour points with a view to moving on to Challenger Tour and ATP Tour tournaments.   Howe set himself the challenge of winning a solitary ATP Tour point that would give him a World Ranking and access to the ATP Tour.  To achieve this, he would need to win at least three consecutive games against typically much younger players who were trying to launch a career in the game.

Chasing Points exposes the incredibly unglamorous life of the majority of players who try to play tennis professionally.  Trailing across Continent’s, sleeping in crappy hotels, paying to enter tournaments and having to win three consecutive games to see any return (either financially or in Tour points), Howe paints a picture of young men unable to let go of a dream until they had no other choice.  It’s the dual nature of the story that makes Chasing Points so interesting – it’s not just Howe’s journey but also an insight into the struggles of thousands of others on the way up or the way down as they try and try to make it as professional tennis players.

The book has been published 10 years after the season it chronicles.  It’s therefore really interesting to be able to know what eventually happened the various characters Howe meets along the way.   The majority end up drifting into obscurity with some never playing another professional game after Howe beats them.

Howe’s ambitions were relatively modest and highly personal in nature – there’s almost no reward for being ranked the 1,200th best player in the world.  But it’s this personal satisfaction that makes the challenge worthwhile – Howe set his sights on something and commits to trying whatever he can to achieve it.  It’s not a tale of extreme sacrifice – Howe spends a bit of money on the quest but he isn’t poor. It’s not a tale of extreme obsession – Howe doesn’t destroy relationships or his health (in a major way) to achieve his goal.  It’s not a tale of life changing moments or triumph against all the odds.  Instead it’s the story of what success means to each of us and the satisfaction of the journey.  It speaks to that desire to never give up on our dreams and never stop doing what you love.

Chasing Points is a really enjoyable read.  Howe tells an interesting story and he tells it well.  There is a real risk of repetition as each tournament blends into another but Howe gets the balance right – sometimes telling a game in lots of details, sometimes simply mentioning that he lost 6-2 6-2.  Overall I’d highly recommend it for any sports fan or anybody who asks themselves am ‘I too old to try and live my dream?’.

As a 34 year old man who is writing this review in Brussels Airport on the way home from a work trip, in the breaks between taking work related phone calls, I can’t help but reflect on those long-ago dreams of stand-up comedy.  If I end up attempting an open-mic night anytime in the next few months, Greg Howe is getting the blame.

Chasing Points

 

 

‘Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession’ by William Skidelsky (2015)

For the first time on this blog I genuinely don’t know what to make of a book I’ve just read.  Federer and Me defies categorisation. It’s part memoir, part love letter, part history of tennis’ tactical evolution, part travelogue, and part essay on the various forms ‘beauty’ can take.

The book traces Skidelsky’s obsession with Roger Federer.  In late 2006 / early 2007, Skidelsky went from being a lapsed fan of tennis generally to being a devoted fan of Roger Federer.   It’s an obsession in a mild sense not the ‘abandon your family to go see every match’ type.  Instead paying £800 to see Federer play the Wimbeldon final seems to be the main case of his fandom over ruling his common sense.

The book is Skidelsky’s attempt to trace this obsession that came on in his 30’s and examine why he loves Federer and why the love arose at this point in his life.

Bits of the book really work for me.  I quite enjoyed the tennis material – as a non-player but someone who watched a lot of tennis in the 90’s but now only ever really watches a bit of Wimbeldon, I was fascinated by Sikidelsky’s account of how the game evolved from the serve-and-volley error to today’s baseline based sport.

Some parts of the book however left me skimming through the pages waiting for the chapter to end.  In particular I could have done without the exploration of beauty which felt out of kilter with the rest of the book.

It feels like a very honest book and I suspect writing it served as a form of therapy for Skidelsky who is admirably candid about his own failings and the challenges he has faced.

Overall, the book is an interesting look at the concept of fandom – about how we form deep attachments to sportspeople who don’t know we exist.  The book made me reflect on my own childhood and teenage love of Roy Keane – so much so that I’m now rereading his two autobiographies.   Skidelsky’s descriptions of the pain of watching your chosen hero lose rings very true.  However, the sinking feeling of loss and despair is probably a lot more common for those of us whose main sporting love is Ireland’s international football team than those who follow the world’s greatest ever tennis player!

I like Skidelsky’s writing style a lot and found it a very quick and easy read.  I know I will definitely give a copy to a friend who played competitive tennis and loves Federer.  Outside of that niche however, I find it impossible to predict whether other readers will like it.

So overall an interesting, well-written, book that will work for some but may fell too self-involved and at times to esoteric for others.

Federer

Open by Andre Agassi (2009)

First up is a reread of Open by Andre Agassi, a book that regularly makes the various lists of best ever sports books.  For now, I’ve written my thoughts based on how I remember the book from when I first read it more than 7 years ago.  I’m about to start re-reading it and will update the post after I finish.

Open

Sometimes the right book comes into your life at the right time – this is that book for me. This book had a significant impact on me.  I read it at a low point in my life when I was very overweight, miserable in my job and eager for change.  I was on 3 months study leave from work to study for accounting exams and determined to use the time to lose weight.   I managed to drop a huge amount of weight that summer, and the following year – get significantly fitter, meet my now wife and reach a much happier place in my life.  I also did pretty damn well in those exams.

What I know is I loved this book – I genuinely believe it had a major impact on my finally being successful at losing weight and keeping it off (although I’ve put a lot back on in last couple of years which has prompted the re-read.  I’m eager to discover if it lives up to my memory.

What I remember is a brilliantly well written and searingly honest account of Agassi’s life.  His struggles with hating tennis, hating his father and substance abuse were striking.   His ability to turn his life around and become a better player post 30 than before was remarkable, but 7 years removed all I can really remember is that I recommended the book to many many many people.  Will update as soon as reread is complete.

UPDATE

I reread Open over two nights – its as good if not better than I remembered.

From the first pages, its immediately obvious that it is first and foremost a very well written book.  There a huge number of memorable lines in the introduction alone.   The repetition of Agassi’s hatred of tennis is striking and makes it clear this is a book about the man as much as the sportsman.

It feels very honest – you believe this is the real Agassi, the Agassi that his friends saw but that he kept hidden from the rest of the world.  The contrast between the public image and the private thoughts of young Agassi is almost unbelievable.

The first two thirds of the book – his young life and early professional career is the journey of a young man who seems to have the greatest of lives but is struggling deep down.  It think it wonderfully captures the feelings of someone who who ostensibly has a good career but struggles day to day with the Why? We want to believe “successful” people are happy because then, if we are successful, we will be happy too.   Agassi reminds us that “success” is deeply personal and many of us never fully grasp that or what our own personal victory looks like.

Aggassi

While I loved reading this again, I did begin to wonder why this had such an impact on me other than being a really great book.  And then I read this piece at the beginning of Chapter 21:

“Change.  Time to change Andre.  You can’t go on like this.  Change, change, change – I say this word to myself several times a day, every day, while buttering my morning toast, while brushing my teeth, less as a warning than as a soothing chant.  For from depressing me, or shaming me, the idea that I must change completely, from top to bottom, brings me back to centre. For once I don’t hear that nagging self-doubt that follows every personal resolution.  I won’t fail this time, I can’t because its now or never.  The idea of stagnating, of remaining this Andre the rest of my life, that’s what I find truly depressing and shameful”. 

I can remember the impact that paragraph, and particularly the last line had on me.  It was visceral, it was like reading my own thoughts.  It spoke to me, like very few books every have.  So the experience of this book was deeply personal for me and my review is obviously impacted as a result.

However, besides the personal relevance, it is a wonderful book.  I have read a lot of autobiographies, as this blog will hopefully eventually show, and this really does stand head and shoulders above so many others.

The final third – Agassi getting his life back on track, and his late career resurgence is a feel good redemption story.   His coming to grips with finding himself down a path he never chose is inspiring.  He figured out what his own goal was, what he wanted for himself – to win all 4 grand slams – and achieved something that was for him.

Mostly though, this book is about love.  The misguided love of Agassi’s father.  The love between brothers, between friends, between those who come into our life when we need them most.  And the overriding importance of being with the right partner.  I was single when I first read Open and his telling of his relationship with Steffi Graff felt conjured, too adorable and manufactured, the one thing that didn’t ring true.  Then I met my wife and I realised some people do actually get that lucky.

Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf at the Savoy Hotel for Wimbledon Winners Ball

It won’t be another 7 years before I read this again.