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Bob's Book Reviews: Agassi's 'Open'

Posted June 2, 2015

This week Bob reviews Andre Agassi's Open: An Autobiography.

The No. 1 bestseller takes page turners center court (and behind the Agassi dark curtain) for a read that aces the sports book genre.

Insightful and candid, this detailed account of Agassi’s life – the overbearing father, the hated Bollettieri tennis boot camp, Agassi’s teenage rebellion, the injuries, the wins and the losses, the blood, sweat and tears (muscles, tendons, etc.), the bad marriage to Brook Shields – is somehow (perception not being reality) fueled by the simple fact that all the while this Rock-Star/tennis icon, a child who eventually grew up to be the No. 1 player in the world . . . hated tennis!

Therein you’ll find Agassi’s unlikely story.

Agassi plays both sides of the net in his compelling autobiography.

One side is like eavesdropping as he talks openly as though we were his psychiatrist and on the other side of this net he’s caught in, well we feel the pain of a professional tennis player—the rigors of travel, the drugs, the incredible exercise regimen, the challenges of competition, his hate for some of the competitors, the shaved head that replaces a vanity hairpiece, and finally the pressure, in the end, to win which for Agassi comes with highs that aren’t nearly as high as the lows that follow losing.

What makes this work so well—discreetly dealing with the issues of sex, drugs and the crazy money—is simply this: Agassi ties the two sides of his life together—the mental anguish and the baggage that comes with professional tennis.

In the end he manages to get a grip on things, marries the perfect wife in Stefanie Graf, a 22-Grand Slam Winner. And through values learned he retires to a loving family (two beautiful children) and his personally funded $40 million Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy—all with new-found appreciation for love, discipline, respect and education.

In OPEN we see Andre grow as an athlete and as a person.

Although J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, modestly refused to put his name on the book, calling it “Andre’s story,” Agassi credits his collaborator (with great generosity) as the two of them worked tirelessly for several years to give this well-told story a key ingredient—structure and readability.

Not just for tennis fans, readers in general will enjoy the hard-fought odyssey and all the characters who move the story along to its Grand Slam fitting conclusion:

Here’s how OPEN opens:

The dilemma: “I’m seven years old, talking to myself, because I’m scared, and because I’m the only person who listens to me. Under my breath I whisper: Just quit, Andre, give up. Put down your racquet and walk off this court, right now. Go into the house and get something good to eat. Play with Rita, Philly, or Tami (his siblings). Sit with Mom while she knits or does her jigsaw puzzle. Doesn’t that sound nice? Wouldn’t that feel like heaven, Andre? To just quit. To never play tennis again?”

But I can’t. Not only would my father chase me around the house with my racket, but something in my gut, some deep unseen muscle, won’t let me. I hate tennis, hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing, keep hitting all morning, and all afternoon, because I have no choice. No matter how much I want to stop, I don’t. I keep begging myself to stop, and I keep playing, and this gap, this contradiction between what I want to do and what I actually do, feels like the core of my life.”

The characters:

The father (an immigrant from Iran, who boxed in the Olympics and lost) refuses to let Andre be a loser. Here Andre faces the Dragon, a fearsome ball firing machine, machined by his father to develop the kid who he says, WILL BE THE BEST PLAYER IN THE WORLD): “My father yells everything twice , sometimes three times, sometimes ten. Harder, he says harder. But what’s the use? No matter how hard I hit a ball, no matter how early, the ball comes back. Every ball I send across the net joins the thousands that already cover the court. Not hundreds. Thousands. They roll toward me in perpetual waves. I have no room to turn, to step, to pivot. I can’t move without stepping on a ball—and yet I can’t step on a ball because my father won’t bear it. Step on one of my father’s tennis balls and he’ll howl as if you stepped on his eyeball.

“My father says that if I hit 2,500 balls each day, I’ll hit 17,500 balls each week, and at the end of one year I’ll have hit nearly one million balls. He believes in math. Numbers, he says, don’t lie. A child who hits one million balls each year will be unbeatable.”

The mother: “Part of me feels grateful for my mother’s endless calm. Part of me, however, a part I don’t like to acknowledge, feels betrayed by it. Calm sometimes means weak. She never steps in. She never fights back. She never throws herself between the kids and my father. She should tell him to back off, that tennis isn’t life.

But it’s not her nature. My father disturbs the peace, my mother keeps it. Every morning she goes to the office—she works for the State of Nevada—in her sensible pantsuit, and every night she comes home at six, bone tired, and not uttering one word of complaint. With her last speck of energy she cooks dinner. Then she lies down with her pets and a book, or her favorite: jigsaw puzzle.”

The brother: (Philly the beloved brother whom he shares a room, an overbearing father, and a lifetime friendship). “Philly didn’t have the killer instinct (as a player). My father says this about Philly all the time. He says it to me, to Mom, to Philly—-right to his face. Philly just shrugs, which seems to prove that Philly doesn’t have the killer instinct. But my father says worse things to Philly. You’re a born loser, he says. You’re right, Philly says in a sorrowful tone. I am a born loser. I was born a loser.

You are! You feel sorry for your opponent! You don’t care about being the best!

Philly doesn’t bother to deny it. He plays well, he has talent, but he just isn’t a perfectionist, and perfection isn’t the goal in our house, it’s the law. If you’re not perfect, you’re a loser. A born loser.

My father decided Philly was a born loser when Philly was about my age, playing in the nationals. Philly didn’t just lose; he didn’t argue when his opponents cheated him, which made my father turn bright red and scream curses in Assyrian from the bleachers.”

The lifelong friend: “In Perry, I have a friend with whom I can share these deep thoughts, a friend I can tell about the Winchell’s locks in my life. I talk to Perry about playing tennis, despite hating tennis. Hating school, despite enjoying books. Feeling lucky to have Philly, despite his streak of bad luck. Perry listens, patient as Philly, but more involved. Perry doesn’t just talk, then listen, then nod. He converses. He analyzes, strategizes, spitballs, helps me come up with a plan to make things better. When I tell Perry my problems, they sound jumbled and asinine at first, but Perry has a way of rearranging them, making them sound logical, which feels like the first step of making them solvable. I feel as if I’ve been on a desert island, with no one to talk to but the palm trees, and now a thoughtful, sensitive, like-minded castaway—albeit with a stupid player on his shirt—has come stumbling ashore.

The Bollettieri Tennis Academy (when Agassi’s father thinks he personally has no more to offer this tennis prodigy he packs him off to the camp of one of the world’s great tennis gurus, a man whose boot camp and Bollettieri, the camp’s namesake, the teenaged Agassi grows to hate). “People like to call the Bollettieri Academy a boot camp, but it’s really a glorified prison camp. And not all that glorified.

“Within days I get my first glimpse of the warden, founder, and owner of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. He’s fifty something, but looks 250 because tanning is one of his obsessions, along with tennis and getting married. (He’s got five or six ex-wives, no one is quite sure.) He’s soaked up so much sun, baked himself so deeply beneath so many ultraviolet lamps, he’s permanently altered his pigmentation. The one portion of his face that isn’t the color of beef jerky is his mustache, a black, meticulously trimmed quasi-goatee, only without the chin hairs it looks like a permanent frown. I seen Nick striding across the compound, an angry red man in wraparound shades, berating someone who jogs alongside, trying to keep pace, I pray that I never have to deal with Nick directly. I watch as he slides into a red Ferrari and zooms away, leaving a dorsal fin of dust in his wake. . . ..

A boy tells me it’s our job to keep Nick’s four sports cars washed and polished.

Our job? That’s b---.

Tell it to the Judge.

The Camp Master: “I ask some of the older boys, some of the veterans, about Nick. Who is he? What makes him tick? They say he’s hustler, a guy who makes a very nice living of tennis, but he doesn’t love the game or even know it all that well.”

The beloved trainer and father-figure: (Gil, the man and soul mate who builds the body that enables Agassi to kill the tour’s dragons and win those eight Grand Slams):

“In January 1990 I ask Gil if he would do me the great honor of working with me, traveling with me, training me. “

Gil: Leave my job here at UNLF?”

Agassi: Yes

Gil: But I don’t know anything about tennis.

Agassi: Don’t worry, I don’t either.

He laughs.

Agassi: “Gil, I think I can accomplish a lot. I think I can do—Things. But after our short time together, I’m reasonably certain that I can only do them with your help.

He doesn’t need a hard sell. Yes, he says. I would like to work with you. He doesn’t ask how much I’ll pay him. He doesn’t mention the word money. He says he’s known it almost from the day we mat (at UNLV). He says I have a destiny. He says I’m like Lancelot.

Who’s that?

Gil: Sir Lancelot. You know, King Arthur. Knights of the Round Table. Lancelot was Arthur’s greatest knight.

Agassi: Did he kill dragons?

Gil: Every knight kills dragons.

“Gil likes to yell at me when I’m working out, but it’s nothing like my father’s yelling. Gil yells love. If I’m trying to set a new personal best, if I’m preparing to lift more than I’ve even lifted, he stands in the back ground and yells, Come one Andre! Let’s go! Big Thunder! His yelling makes my heart club against my ribs. Then, for an added dash of inspiration, he’ll sometimes tell me to step aside and he’ll lift his personal best 50 pounds. It’s an awesome sight to see a man put that much iron above his chest, and it always makes me think that anything is possible. How beautiful to dream. But dreams, I tell Gil, in one of our quiet moments, are so damned tiring.

He laughs.”

The competition (Pete Sampras, who like in the Borg/Conners rivalry plays the dragon that Agassi just couldn’t quite kill. Although they weren’t hated rivals just rivals.  “As the 2003 U.S. Open gets underway, Pete announces his retirement. He stops several times during his news conference to collect himself. I find myself deeply affected as well. Our rivalry has been one of the loadstars of my career. Losing to Pete has caused me enormous pain, but in the long run it’s also made me more resilient. If I ’d beaten Pete more often, or if he’d come along in a different generation, I’d have a better record, and I might go down as a better player, but I’d be less.

For hours after Pete’s news conference I feel a sharp loneliness, I’m the last one standing. I’m the last American slam winner still playing. I tell reporters: that you sort of expect to leave the dance with the ones you came with. Then I realize this is the wrong analogy, because I’m not leaving the dance—they are, I’m still dancing.”

The wife, soul mate and savior: (Agassi’s thoughts, albeit a bit flowery, as he introduces Stefanie at her induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.) “I look out over the crowd, the fans of former champions, and I want to tell them about Stefanie. I want them to know what I know. I compare her to artisans and craftsmen who built the great medieval cathedrals: they didn’t curtail their perfectionism when building the roof or the cellar or other unseen parts of the cathedrals. They were perfectionists about every crevice and invisible corner—and that’s Stefanie. And yet also she’s a cathedral, a monument to perfection. I spend five minutes extolling her work ethic, her dignity, her legacy, her strength, her grace. In closing, I utter the truest thing I’ve ever said about her. Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce you to the greatest person I have ever known.

The retirement: (He speaks here to the fans after his final match at the 2006 U.S. Open). “The scoreboard said that I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what I have found. Over the last twenty–one years I have found loyalty: You have pulled for me on the court, and also in life. I have found inspiration: You have willed me to succeed, sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I have found generosity: You have given me your shoulders to stand on, to reach for my dreams—dreams I could have never reached without you. Over the last twenty-one years I have found you, and I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life.”

So open OPEN, the guess here is that you’ll be hooked until it’s game, set, and match!

Bob Cairns runs the site "Page Turners from the Past," a website devoted to bringing readers reviews of older books that deserve a good dusting off! His reviews are featured once a month on WRAL.com.


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