Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Andre Agassi is Open

The big buzz that greeted the publication of Andre Agassi's autobiography Open last November was that it included his revelation of using crystal meth during his playing career, getting caught in a drug test, and lying his way out of a possibly career-killing suspension.

In my teens and 20's, I followed professional tennis quite a bit. I still watch some of the big tournaments, particularly Wimbledon and the US Open. I remember Agassi's early career, saw how he got lapped by Pete Sampras and other players, remember the "Image is Everything" commercials, the hair, the Las Vegas playboy image. I remember some pretty harsh portraits in places like Sports Illustrated, remember him winning Wimbledon and doing almost nothing else of note for several years, then I remember when he re-emerged from virtual oblivion with a shaved head, a new dedication to fitness, and what seemed to be a brand new game, how he started winning. The latter half of Agassi's career is one of the great second acts in American sports history.

Truthfully, Agassi was never one of my favorite players. I preferred Sampras after his generally emotionless oncourt ways grew on me. I admired Michael Chang's scrappiness and Jim Courier's scruffy affability. And the player I liked most of all was Boris Becker.

But I wanted to read Agassi's bio, and not just because of the stuff about crystal meth (which is actually only a pretty small slice of the book). Something just told me it was going to be an interesting story. I wanted to see how he portrayed his essential rebirth (although he doesn't even consider it as such). I thought maybe there might be some interesting tidbits about other players. I was still curious about his marriage to Brooke Shields. A title like Open has promise -- you've got to figure it's going to be a pretty candid memoir. I guess I wanted to see if he would like up to that promise or wuss out.

Andre Agassi definitely does not wuss out with this book. It's open, all right--there aren't a huge number of nuclear-strength bombshells, aside from the meth revelation, but the overall story he tells, woven from a long and winding journey beginning with the end of his career, leaping back to his youth, and coming full circle, is compelling, at times riveting, engrossing, and one of the best books I've read in quite awhile.

He doesn't destroy other players or reveal anything particularly shocking about them--his description of his relationship with Sampras is interesting, but really more or less what I assumed from the available evidence. He does reveal a surprisingly bitter rivalry with Becker that I didn't know much about, spurred in pretty large part by Agassi's onetime coach, Brad Gilbert. He rails briefly against Chang's sanctimony. But that's about it for other players. And even when he clearly doesn't think much of the player as a person, he always compliments their game when it fits, even Becker's. When he is beaten, he admits to it and doesn't make excuses.

But what really makes the book is this: early on, Agassi writes "I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have."

It might be easy to look upon that revelation with scorn. After all, here's a guy who has lived a luxurious life, become an international star and multimillionaire, lived a life that many millions would envy, thanks to a game that he claims to hate.

To his credit, Agassi tackles that potential scorn head-on. Shortly after he wins Wimbledon in 1992, his first Grand Slam title, and his celebrity hits a new peak, he recounts a meeting with the actor Kevin Costner:

"[Costner] loves sports, follows them avidly, and assumes I do too. I tell him shyly that I don't follow sports. That I don't like them.
How do you mean?
I mean, I don't like sports.
He laughs. You mean besides tennis?
I hate tennis most of all.
Right, right. I guess it's a grind. But you don't actually hate tennis."

Even though the core assertion seems ludicrous, and Costner basically calls him on it, Agassi sticks to it through the rest of the book, through the ups and careening downs of his career, until recounting a turning point in 1997, after flaming out in the first round of a tournament in Stuttgart, Germany:

"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 love that. It seems pretty simple, but it's still so direct, so perfect - open. That's when the book, which I was already enjoying, completely won me over.

There's a lot more to the book, and it's worth reading if you have even a passing interest in sports or tennis. I'm not sure how someone who doesn't follow tennis at all would take it - there are fairly large sections recounting match action that might be tough to follow if you don't understand the archaic scoring of the sport,* but understanding everything that happens in those sections isn't really crucial. You know when Agassi wins and when he loses. And as a story of a guy who lived a public life while privately not really knowing who he was, and who spent a long time finding himself and just as long coming to terms with that search, it's a great read for just about anyone.


* It's really not as complex as it seems - men's matches are best of five sets, sets go to the first player to win at least six games, you have to win by at least two scores in either a game or a set (meaning you can't win a set 6-5), when a player wins while the other is serving it's called a break, and instead of 0,1,2,3,and 4, the points in a player's game score are Love, 15, 30, and 40. There's a bit more, tiebreakers and so forth, but that's the meat of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment