Andre Agassi’s Open

08:58 Tue 17 Aug 2010. Updated: 15:46 17 Aug 2010
[, , , , , ]

I read Agassi’s autobiography during a five-hour layover in Philadelphia airport this weekend, and have to say I was impressed—with the book, not the layover. I had expected it to be of interest mainly for its hardcore tennis content, with some celebrity stuff thrown in, but I found it gripping throughout and was very impressed with Agassi’s voice.

I probably should have expected this, because I’ve been impressed with Agassi’s commentary on matches in the past. Open starts with a gripping account of his preparations for his 2006 US Open match against Marcos Baghdatis, and then jumps to his childhood days playing against “the dragon”, a ball machine modified by his fairly nuts father. Much of the book is about Agassi’s relationship with his father, and his attempting to find himself and his way in the strange and highly stressful world of professional tennis—and his relationship with tennis itself, which he repeatedly states that he hates.

Obivously I’m a tennis fan, but I think this book would be interesting to anyone interested in athletes generally, and perhaps also those interested in celebrity, because Agassi spent a lot of his life in the public eye, and this is one of the themes of the book.

When it came out, much was made of Agassi’s admission of drug (methamphetamine) use and his having lied about it to the ATP. In the course of the narrative, it seems almost like a natural progression to that point from where Agassi was, although I’m curious about whether or not he struggled more with getting away from it than he revealed in the text. Since it obviously wasn’t a performance enhancer, I’m not of the opinion that Agassi should have been punished for its use in any case (just as I think that calls to punish Richard Gasquet for his cocaine ingestion are ridiculous), and in terms of his tennis career I don’t think it was a big deal—although in terms of the arc of his life, it was clearly a low point, and a dangerous one. But I think that the much earlier incident he reveals, in which his father gave him pills, apparently speed, to help his performance in a juniors tournament (acting on the advice of his brother, Agassi lost on purpose and feigned illness to ensure he wasn’t given them again), was much more shocking and worthy of attention, but this didn’t get much media coverage.

Agassi’s father is clearly a piece of work, and I find it quite interesting that Agassi eventually ended up happily married to Steffi Graf, whose father is also in the same mold. One of the most hilarious sections of the book describes the meeting between Emmanuel Agassi and Peter Graf, which would seem unbelievable if I described it here but becomes all too plausible after reading the earlier parts of Open.

Agassi’s recognition that his father’s approach to parenting was, to say the least, flawed, and his marriage to a woman who went through something similar as a child, make more disturbing one of the messages he delivers to the children in the charter school he sets up: respect for authority. While I admire his dedication to trying to help others, and specifically children, and his desire to provide to others the education he feels he lost out on due to his concentration on tennis, it’s sad to see him touting authority and rules as things that are inherently worthy of respect. It’s clear that he’s trying to steer kids away from what he feels were the mistaken acts of rebellion and acting out he performed in his youth, but I really wish he had some more awareness of the dangers of authority, which should be more evident to him given his experiences with his father and his recognition of how he and his siblings suffered under it. My suspicion is that he doesn’t see how school authorities can be just as harmful as family authorities.

Media focus on the book also centered on Agassi’s comments regarding Pete Sampras; Agassi regarded him as “robotic” and as cheap. It doesn’t come across as much of a big deal in the book itself, and I don’t see how people can really criticize Agassi for pointing out Sampras’ lack of charisma, which has always been quite evident. As for the accusation of being “cheap”, I think Agassi included it largely because he was genuinely incredulous that Sampras had such a different attitude; Agassi himself seems quite generous (sure, it’s his autobiography, but given his work to raise money for philanthropic projects and his attitudes throughout the book, this is probably accurate). Further, it seems that one of the ways in which Agassi tried to deal with the pressures of his life was to reach for more connections with more people—possibly as a result of attempting to build a functional family that wasn’t the dysfunctional one he started out with—whereas the impression of Sampras from Open is that Sampras dealt with the pressures in a much more closed-off way; this contrast between them again fits in with how they’ve appeared in other contexts.

Incidentally, Agassi’s respect for Sampras on the tennis court comes across very strongly in the text, and he was also very open about how painful his losses to Sampras were, and he’s honest about how there were times when he felt his own game was at its height and that he was going to beat Sampras—only to fall, again, in another heartbreaking loss where Sampras raised his tennis to a phenomenal level. He writes also about how he would see Sampras suffering, from illness or injury, prior to a match and then be astounded at the way in which he would pull himself together and display no weakness on court.

Agassi also mentions his media clashes with Jim Courier, but one of the best things that Courier said isn’t covered: at one point Courier, possibly after a win over Agassi, stated that he was fed up with comments about Agassi’s “talent”, and pointed out that his wins over Agassi came partly because Courier was willing to spend hours and hours on the practice court, which Agassi at the time wasn’t doing, and that Courier’s willingness and ability to dedicate himself in such a way was also “talent”. Reading about Agassi’s struggles to focus and his torment over his relationship to the game, especially early in his career, underscores that Courier’s point was an excellent one.

I recommend Open, even to those not overtly interested in tennis.

Leave a Reply