Few would associate tennis with Iran, but despite its failure to produce dominant world players (in part because of its political history), for me the country remains the point of origin for a game over which I’ve become more than a little obsessed. The causes of a recreation player’s love of tennis might seem boring. (Just ask my wife and kids, who have banned me from all tennis references at the dinner table). Upon reflection, however, my self-interrogation leads to some insights about family, the Persian character, and the complex psychology of this rather demanding sport.
Though I’ve written the first formal collection of poetry about tennis, the thought of discussing the subject in prose proves more than a little daunting. My Iranian father played on a college team, and despite my begging him, he refused throughout my childhood to show me anything on court. No doubt he had his reasons, much like he did for sharing very little about his life in the old country. I don’t blame him, but it has left me with little to reference as I explore my background.
Add to this his transferring from a school in Nebraska where he first played on a tennis team to Illinois State University. This brings me, by association, to David Foster Wallace. He was born, like me, in the Bloomington-Normal area, and taught at ISU for some time. Though a formidable player himself, his writing about tennis proves critically incomparable. For me, it seems almost as pointless to try writing about the sport after him as it did for Adorno to write poetry after the Holocaust. Despite such anxieties of influence, tennis players and writers have to persevere, publishing their own books and committing to their own tennis game regardless of preexisting greatness.
When he first immigrated from Tehran to my home in San Antonio, TX, my cousin Babak both put me to shame and inspired me on the court. At 17 years old, he partnered with me in doubles against a couple of my middle school friends. None of us knew much about serving or hitting. Seemingly out of nowhere I introduce this tall athletic relative I hadn’t seen since I was like five years old ripping shots down the line. Better players tend to help you raise your level of play, and I remember suddenly serving and volleying with a newfound confidence.
I wish even prior to my cousin’s introduction I’d made my way to Iranian players like Mansour Bahrami and Ali Madani. I’d heard about them from Persian relatives, especially the charismatic and highly entertaining Bahrami, but this was pre-Internet, so it’s not like I could find them on YouTube. Somewhat tragically, I learned that early on after the Iranian revolution of 1979 the Islamic Republic made it difficult for these guys to travel and compete internationally. I can’t help but think of how my Father became shut off from his own past around the same time. During the tumultuous year of the revolution, I first started asking my old man about tennis. He couldn’t discuss much of anything. He’d just lie in front of the TV watching footage of the American flag burning and the blindfolded US hostages. I came to find out much later that his older brother, an advisor for the Shah, had been murdered. It was yet another deeply significant event he’d repressed, along with his former love of tennis, throughout my childhood.
Cut off from his connections to both Iran and tennis, I of course remained curious. I’d reach out to other Iranian relatives and friends on my own, growing up and studying both the culture and the literature as a kind of avocation in academia. Though I didn’t play, I obsessively watched matches on television whenever possible. Sometimes HBO would show highlights of the really old matches of men and women long before my time. Their wood rackets looked just like my father’s encased in a wood frame with rusty screws that hung in the garage. He belonged to that game, somehow, but all I knew is that he’d been introduced to it as a kid in Tehran.
Then came Andre Agassi. I now understand why Foster Wallace resented him so much for his parade of adolescent vanity and all the celebrity he attracted. As an ego-centric young adult, I adored him at the time. The reasons kids grow up liking a certain athlete or team vary considerably, but they tend to remain quite primal. For me, I followed Agassi because he too had an Iranian father. Though I’d come to learn much later from his memoir how much he resented his old man, I was jealous as hell that he had tennis pushed on him as a kid. I wanted to be Andre in my youth. We were the same age, and I shamefully must admit that I got a version of his mullet.
I can’t blame my own Father for not following through with tennis (there’s a pun in the spirit of the Persian poetic tradition for you). I can’t even blame the football first culture of Texas, since there were also a lot of tennis players around, and my public schools, including the University of Texas-Austin I attended, all had good teams. Since playing that year with cousin Baback in 7th grade, I’d already gotten deep into drugs and alcohol, preferring to hang out in my room, listen to music, and write depressingly bad poetry. Ironically I’d come even closer to Agassi than I realized back then, albeit without the racket. I too started using methamphetamine, among other substances. At least he remained connected to tennis, for better or worse. I just wasted away, an addict without a cause.
Fast-forwarding through most of my off court drama, around the time of Agassi’s miraculous come back from unseeded oblivion, when he ended up wanting tennis for himself instead of his old man, I ended up getting sober and thriving in a relationship with the woman who would become my wife, a career in academia, and so much more. Watching Agassi at this stage of his life change his game, shave his head, and find his own soul mate in Steffi Graf made him a new kind of model for me. He played serious, like a grown up, but with unbelievable passionate intensity. He’d worked hard, despite debilitating back pain, to climb back to this level. It’s futile to recreate the kind of inspiration his matches gave me then. Some are available on YouTube I’m sure, though even decent footage won’t do them justice. There is nothing comparable to the experience of your favorite player or team in real time, when you most need them to deliver for narcissistic reasons in your own life and they miraculously do. It becomes an inimitable lyric moment, and it changes you forever.
I started to follow him much closer at this stage of his career, watching him battle younger athletic opponents on an increasingly faster court. Around this time in my sobriety I began to reconcile with my own Father and to further embrace my Iranian heritage. The woman I’d met was half Iranian, just like me and Agassi. Though I chose to study American literature thanks to my immigrant father helping me to understand and appreciate the United States from his perspective, I also started getting closer to the culture of Iran, especially through its deep poetic tradition.
Agassi himself claims he is not Iranian, and I understand and respect that. Even so, I can’t help but project my own Iranian identity onto him. Of course all fans inevitably read their own fantasies onto athletes they admire. This may sound crazy, and even provoke angry responses, but I’ve worked out some reasons over time that I feel make a good case that Agassi is somewhat Iranian, even if he fails to consciously associate with his father’s background:
Generosity—Tell an Iranian you like his shirt and he’ll take it off and give it to you. Andre has started an amazing school to educate children who need it, and his foundation has given astronomical sums to help kids in other ways as well as to other worthy causes.
Motivation—Every athlete’s drive to win comes from someplace, and though he resented it in his youth, he got much of this from his old man. His father boxed in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics for Iran. For better or worse, his son kept on fighting throughout his career, both for and against his father. It’s very formative, and for him it originates in Iran.
Marriage—Andre of course married Steffi Graf, and it seems to have worked out for them. As scores of Iranians will tell you, Iranians and Germans tend to get along fairly well.
Fire—From his memoir, we learn he’s always been what he calls a “fire bug.” Mind you, he lives in Las Vegas. Do they even need to burn fires there? I can’t help but link such a predilection to the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism in Iran. It holds fire as the sacred life force.
Eyebrows—Okay, I know this seems like a stretch, since Agassi’s old man was actually born to Assyrian and Armenian parents, but I have Iranian relatives who are convinced they’re somehow related to President Obama, so anything goes here: Andre has Iranian eyebrows. That’s a real physical signifier in terms of Iranian facial expressions. Watch him playing a match and see them rise and fall. See him give that amazing farewell speech at the end of his career and follow the arch of their humility. As a gay Iranian writer once told me, “You can always tell a real Iranian by his eyebrows.”
My love of tennis continued beyond the player I continue to believe is more Iranian than he does, but it still kept circling back to him, just as it kept circling back to Iran. Just a couple of years ago, I picked up a racket for the first time since the seventh grade. I had no intention of doing so. One day, my brother in law, here less than a year, felt homesick for his native Shiraz. “What do you miss most?” I asked. “I was just starting to get pretty good at tennis,” he said. I told him, “Look Amir, I know nothing about tennis. Let’s get out there and you show me the basics.” We took my kid’s toy racket to the courts near my house, and he showed me a forehand and backhand. I think we hit for two hours that afternoon, and I didn’t want to stop. We hit again the next day, and by the end of the summer we were having some epic three set matches.
I started playing doubles with guys who played two or even three notches above me, taking lessons on the side to stop embarrassing myself on the court. My closest friend in our crew, knowing my Iranian background, handed me Agassi’s memoir. “You’ve got to read this man,” said Paul. “He had a version of your childhood, and a crazy Dad like you. It’s just that his Dad forced him to play tennis.” I devoured the book in one night, pleased to find that it confirmed so much of what I thought of him (except the latent Iranian attributes I reference above).
I kept playing throughout the next two years, losing to guys much better than me but learning a lot. Then through Facebook one day I got a friend request from an Iranian cousin I’d never even met before. His dad had immigrated to America too, and our fathers actually used to play tennis together in the Mid-West. After going through a divorce, my cousin Rob moved from Arizona to teach at a government school in Thailand, then on to a marketing position. He started posting pictures of himself with the Thai tennis team. It turns out he started playing as a kid, and he’s quite good. We’ve bonded over tennis through Facebook messages, and my real hope is to hit with him at some point, either in the US or in his newly adopted country.
Admittedly my interest in tennis now extends well beyond Iran. The sport belongs to the world, and I follow various players from everywhere. My forthcoming collection of poetry tracks the origins of tennis in England, while also attempting insightful and humorous commentary on various facets of the game. Though on the surface the reader will find little explicit references to Iran, the book does include poems in the Persian form of the ghazal. I also found myself revisiting my reading of the Sufi mystic poets from Iran, like Hafez and Rumi, which I frequently translate into English. Searching for an apt extended metaphor to represent how tennis demands both an intense struggle with the material world as well as a kind of spiritual letting go of destructive self-will, I ended up returning to the masters. Once again, I found myself back in Iran:
The Sufi Tennis Player
His right arm raised like a dervish
in old days of the Persian court
he smacks a serve with so much spin
the ball’s a blurry whirl of whoosh
the racket hammer thwacked
in Rumi’s marketplace staccato
footwork baseline squeaks
dances to net angles of tension
played from a place beyond
knowing through training
clinics coaches agony
of wins and losses the ball
reduced to petty ego netted
over-headed unforced errors
(the goddamn sun without a visor!)
until new game set match
backhand back in the zone
of easy shots and aces
“Wilson” stamped across the ball
transcendent as a mystic’s prayer.
From Foot Faults: Tennis Poems,
(David Robert Books, forthcoming)
Roger Sedarat teaches poetry and literary translation in the MFA program at Queens College, City University of New York.