Open, by Andre Agassi

Sports autobiographies generally occupy a rather sad, narcissistic, ghost-written corner of the literary bookshelf. It’s the obligatory thing to do after you hang it up; write a tell-all memoir (with a proven co-author) that is part reminder to your fans of how great you were and part pot shot at all those a-holes who gave you insufficient adoration during your halcyon playing days.

And then there’s Agassi’s contribution to the genre (written with Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer), which I just finished. I was doomed to read this book from the first second I heard about it, and not because of the sensationalistic pre-sale revelations of drug use, which almost deterred me from even picking the book up. Rather, I had to read it because Agassi’s always been my guy. You know, that athlete you always root for no matter what. The guy you’re willing to get up to watch live at ungodly hours, or stay up late for or travel to see in person, because you secretly want to be there for him; you think he needs your support.

There are lots of reasons why you might feel this way about a particular athlete, but they usually boil down to the same thing:  you see yourself in him.  You feel a connection.  Agassi came onto the tennis scene when I was in college and because I was a tennis geek, I noticed him right away.  It was hard not to.  He transormed the game instantly, and he wasn’t nice about it.  He hit harder than anyone ever dared to before.  He returned serve unlike anyone before or since.  He wore denim shorts on the court.  He had crazy hair.  He refused to play Wimbledon.  He gave hilarious interviews.  Though he offended a lot of people and made others generally sick (you could almost feel the collective eye-rolling of the tennis establishment that accompanied his early appearances), to me he was a much needed breath of fresh air in a sport that seemed on the verge of dying of terminal dullness.

But what I really connected with was his backstory.  Agassi grew up with one of those dads.  The stories have become well-trodden ground by now, but the book makes them live in technicolor detail like never before.  This was an abused kid, no question about it.  My childhood was nothing like his, but yet, my dad was one of those dads too.  I remember being screamed at on a tennis court until I hated the game and hated my dad, but still being forced to play.  In some tiny way, I identified with Andre and always wanted him to succeed on his own terms.  My dad preferred rooting for the steadier Pete Sampras whom he always referred to as a “matinee idol.”  He called Agassi a “head case” and said he would never win a big tournament.  I just rooted for Agassi even harder.

And, as the book documents, he won.  Despite constantly battling the ubiquitous Sampras, horrific demons, a rebellious lower spine and more emotional ups and downs than most manic depressives can account for, Agassi is able to somehow will himself to eight grand slam titles covering all four grand slam events, countless lesser tournament victories and an Olympic gold medal.  That’s a haul even Sampras can’t claim.  What the book makes you wonder, more than anything, is what Agassi might have accomplished if he was actually physically and emotionally healthy.  Was the tortured upbringing more responsible for his amazing skill or his fragile psyche?  Is it possible that he could have had the one without the other?  Probably there is no way to know.

The hallmark of this book is its brutal honesty.  Agassi is going out of his way to claim that he is portraying the absolute unvarnished truth about his life for the first time.  He spares no one, including himself, and the portrayals of most of the people in his life are far from flattering.  Brook Shields comes off as mostly a distant, self-absorbed, dilettante,  but it’s more than clear that Andre bears as much responsibility for the demise of their marriage as she.  Other tennis players are not friends, but are either benign robots (Sampras, who is also basically called a terminal cheapskate) or devils in tennis togs (Connors, Becker).  He reserves his only undiluted praise for the members of his tennis entourage, the people who help him to accomplish his goals on the court year in and year out, especially his strength coach and bodyguard Gil Reyes.  If these people are actually as unflinchingly loyal and tirelessly dedicated to Andre as they are portrayed, they should definitely be candidates for sainthood.

The end of the book documents Agassi’s redemption, as he finally retires from tennis, the last of his generation.  He has married the woman of his dreams (Steffi Graf, probably the greatest tennis player in history), has kids of his own (whom he swears will never have to play tennis), and builds the finest charter prep academy in the country for at-risk youth.  In the end, therefore, the book is an unapologetic ray of hope that even the most unlikely, ragged, bizarrely-coiffed street kid can eventually make himself into something successful and good.  Though Agassi’s story may be the most unlikely of them all, after reading it I just want to say: I was rooting for you all the way Andre.

11 thoughts on “Open, by Andre Agassi

  1. Nice review MCQ. A few (?) years ago I went to his last US Open here in NYC. The crowd loved the guy. I mostly loved his contribution to hair styles and fluorescents.

  2. I like him because I lost my hair at an early age (I’m 3 years younger than him). Agassi’s was going too and he just shaved it all off, and gave hope to millions of men :)

  3. Darin, that’s actually a pretty important part of the book. Agassi tells about losing a grand slam final because his hairpiece is falling off and has to be held on with bobby pins, and he’s paranoid about moving too much and losing his hair during the match.

    After that debacle, he decides to ditch the hairpiece in favor of just wearing a bandana, but when even that starts to be a problem he decides the only real solution is to just get rid of it all.

  4. I downloaded this audiobook last week and will start it as soon as I finish my current book.

    I’ve always been attracted to articulate athletes, maybe because they’re so rare. Not sure why. Maybe because the ability to be both vulnerable and introspective is antithetical to the drive that makes professional athletes successful. But Agassi has always been one of the best, if not the best, sports interviews of the past 15 years. So I expect the book to be equally engaging.

  5. I agree, Matt. He’s a different sort of athlete, and finding out more about what made him the way he is makes the book a must read. It’s not the typical jock memoir.

  6. The guy you’re willing to get up to watch live at ungodly hours, or stay up late for or travel to see in person, because you secretly want to be there for him; you think he needs your support.

    This is why I stopped rooting for individuals and just kept track of teams no matter who the players are ;)

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