Open by Andre Agassi [A Review]

Andre Agassi is undoubtedly one of the greats of modern men’s tennis. But his career did not follow the familiar trajectory of young prodigy to world beater before decline as age and injury catch up. It was far rockier with rises, falls and durability that surprised fans and critics. Alongside the bumpy performance on the court were rises and falls in his standing with the public. From rebel to saviour, washed-up to rejuvenated, reviled to adored, Agassi went on this journey with confusion and understanding, petulance and acceptance.

A good book about Andre Agassi was always going to be worth a read. Few would have predicted an autobiography by Agassi would be this good.

Andre Agassi’s description of his childhood is bizarre enough to not be a stereotype, yet will be recognisable to those who hear it. Its familiarity comes from that story of a domineering, tyrannical, violent-tempered father who had determined before his son was born that he would be a champion and forced him to become one. One of Agassi’s childhood memories is of house-hunting with his father in Las Vegas, his father rejecting everything they saw until settling on an isolated ‘shack’ surrounded by desert, his main criteria being that it must have a yard big enough to build a tennis court. Once built, Agassi spent his childhood hitting thousands of balls a day while his education went neglected.

I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.

As horrible as this sounds there will no doubt be some fathers who read such a story nodding with approval, agreeing that this is what it takes to build a champion. That narrative and its sentiment has ready acceptance in our culture. Yet some, like David Epstein in his recent book, Range, argue that champions produced by singular focus from childhood, voluntary or not, like Agassi and Tiger Woods, are the exception rather than the rule. Instead, Epstein argues that the benefits of what you can learn from having varied interests is more beneficial than having a limited speciality.

As he grows up, Agassi’s youth is spent going from tournament to tournament, surrounded by bad influences and poor role models. His father sends him to stay at a tennis academy that Agassi describes as a prison and a boot camp. Fortunately, his father can’t afford to keep him there. Unfortunately, his talent is so apparent they let him stay for free! At his school, whose system Agassi says is designed to produce bad students and good tennis players, he shows an aptitude for things outside tennis but isn’t allowed to pursue them. In such circumstances, rebellion is inevitable. In his early teens, Agassi smokes marijuana, drinks alcohol, grows a mohawk. He wins his first tournament wearing jeans, earrings and makeup.

At 15 Agassi is beating grown men. A comment from then world #1 John McEnroe throws the media spotlight on him. And though his first tour playing on European clay and Wimbledon were dispiriting, he is soon back beating his peers and challenging the world’s best. But unfortunately for the young Agassi, infamy comes before success. Fans start copying/parodying his look. The media seem to have made their own preconceptions about him, none of them positive. After Agassi appears in a commercial for camera company Canon, saying the slogan “Image is Everything”, things turn hostile. “Image is Everything” became a byword for Agassi himself – that he is all style and no substance. The sudden notoriety is bewildering to the teenager and seems terribly unfair to him.

Sportswriters murder me for it. They say I’m trying to stand out. In fact […] I’m trying to hide. They say I’m trying to change the game. In fact I’m trying to prevent the game from changing me. They call me a rebel, But I have no interest in being a rebel. I’m only conducting an everyday, run-of-the-mill teenage rebellion. Subtle distinctions, but important. At heart, I’m doing nothing more than being myself, and since I don’t know who that is, my attempts to figure that out are scattershot and awkward – and, of course, contradictory.

[…] Whatever I’m doing, for whatever reasons, it strikes a chord. I’m routinely called the saviour of American tennis, whatever that means. I think it has to do with the atmosphere at my matches. Besides wearing my outfit, fans come sporting my hairdo. […] I’m flattered by the imitators, embarrassed, thoroughly confused. I can’t imagine all these people trying to be like Andre Agassi, since I don’t want to be Andre Agassi.

Now and then I start to explain this in an interview, but it never comes out right. I try to be funny, and it falls flat or offends someone. I try to be profound, and hear myself making no sense. So I stop, fall back on pat answers and platitudes, tell journalists what they seem to want to hear. It’s the best I can do. If I can’t understand my motivations and demons, how can I hope to explain them to journalists on a deadline.

From here the public side of Agassi’s life is well-documented. The maturing Agassi begins taking more control of his life and his approach to tennis. Bad influences are weeded out and the seeds of ambition, his own ambition, are sown. It is a far from smooth ride, filled with disappointment, defeat and injury, but the rise in ability and motivation is undeniable. At the 1992 Wimbledon, fortunate to be seeded as high as 12th, he beats Boris Becker (who has made six of the last seven Wimbledon finals) in the quarter final. He beats John McEnroe in the semi-final. In the final he faces Goran Ivanišević, who had beaten Pete Sampras in his own semi, and wins in five sets. His first Grand Slam title. US Open (1994) and Australian Open (1995) titles follow.

I’m supposed to be a different person now that I’ve won a slam. Everyone says so. No more Image is Everything. Now, sportswriters assert, for Andre Agassi, winning is everything. After two years of calling me a fraud, a choke artist, a rebel without a cause, they lionise me. They declare that I’m a winner, a player of substance, the real deal.

But I don’t feel that Wimbledon has changed me. I feel, in fact, as if I’ve been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing. Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something that very few people of earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last as long as the bad. Not even close.

Then came a steep decline where his ranking feel to 141 by 1997. His career was considered over by many while his peer, Sampras, who he readily beat when they were young, was rapidly becoming one of the game’s greats. Agassi acknowledges the truth of this; his career and life stood at a crossroads.

I stare out the window at the Stuttgart traffic. I hate tennis more than ever – but I hate myself more. I tell myself, So what if you hate tennis? Who cares? All those people out there, all those millions who hate what they do for a living, they do it anyway. Maybe doing what you hate, doing it well and cheerfully, is the point. So you hate tennis. Hate it all you want. You still need to respect it – and yourself.

I say, OK, Brad, I’m not ready for it to be over. I’m all in. Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.

The comeback was as profound as it was unexpected. Agassi would win five further Grand Slam titles and end his career as one of the greats himself. The comeback extended beyond his success on the court and in the record books. Agassi charmed the tennis public with his humility and gratitude and became one of the most loved sportsmen where he had once been among the most reviled. So much for the public face of the story. The private side is just as remarkable.

I don’t read a lot of biographies of non-historical persons – actors, sports and music stars, other celebrities, etc – but I was probably always going to read Andre Agassi’s autobiography. Overall, he is probably my favourite tennis player and, if I had to distil what I like most about him, it is probably that he was a contrarian. In an era of power servers, Agassi had the best return of serve. At a time when players were becoming more specialised, even giving an entire season of a surface type a miss, Agassi had the all-round game to become the second man in the open era to complete a Career Grand Slam (after Rod Laver). Add an Olympic gold medal and an ATP Tour World Championship and you have one of the most distinguished careers in tennis history.

But a couple more things really pushed this book into my hands. The first was hearing a childhood friend, one I briefly played tennis with and one I didn’t know was much of a reader, rave about how much he enjoyed the book. Another came when I was driving home one day and listening to an interview with a film director on the radio. Unfortunately, I don’t remember director’s name, but I remember he has directed well-known films that I’ve enjoyed. The interviewers asked if there was any book or screenplay out there he would like to make into a film. Before the interviewer could finish the question, the director was already telling them he wants to make Andre Agassi’s autobiography into a film.

The first thing that ought to be said about the book is that it is a great read. It is well-written with a compelling inner monologue, uses good story-telling techniques and is funny. Agassi has some profound thoughts about life, fame and success that are worth reading about.

Personally, I loved hearing about how his contrarian technique was no accident.

My father says that when he boxed, he always wanted to take a guy’s best punch. He tells me one day on the tennis court: When you know that you just took the other guy’s best punch and you’re still standing and the other guy knows it, you will rip the heart right out of him. In tennis, he says, same rule. Attack the other guy’s strength. If the man is a server, take away his serve. If he’s a power player, overpower him. If he has a big forehand, takes pride in his forehand, go after his forehand until he hates his forehand.

My father has a special name for this contrarian strategy. He calls it putting a blister on the other guy’s brain. With this strategy, this brutal philosophy, he stamps me for life. He turns me into a boxer with a tennis racket. More, since most tennis players pride themselves on their serve, my father turns me into a counterpuncher – a returner.

Non-fiction books don’t often have ‘themes’ but a couple could be argued for in Open. One is of the people Agassi had around him in his early career who were bad influences or gave bad advice. It forms part of the storytelling aspect of the book that as Agassi grows to know his own mind, to know what he needs and to be confident enough to take responsibility for his own life where it had previously been determined by others, he can begin eliminating the factors that are holding him back. While a lot of this negative influence rubs off on Agassi, as he shows his temper, hustles for money, etc; it is less about placing blame on others than it is about his own maturation and showing the turnaround.

Another is Agassi’s recurring conversation with the reader about how he hates tennis. Can the reader blame him after hearing about his early life?

One area the biography could have given us more is with Agassi’s relationship with his father and early trainer Nick Bolletieri. These are two of the influences on his early life and career that left a lot to be desired. Clearly, Agassi’s relationship with them is complex, but the book mostly leaves things at the surface level. The few times it offered real depth left me wishing for more.

Unlike me, you might not be a fan of Agassi. In either case, Agassi is not afraid to share the information that you may dislike. He openly admits to being petulant, self-destructive, jealous, disrespectful to fans and selfish. The period coinciding, but not completely coincidental, with his relationship with Brooke Shields, was a low one for Agassi with jealous rages, drug use, loss of fitness and form and lashing out at those around him. If you never liked him, he gives you plenty of reasons why.

From there, though, the comeback begins. Now motivated more by charity and life outside and after tennis, Agassi can play with the free spirit that wins results. No longer burdened by pressure and expectation, he becomes philosophical about losing, not overawed at winning and becomes the player that fans best remember and love. For the reader, it also becomes noticeable that he has not mentioned how much he hates tennis for a while. The appeal of his journey is one of the reasons to be a fan of Agassi and to enjoy this book.

Everywhere I go, Parisians rush up and wish me luck. The tournament is the talk of the city. In restaurants and cafes, on the street, they yell my name, kiss my cheek, urge me onward. […] The people, the press, are fascinated by my improbable run. Everyone can identify with it. They see something of themselves in my comeback, in my return from the dead.

Fans of any sport know to expect nothing more than platitudes from sportspeople during their careers. In interviews before and after games they will talk of little else than respecting the opposition, focusing on their own game or doing their best. Real honesty is not an option here and, if you are like me, you ignore these interviews. To mention an ongoing injury, a controversial umpiring decision at a crucial time or distraction from something else going on in their lives, however pervasive they may be, is considered one of the marks of a bad sport. A true sport is supposed to omit this and take the criticism of their game play on the chin.

Reading Agassi’s autobiography you can really feel the conflict of playing this game with the public and you wonder if you could be so gracious. What if your mother and sister both got cancer diagnoses when you are in the middle of a tournament? Could you still smile and say your opponent was just too good today? You don’t really have a choice.

That being said, you can’t know for certain whether something has affected you and to what extent. The difference between an explanation and an excuse can be impossible to determine. Given a long career, by the end of the book the volume of explanations has grown large. If you find yourself becoming a little sceptical about some of them, this just shows another value of the banal platitude.

Some have accused this book as being self-serving. Not just for Agassi’s explanations of his poorer behaviour and his criticisms of others but also for his self-criticism and his admiration of others. Again, it seems you can’t win and offering banal platitudes is the only way to not offend anyone. But who wants to read a book of that? Agassi’s thoughts on his peers – Jim Courier, Pete Sampras and Michael Chang in particular – attracted more attention in reviews than was probably warranted given how little they feature in total. To my reading, Open comes across as being a sincere attempt at an honest introspection. If it lacks objectivity it is probably because it is an autobiography and by definition should not be expected to offer completely detached objectivity.

Open was one of the most enjoyable books I read in the past year. Like my friend, I would strongly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in Tennis or Agassi.

Would it make a good film like the director I heard would like? Hollywood’s penchant for making biographical films is one trend that will not end anytime soon. The Academy’s clear favouritism for them when awarding films and actors means that studios and actors are going to keep producing them. I am admittedly quite fond of them as well, though I’ve grown a little sceptical of them as lasting works as the number of poor or indifferent ones pile up and even the best ones seem to be bent to fit a familiar plot.

Open is a good book with a compelling story. It may be inevitable that it will be made into a film sometime. Best to read it now before Hollywood ruins it.

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