Saturday, January 02, 2010

Open and shut


My admiration for Andre Agassi's autobiography Open has been previously documented. After I read the book, I wandered around the web collecting reviews from various writers more accomplished than I. Here are some of the ones that resonated with me:

a) First up, Prem Panicker (formerly of Rediff, now at Yahoo India) reaches back into his own past and finds parallels with Agassi.
And the players: a constant, dazzling parade on the other side of the net of some of the greatest names of the age. What we often tend to lose sight of is that in a career that spans 1986-2006, Agassi has storied players fade and fresh talent emerge. He has battled McEnroe, Lendl, Edberg, Connors and Becker [the latter two he treats with undisguised contempt]; he has seen the likes of Courier and Wilander emerge, soar and ebb; he has seen the metamorphosis of Pete Sampras from a ‘no talent’ tyro to his arch-nemesis [“I wish I could emulate his spectacular lack of inspiration, and his peculiar lack of need for inspiration,” Agassi says in one of the many cathartic moments in the book]; he has played against and outlasted the greatest names of two decades and, in his twilight years, seen the emergence of Roger Federer, the player who he names, against the backdrop of their first meeting, as the one destined to be the greatest ever.

Those names, and Agassi’s photographic memory for match detail, drive large sections of the book and provide unmatched insight into what goes on in the mind of a player as he battles back from the edge.

But it is his personal journey – from traumatized boy to troubled teen; from precocious talent to chronic under-achiever; from the ‘Image is Everything’ parody to the dignified champion who, in his last hurrah at the 2006 US Open, made fans weep the bitter tears of personal loss – that gives the book its cutting edge
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b) Agassi and Steffi Graf talked to Rebecca Johnson of Vogue about their love for each other and their life together.
Open expertly captures the profoundly stressful job of professional tennis player, but nobody who hasn’t lived it can ever truly understand what it does to a person’s psyche. “I am surprised when people ask me about the ‘glamorous’ tennis life,” Graf says, “because it is really a demanding sport. You’re traveling twelve months a year, with no off-season. You have a coach and maybe a parent traveling with you, but there is limited opportunity for friends. It never stops. It’s not cruel”—Graf hesitates, searching for the right word—“but it’s excruciating.” Agassi agrees. “Emotionally, physically, mentally, it is so demanding. ‘Rest’ is the real example of what a grind it is. When you’re not playing, you have to just sit there and do nothing. You can’t go out in the sun; you can’t go out and do anything, because you are in training. I used to think I was moody, but then, after I retired, I realized, I’m not moody. It’s tennis that’s moody.”
c) The New York Times' review by Sam Tanenhaus is more along the same lines.
The result is not just a first-rate sports memoir but a genuine bildungsroman, darkly funny yet also anguished and soulful. It confirms what Agassi’s admirers sensed from the outset, that this showboat, with his garish costumes and presumed fatuity, was not clamoring for attention but rather conducting a struggle to wrest some semblance of selfhood from the sport that threatened to devour him.
d) The Globe and Mail recruited Alex Pugsley to review the book. The review gives a good glimpse into the narrative of the book itself but not much more than that.
So after 30 years, after 1,000 matches, eight slams, 60 titles and an Olympic gold metal, the contradictions come full circle. The kid who dropped out of school at 14 now operates a charter school for hundreds of at-risk children in Las Vegas. Earlier this year, the institution celebrated its first graduating class. Regardless of underpants and wigs and failed drug tests, that's an exceptional achievement – and a capping legacy for one of America's quintessential celebrity athletes.
e) Michael Mewshaw, for the Washington Post, references the mafia and Charles Dickens in a well-written piece.
While not without excitement, Agassi's comeback to No. 1 is less uplifting than his sheer survival, his emotional resilience and his good humor in the face of the luckless cards he was often dealt. In the end he made some inspired choices, not simply by marrying Steffi Graf, starting a charitable foundation for the education of poor children and finding a terrific ghostwriter in J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize winner, but also by refusing to put pressure on his kids to play tennis.
f) Jay Mariotti takes the issue of Agassi's admission of crystal meth usage as the central point of the review and admires him for his candor.
When a sports celebrity writes a book, it's too often filled with self-serving pap intended to enhance an image. Agassi's book brought him down, something I've rarely seen in sports publishing. He wants us to feel compassion for his previous troubles, which seems a fair request. Substance abuse is not cheating in the same vein as steroids use. Early in his career, he was a young man finding his way through depression and stardom. His story sounds familiar to that of Jennifer Capriati, who rose to prominence in his early teens before turning to drugs. During her rousing comeback, we cheered for her. Didn't Agassi follow a similar career path? I suppose we could criticize him for not coming out earlier, when he was still active as a player and wasn't selling a book. But that's what memoirs are -- telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. "If you're going to tell your story, you owe it to yourself to tell it honestly," Agassi said.

"Especially if you're going to call it 'Open.' ''

g) Of course, it would be remiss of me if I did not link to a review that absolutely slams the book. Janet Maslin of the New York Times painfully recounts all the (to her) cringe-inducing moments in the book. I guess not everyone was "taken in" by Agassi's early assertion that this was a chronological representation of his world from his point of view.
Welcome to Mr. Agassi’s world. As described in “Open” it is lively but narrow, since Mr. Agassi’s curiosity does not extend far beyond tennis, more tennis, the misery of tennis, the way sportswriters misunderstand tennis and the irritating celebrity that tennis stardom confers. The biggest extracurricular events in Mr. Agassi’s life have been prompted by episodes of “60 Minutes” (one of which inspired him to open a charter school for at-risk children) and by friends’ predictions about which women he would meet, court and marry.

(Longines 2009)

7 comments:

Tifosi Guy said...

Greetings mate !

My one slight grouse when I read the 'Open ' was how, fariy tale like everything goes right for him. Some take longer than others, but everything he tried, it just seemed to work for him.

Doesn't quite happen to rest of us, so maybe I'm just way too cynical :-)

Jaunty Quicksand said...

Greetings, TG!

If "Open had been a tale of fiction, I would certainly agree with your assertion that like a Hindi movie, all the pieces fell into place.

But Agassi's life is a matter of public record. We KNOW that he did come back from #141 to bookend his career with a stirring comeback, 5 Grand Slams, the #1 ranking, and a showdown with Federer in a US Open final. We do KNOW that his school is doing fabulously well and that he is indeed married to a beatiful, successful fellow tennis star, the best player of her generation. So I have no problem with that fairly tale.

The goshdarnit-he-does-love-tennis ending in the rain was about the only saccharine part to me. (And the reluctance to talk about what happened between him and his friend/business partner).

In the end, Agassi parlayed his exceptional gift - to be able to spot and hit a fast-moving ball - into the success he is today. But contrary to popular opinion, the years when he seemed to be enjoying himself - fast cars, fast life, Hollywood wife - were the ones that were agonizing. Perversely, he actually was happier when he was at the bottom of the rung and only hard work could bring him back. And he did.

THAT, to me, is the inspirational part of the narrative. My brother brought back a copy of Tennis magazine from 1988 with Agassi featured in it before he became the global icon. Ever since then I followed his career as closely as anyone else and the autobiography was eye-opening for me with regards to all the turmoil that was in his life (and mind).

Tifosi Guy said...

Fair points you've raised. True his records and his charity work is there for all to see. So I really can't be too cynical about it.

I've admired his coming back from the mid 140's ranking to become the best. However since he had the wood on Becker, I wasn't his fan :-)

All said and done though, Open is thus far the best sports autobiography I've read.

Jaunty Quicksand said...

TG, true, this is the best sports autobiography I have read, too. Too many of them are just a repetition of matches played, results, and fluffy stories. This was atypical and (in many places) brutally honest.

Considering you are a Becker-phile, how did you feel about Agassi's (dis)regard for him. Becker and Jimmy Connors suffer the most brutal assessments from Andre, don't they? That's Agassi's opinion of them and they are just as free to slam him back in a book of their own, too. :-)

Tifosi Guy said...

The fact that he didn't sugar coat his autobiography is what made it such a good read. Was surprising to read of his deep disregard for Becker. I couldn't care much about Connors as he was before my time watching tennis.

Also the humorous statement that comes up so often - it always is Pete :-)

And that admission of wearing a wig - priceless !!!!

I guess having decided to title his book Open - he had to be that. Albeit he doesn't quite reveal how he dealt with his meth addiction. Which I found a bit disappointing.

Jaunty Quicksand said...

TG, there were a few cases where he was not truly open. One was in discussing how he overcame the addiction. Even if it was as simple as saying No! to it, then it would have been nice to know that. Along those lines, Slim, the guy who gives him a taste of crystal meth, then conveniently disappears from the scene.

Second, his friend/business partner is mentioned prominently in the fist third and becomes a footnote by the end.

Apart from those (very minor) grouses, it was an honest and very revealing book.

I especially liked the snippets he had regarding Ramesh Krishnan (who was the first person to beat him after he turned pro, and that too in the final of a tournament) and Leander Paes.

The wig thing did not surprise me. When he won Wimbledon, I very clearly remember thinking that the guy was breaking protocol by not taking off his hat in front of royalty and immediately suspected that he was hiding a balding pate. When he came back with his head shaved, I was not in the least bit surprised. (Just like Steffi, it didn't matter to me one bit if he had hair or not. :-)

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