“Open” by Andre Agassi Oct30

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“Open” by Andre Agassi

From Las Vegas, Nevada, Andre Agassi grew up hating tennis. His father obsessed about it. He watched American soldiers play it in Iran as a child and served as a ball boy. He later boxed and never backed down from a fight, once knocking a fellow motorist out cold in a violent act of road rage. He also pointed a handgun at a driver, reaching across the young Andre with it and laughing afterwards, warning his son not to tell his mother. Andre’s father Mike forced Andre to eat, drink, and sleep tennis, even improvising a machine called the Dragon to spit tennis balls at him from on high forcing him to hit harder and earlier. Anyone who plays tennis knows about that horrible bounce that attacks your neck and makes you curse your feet. Mike’s plan was for Andre to hit 2,500 balls in a day which equates to nearly a million in a year. It was all about the tennis. Andre once tried to play soccer; his father appeared on the sideline in a rage and threw Andre’s gear at the coach. He was never allowed play soccer again. It was tennis, tennis, tennis!

Andre Agassi hates tennis. People think he means he hates tennis today. But Agassi repeatedly insists: I hate tennis. The obvious question is, Why play it then? The reason is he can do nothing else because he was never allowed do anything else, like soccer. He knows nothing else. But it wasn’t his choice. His opinion never mattered. His father would have become enraged had Andre ever refused to play.

Then came the rebellion. He wore a mohawk at tennis school and ran away at least once. Nick Bollettieri, his tennis mentor and nemesis for a time, tries to control him and does, for a while, until Agassi realised that Bollettieri needs him; Agassi is his biggest star and even though there are others, like Jim Courier, Agassi is, well, more interesting. While at tennis camp he attends Bradenton Academy where he fails exams and is propped up because the school depends on tennis players from Bollettieri. He has no confidence in a classroom; again, tennis is all he knows or understands.

Gradually, he manages to surround himself with individuals with whom he can connect, like Gil Reyes, a strength coach at the University of Nevada- Las Vegas. It’s the beginning of a bromance that sees Agassi become world number one. His former coach Nick Bollettieri became Boris Becker’s coach; he loses repeatedly; his rivalry with Pete Sampras intensifies; he dates Brooke Shields; he befriends the rich and famous such as Barbra Streisand. What he really wants is to win the big four tournaments in a year like Rod Laver. It’s not about the number of tournaments but which tournaments.

Fame doesn’t do it for him he writes; he depicts it as empty or at best unfulfilling. Yet, there is an insecurity in him all the while that represents a hole that needs filling. He loses matches and suffers devastation. He complains that Brooke Shields doesn’t understand loss; she treats it like a momentary blimp, a temporary condition while for him it is a demon that stalks him. He asserts that the joy of winning isn’t as high as the low of losing; losing wins, in other words. There is this kind of default negativity about Agassi, a discomfort both with himself and with the world. It is perhaps a function of having been made do something religiously that he hates. At one point he writes: “I want the pain that only tennis provides.” When Brooke likens her success as a guest on Friends to winning the US Open, Agassi just feels alienated. His lack of interest in her career could be the counterweight to her lack of interest in his he muses. He storms off set while Brooke is licking Matt Le Blanc’s hand.

It begins to dawn on the reader that Agassi really does hate tennis. It ruins his life for much of the time he played it. He suffers with deep insecurity, is eaten alive by self-doubt, hates himself, behaves in ways he doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to understand. It all comes back to tennis. He realises he’s depressed but can’t discuss it with Brooke because he’s depressed about life in general and not just losing at tennis. He convinces himself he isn’t depressed instead. Then he proposes because, “When is what I want ever a good index of what I should do?” Agassi never really wanted to marry Shields but felt at the time it was right for him. He thought settling down in time was the correct move. Then, one day, Brooke sticks a picture of the perfect woman on the fridge: Steffi Graf.

Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras. Everything in Agassi’s adult life seemed to be connected with one or the other of these two. You feel the presence of the former all through his marriage with Shields and the latter’s all the way along his tennis career, at least in the big leagues. This book comes down to personalities and how they cope with the demands made of them by themselves, their profession, by the media, by nothing obvious.

“Open” is often cited as one of the best sports autobiographies. It’s not for me to comment on that but the book does serve to remind us all of what should be obvious, that behind all the glitz, what Sampras might call “nonsense” and Agassi something else, there are real people with real and often ugly problems but also with a lot of special talent and resolve which is mostly why we are fascinated by them.

R.H.