Saturday, January 2, 2010

On the Coffee Table: Andre Agassi

Over our holiday travels, I whipped through Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi fairly quickly. It is rare for me to find a book which I devour so enthusiastically. My admiration for the book goes well beyond the subject matter. Agassi and his ghost writer, J.R. Moehringer, did a very nice job of compiling a highly engrossing book. The present tense takes a little getting used to but I think it ultimately helps to draw the reader into the emotional moment.

Now, full disclosure: Andre Agassi was never my favorite tennis player. In fact, I think it's fair to say that I rooted against him in almost every match I ever watched him play. Early on, I bought into the style over substance portrayal and always preferred Sampras's walk softly and carry a nasty cross-court forehand approach to the game. Even in reading the book, I rooted for Sampras in their matches and bristled at Agassi's criticisms of Pete. I almost feel as if I should read Sampras's book out of loyalty.

Off the court, it's a different story. I'm not sure there's an athlete in the world more worthy of admiration than Agassi. The man built a charter school, for crying out loud. By the time of his retirement, he was donating $10 million a year to charitable causes, twice as much as Lance Armstrong, the next most generous athlete. He's also the best color commentator on Earth. Whenever he stops in the broadcast booth to share his thoughts on tennis, I always come away with a greater understanding of the sport. No one else even comes close, in my mind - in any sport.

All of the shocking revelations in the book had lost impact by the time I actually got around to reading it. The crystal meth admission, in particular, has gotten plenty of press in the tennis world. I would never advocate for illegal drug use but I really don't feel Agassi's use and subsequent cover-up are so unforgivable. Everyone's got skeletons in the closet. Just look at how quickly and completely Tiger Woods has lost his halo. Federer and Nadal sure have beautiful images these days but it seems inevitable that something will come out someday. Would it be better for tennis if Agassi had never sinned? Of course. But I really like what he said in his NPR interview, that the aim in testing players for recreational drugs should not be to punish but to help them. Performance enhancing chemicals are another matter but nobody's going to play better with a meth or coke habit. If tennis wants to maintain a clean image, fine, but then take some responsibility for addressing addiction as a medical issue.

I feel that the most troubling revelation of the book is his admission - on the first page, no less - that he hates tennis. This hatred is, in many ways, the central theme of the book. Andre Agassi is, by any measure, a tennis grandmaster and yet he makes it very clear that this career was chosen for him by his abusive, tyrannical father. Andre has been held captive by his gift essentially from birth.

One does wonder how many professional athletes feel the same way. I am reminded of an exchange in Searching for Bobby Fischer:

Bonnie: How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their fathers' love every time they come up to the plate?

Fred: All of them!

It's hard to feel too sorry for Agassi over the long run. In addition to bringing him considerable wealth and fame, tennis has brought him to the extraordinary people with whom he has shared his life. Indeed, the great eureka moment of the book is when he finally comes to the realization that most people hate their jobs but they do them anyway because they must.

Agassi is often uncharitable towards his rivals, which can be difficult to read. I suppose it's to be expected in an individual sport but calling out Sampras for being a lousy tipper is rather petty. And Pete got off easy compared to some. Michael Chang, Boris Becker and Jimmy Connors all get slammed pretty hard. This is offset by his reverence for others: Federer and Nadal, certainly, and even Sampras earns some praise over the years.

Of course, Agassi's favorite player is his own wife. The chapter on his courting of Steffi Graf is worth reading on its own - I made my wife read that part as soon as I finished the book. They really do seem meant for each other. I will be genuinely upset if the two of them ever split.

I recommend the book very highly. It's a good read even if you're not a sports fan, I expect.

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