Sunday, May 29, 2011

Book Review: Andre Agassi, Open

Publisher/Year: Knopf, 2009

Open: An Autobiography (Vintage)
Tennis is a sport I know almost nothing about. Over the years I have come to know some of the names in the sport in passing--McEnroe, Navratilova, King, Graf, Sampras--if not the sport itself. What I associate most with tennis is the ping of the ball off the racket and the encompassing silence of the games beyond that. As an avid player of badminton in my youth, I can get behind the awesomeness of hitting that perfect folly over the net punctuated by that glorious sound. I don't understand the rules of the game, though it seems simple enough to play for fun. Given my somewhat apathetic attitude towards tennis, it is curious that I should pick up Andre Agassi's autobiography Open during my latest library trip.

I recall Agassi in terms of the popular culture referencing that we likely all have at some point. The hair, oh that hair and then none. The women--Streisand, Shields, finally Graf. The rock star attitude. These are all pieces within a much larger puzzle, I thought as I picked up the book. I would come to learn that while Agassi is indeed a larger puzzle these few pieces are rather quite large and take up consider space in his story.

When I finished this book, it was obvious to me that Agassi did not have to write it. Okay, lots (most) people don't have to write their autobiographies. But with Agassi, I can’t help but wonder what he thought could be gained from revealing a year-long crystal meth dalliance? To me, it is the setup to explain that he lied about the usage when confronted by a failed drug test (the book is title 'Open' afterall). He claimed "I drank a friend's spiked soda!” and the ATP bought the explanation. For this reader, this story resonated more about the wisdom, or rather failed wisdom, of a professional organization that allows a player to write a mere letter to defend their actions. It opens the door to ultimately letting the organization actively off the hook for conducting a proper investigation by letting an athlete let himself or herself off the hook.

But enough about this. I could go on for volumes about integrity or lack thereof in sports.

What Agassi gained in telling his story was an opportunity to negate or debunk some of the myths about him and possibly to also propagate others. It is sweet to know that Stephanie (Steffi) Graf was a significant feature is his personal life long before they became romantically involved. It comes through loud and clear that in her Agassi has found his other half. And the relationship between him and trainer-mentor-guru Gil Reyes is heartening to read about. Both threads of the story are not surprising though; it would be a different type of cheating on Agassi’s part to not have such archetypes factor into the story. Unfortunately for him, Hollywood as stripped out some of the sincerity of such archetypal relationships through melodramatic retellings in lesser fare. This makes the more emotional components of the story ring a bit hollow despite the obvious sincerity.

Two themes were clear to me throughout Agassi's detailed tellings of his professional and personal struggles. One, his insecurity. It would be easy to lay blame for this at the feet of his borderline abusive father but Agassi does not do this and nor can I. He simply seemed like a kid in an adult body until his 30s, much like many of our generation where self-confidence is often mistaken for self-esteem in our pursuit to be somebody. Sure, Agassi had lots of success and lots of defeat yet he spends considerable time retelling his many steps to the precipice of wanting to figure out why either would happen and then his rushing away from the edge. He seems afraid to know what was really lurking underneath the rebellions that lead to a pink mohawk or denim shorts or his first marriage. If I had to venture a guess, Agassi having to listen to his brother Philly repetitively being told by their father that he was a born loser had more impact on him than Philly.

Second, his sensitivity. This comes through crystal clear in the discussion around his first marriage. He and Shields connected based on a similar background but obviously there was not enough similarity to make it last. I had always thought Shields to be quite cold, and the image rendered here reinforces my thoughts. For example, when she questions why he got involved in the medical troubles of an acquaintance, it almost feels like a verbal slap in the face. And not just to him.

A clear outlet for this sensitivity was the establishment of his charter school for at-risk children in Las Vegas. Besides his family, this school is his haven and heaven. For a kid who brashly dropped out of school at 14 to open such an institution demonstrates a heightened acceptance that he was capable of more than tennis. The pedigree he brings to the school—eight grand slams, one Olympic gold medal, 60 titles, 1,000 matches—provides for a stability and a location of excellence that he himself craved throughout his career.

I must admit though to being bored when reading the passages dedicated to recounting matches. Technically these are the most action packed in any sports biography I've come across to date yet they read dry as clay when put to paper. I suspect you need to be a tennis fan, or have more than a cursory interest in the sport to truly get the grit within the passages. The only match of his that I recall fully watching was from the 2006 US Open against Marcos Baghdatis. I didn't really know what I was watching but it felt like history in the making (which it was) and I couldn't turn away.

His recounting of the physical and emotional pain endured then underscores my long respect for his passion for the sport. He often recounts in the book that he hates tennis but one does not risk permanent injury time and time again without some desire or passion fueling the fire within. And it underscores his respect for the sport and his fellow players. They do not always come across favorably but they are rendered fairly within his perspective. One does not get the feeling that Agassi despised any of them though, I’m sure there were times when he felt he did.

Overall, Open feels like Agassi on a quest. To where or to what I ends, I am unsure. There is plenty of information and details from which to drawn many different conclusions but the only one that matters is his own. As with all autobiographies, the literary goal is to demonstrate that a person has come "full circle" in some fashion. Same is true for Agassi. And having achieved so much personal and professional success by the age of 36, including this book, seems pretty full circle to me. May he keep questing and being 'open'.

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