Saturday, 1 January 2011

Open: the autobiography of Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi was castigated for taking part in an ad campaign with the tag line, Image is Everything. In his autobiography (ghost written by the Pulitzer prize winning, J.R. Moehringer), Open, Agassi goes behind his own image and that of tennis to provide a candid account of his life on the circuit. This is a confessional account that gives as much space to his lost childhood and his bullying, unloving father as it does to cataloguing the victories and losses of the tennis matches he played.

All this is recounted with an emotional honesty that at times is almost too painful to read. This is partly because tennis has such a “clean” image and the reality for this tennis player, at any rate, was less then clean. In this book it is as if Agassi is unpicking the scabs of old psychic wounds. He reveals with remarkable candour and humour all that was retarded and dishonest in himself as he struggles to establish an authentic identity that is more than just a public or sponsorship image. Such self-analysis is not uncommon in the modern biography, but for a major sportsman to do this makes for a landmark sporting text.

The leitmotif that runs throughout this book is I hate tennis. Agassi is not bluffing. He means it. He hated tennis but like an abusive lover, he kept going back to it and could not give it up. The hatred began at an early age. As a child, he was forced to spend hours every day hitting balls being fired from a customised machine, the dragon, while his father barked, harder, harder. Mike Agassi is the destructive influence that disfigures his son’s whole life. This father turned a little boy with talent into someone so psychologically damaged that Agassi would spend the majority of his life loathing himself or making failed attempts to piece together, like one of his mother's jigsaw puzzles, some sense of who he was. At a turning point in his failing professional career, Agassi reflects with a raw honesty:

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.

This search for some sort of self respect could have turned this autobiography into another Oprah book of the week. In a famous 1994 article written by Martin Amis for the New Yorker, Amis derides the idea of the need for “personalities” in tennis, such as Nastase and Connors. He acerbically comments that “personality” is “an exact synonym of a seven letter duosyllable starting with “a”, ending with “e” (and also featuring, in order of appearance, an “ss”, an “h”, an “o” and “l”)”. But it is the anguish and hard-won self understanding that makes Agassi’s search for selfhood so compelling. His peers may have considered Agassi an “asshole”, but Agassi was simply a damaged mutant trying to find a true reflection of himself in a world he didn't understand. At the heart of this search is Agassi’s primitive instinct that love is a central element in the composition of any being. Love is the illuminating feature that distinguishes someone from being a self-preoccupied egomaniac and being a person.

She (the actress, Brooke Shields) laughs. You don’t actually hate tennis.
But you don’t hate hate it.
I do. I hate it.
We talk about our travels, our favourite foods, music, movies. We bond over one recent movie, Shadowlands, the story of the British writer C.S.Lewis. I tell Brooke that the movie struck a chord with me. There was Lewis’s close relationship with his brother. There was his sheltered life, walled off from the world. There was his fear of risk and the pain of love. But then one singularly brave woman makes him see that pain is the price of being human, and well worth it. In the end Lewis tells his students: Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. He tells them: We are like blocks of stone...The blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much, are what makes us perfect.

The war of attrition that the ATP tour became for Agassi was also the place where he played some great, physically bruising tennis. Open captures these matches with an economical vividness and shows how a match could turn on a point or be lost due to poor split-second decision-making. We feel the sweaty rivalry between Agassi and his nemesis, “pistol” Pete Sampras – a rivalry that also had a deep seam of mutual respect. However, Agassi’s deepest, bitterest rivalry was with Boris Becker, who in Agassi’s view “tries to come off as an intellectual, when he’s just an overgrown farmboy.” There is a brilliant recreation of the 1995 grudge match at the US Open semi where Becker starts blowing kisses to Brooke Shields in Agassi’s box. But Agassi has spotted Becker’s tell-tale serving weakness: “Just before he tosses the ball, Becker sticks out his tongue and it points like a tiny red arrow to where he’s aiming.” Insider details such as these provide the reader with enormous pleasure and provide Agassi’s account of his career with a unique, multi-layered texture.

Much has been made about the lurid drug revelations in Open, but the real revelation is that a sportsman like Agassi admits to being profoundly messed-up by his past and by the sport that continually threatened to destroy him. Neither his past or his tennis did destroy Agassi and the man who emerges victorious from this book is much more than just an image.

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