Monday Motivation: Master time to serve your dramatic needs

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog, Tips for Writers

You’re the Time Master, able to manipulate it with ease. You can put your foot on the accelerator and speed it up, whizzing past temporal landmarks in a blur; or you can apply the brakes and slow to the crawl, during which nanoseconds pass by with all the deliberation of snails on a stroll.

You put this mastery to use for dramatic reasons, of course. You skip lightly down the long straight because there’s nothing really there to detain you or snag your interest. But on the corners, on that serpentine chicane where so many drivers before you have come adrift, you slow down. The roaring spectators savour your skill on the turn, they watch enthralled as you overtake a rival on the inside, almost touch wheels with him… On the television replay, they slow down the action even more, using their ultra-highspeed cameras to turn seconds into minutes.

Every writer does this, but seldom have I come across an example so clear as the one on Page 115 of Andre Agassi’s 2009 autobiography, Open*.

He’s describing his 1994 revenge match against Boris Becker in the semi-final of the US Open. He’s seeking revenge after Becker dissed him in an interview after their previous encounter, calling him, among other things, an elitist.  The report of that interview cut Agassi to the quick. It was, he writes, “a declaration of war.”

Agassi wins the first two sets but loses the third. Here he is on the straight:

“The fourth set is nip and tuck. We’re each holding serve, looking for an opening to break. I glance at the clock. Nine thirty. No one here is going home. Lock the doors, send out for sandwiches, we’re not leaving until this fucking thing is settled. The intensity is palpable. I’ve never wanted a match so much. I never wanted anything so much. I hold serve to go up 6-5 and now Becker’s serving to stay in the match.”

In a paragraph, he zips through eleven games. But now he’s approaching that tricky turn. So Agassi slows down the telling:

“He sticks his tongue to my right, serves right. I guess right and coldcock it. Winner. I crush his next two serves. Now he’s serving at love-40, triple match point.”

The drama of the match is now distilled into one more exchange. In reality, the next paragraph takes probably five or six seconds to play out. But look how it’s handled:

“Perry (Agassi’s manager) is barking at him. Brooke (Shields, his girlfriend) is raining bloodcurdling screams down on him. Becker is smiling, waving at them both, as if he’s Miss America. He misfires his first serve. I know he’s going to get aggressive with his second. He’s a champion, he’s going to bring it like a champion. Also his tongue is in the middle of his mouth.** Sure enough he brings a faster-paced second serve straight up the gut. Normally you have to worry about the high bounce and kick, so you move in, try to catch it early before it bounces above your shoulder, but I gamble, hold my ground, and the gamble pays off. Here is the ball, in my wheelhouse. I slide my hips out of the way, put myself in place to hit the coldie of a lifetime. The serve is a click faster than I anticipated but I adjust. I’m on my toes, feeling like Wyatt Earp and Spider-Man and Spartacus. I swing. Every hair on my body is standing up. As the ball leaves my racket a sound leaves my mouth that’s pure animal. I know that I won’t ever make this sound again, and I won’t ever hit a tennis ball any harder, or any more perfect. Hitting a ball dead perfect – the only peace. As it lands on Becker’s side of the court the sound is still coming from me.

“AAAAGHHHHHHHHH.

“The ball blazes past Becker. Match, Agassi.”

It really is masterful – and it’s a tribute to Agassi’s memory and Moehringer’s skill with words. Tennis players might learn a trick or two from the passage I’ve quoted; writers should copy it out and use it as a lesson on controlling time to achieve their dramatic objectives.

Happy writing,

Richard

Open was ghost-written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, J.R. Moehringer, who worked closely with Agassi over a period of months, recording literally hundreds of hours of conversation in which Agassi established his voice, and told Moehringer the story/ies of his life. It’s a brilliant read.

** Agassi had noted a tell in Becker’s serve. When he was winding himself up to serve wide, he’d point his tongue in that direction in the second before racket hit ball; and to the centre if that’s where he was aiming. This enabled Agassi to anticipate what would otherwise sometimes be unreturnable aces.

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Showing 11 comments
  • Kate Sidley
    Reply

    You do such a great job of this blog, Richard. I always read your Monday Motivation and it always gives me something to think about and apply in my own writing. Thank you!

  • Ivan
    Reply

    Thank you for this monday motivation uncle Rich, I found it very useful as I’m writing an essay about my history with sexual abuse. The moments of abuse themselves end as quickly as the start, but I have these moments of relation, a stream of consciousness if you will, to find the deeper meaning in how those moments (minutes really) came to be. Thank you again

    • Richard Beynon
      Reply

      Hi Ivan,

      I’m so pleased this was useful. Thanks for letting me know.

  • James Holdaway
    Reply

    Re- “Open” a brilliant piece of writing skill holding the reader to every syllable. I was like being back at the match but, this time, looking for those little things not shown on TV. I watched that match

    • Richard Beynon
      Reply

      Hi James,
      Yes, there is something about a written report of a great tennis match that surpasses anything television can offer. The best example is David Foster Wallace’s report on a match between Federer and Natal at Wimbledon. Check it out. Here’s a link:

      https://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html

    • Barbara Spaanderman
      Reply

      My week cannot start until I’ve read your Monday motivation. Thank you for two years of anchoring my weeks.

  • Richard Beynon
    Reply

    Hey, Kate, great to know you read them. And lovely to hear from you.

  • Tracy-Lynn Field
    Reply

    “Serpentine chicane” … love it! Thanks Richard and so glad you are back in the saddle. Will read “Open” for sure.

    • Richard Beynon
      Reply

      Back in the saddle? No, back at the tiller! Lovely to hear from you. Can’t wait for you to rejoin us and write on.

  • Richard Beynon
    Reply

    You leave me with a heavy burden, Barbara… Now I know, come hell or high water, I can’t miss another one!

  • Mandy Hackland
    Reply

    Excitement. Tension. A skilled reading of body language in a moment when every muscle strains to get it just right. The screams of the crowd. Using all the senses – even down to the anticipation of the sandwiches. It’s all so real. And for those of us who dip into ‘Open’ for a couple of minutes through your own account of the scene, Richard, there is the privilege of having an experienced mentor who brings the actual writing expertise to life for us so we may learn. Thank you for pointing these things out. I know my writing has improved as a result of your guidance.

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