I started watching tennis in college. I can’t even explain why. Part of the reason was I was trying to understand how the game was played, so I would watch and see if I could figure out the rules. Another reason was watching the final of the 2003 US Open with tennis fans in my sophomore dorm. It’s always more fun to watch any sport with genuine fans, and watching tennis with them gave me a sense of how exciting tennis could actually be. Either way, I found myself becoming a fan of tennis by 2005. I followed Wimbledon very closely that year, and I watched the US Open very carefully that fall. Of course, I was on crutches for the US Open, so it was easy to spend hours sitting in front of the TV.
I state all of this because it was a match in 2005 at the US Open that caused me to fall in love with tennis. It was a quarterfinal match. Oddly enough, I don’t remember any of the details of the match, but I remember my reaction to that match very strongly. I was riveted, in a way that I hadn’t been by sports in almost 10 years. The match went five sets, and went so long that the USA network had to stop airing the match, because of contractual obligations. “Say it ain’t so,” said John McEnroe. As quickly as I could, I changed the channel to CBS, terrified that I might miss a second, where Patrick McEnore (There’s more than one?) was calling the match. I remember thinking that I would gladly stay up all night to see who won the match, and was thankful that I didn’t have an early class the next day. At last, the match was over, and the victor stepped into the center court, blowing kisses to each section of fans. The winner was Andre Agassi.
Andre Agassi’s match with James Blake cemented my love for tennis, so it is perhaps ironic that his autobiography reveals the fact that he hates tennis. Andre begins his autobiography with his memories of his childhood contending with the dreaded dragon, a machine that his father created so that he could mold his son into a tennis champion, his tortuous experience in Nick Bortolli’s tennis academy, and his rebellious image. As the book traces the arc of his career, he carefully portrays the struggles of his career, both on and off the court, with tremendous detail, perhaps even more vividly than his triumphs in tennis. In fact, the book conveys the theme that the ultimate success of Agassi’s career was not in any of his victories or completing a Golden Slam, but the formation of his personality.
The book moves on to show Andre’s early struggles as a tennis player, how he met Gil, his physical trainer and surrogate father, and finally (!) won his first of 8 Grand Slams. Andre’s relationships, both with tennis and with life, remain problematic. The book implies that these early difficulties stem from an incomplete sense of self. Andre is portrayed as emotionally stunted by his early years of abuse and torment. For most of his life, his father and then Nick Bollettieri have decided that he is going to be a champion professional tennis player, and he tries to fit into that hated mold. I found this portrayal as slightly funny, remembering Lynn Barber’s complaint that a tennis player’s personality is now completely created by their marketing teams. She waxed poetic of the days of Agassi, McEnore, and Becker, when they behaved badly, never worried about their public images, and showed the world who they really are. Andre Agassi’s autobiography gives lie to this statement. He certainly behaved very badly at times, even being thrown out of tournaments. However, Agassi makes it very clear that his looks and behavior did not reflect his true personality. In some cases, it was exactly the opposite. Andre Agassi talks about how his famous first look, a long shaggy mullet, was actually a hairpiece! He talks about his interview with Charlie Rose, where he lies so easily about his love of tennis, too afraid to tell the truth.
The book is populated by a colorful cast of characters, some famous, (Brooke Shields, Steffi Graff, Pete Sampras, Nelson Mandela) and some unknown, such as Gil, Andre’s personal trainer, and his friends Perry and JP. Of all the characters, Gil comes across as the most positive. Andre simply cannot stop saying good things about Gil, and portrays himself as completely dependent upon him. One story that bothered me was when Andre and Brooke asked Gil to stand guard of their house overnight when she was receiving stalker letters. I thought, “What about Gil’s family?” Andre asked Gil to make tremendous sacrifices that go well beyond his job as a physical trainer. If Gil is The Giving Tree, then Andre is The Taking Boy. Andre also portrays his close relationship with each of these characters, and the help that they give him throughout his career.
Andre also has a lot to say about other tennis players, and not all of it is positive. Andre recounts how Jimmy Connors is a particularly nasty person, and tells the story of his feud with Boris Becker during the Summer of Revenge. He does not portray Pete Sampras as worse than Jimmy Connors, but he does seem to have a difficult relationship with him. He calls Pete Sampras a bad tipper, and implies that he is a bit one dimensional. Pete can’t appreciate the theater, and seems to live only for tennis. Yet at times, he also envies Pete’s evident happiness and peace with the way he lives. Pete loved tennis; Andre hated it. Pete had little trouble winning his first Grand Slam, and went on to win 13 more. Andre struggled mightily to win his first Grand Slam and “only” won seven more. Furthermore, Andre Agassi’s name is forever tied to Pete Sampras. It would be unfair to say that Agassi played Sallieri to Sampras’ Mozart, since Agassi is also a legend in tennis. However, there is no doubt that Sampras is considered the better player. Perhaps this plays on Andre’s mind more than he can admit.
In addition, perhaps Andre sensed, even then, that Pete did not need to find himself, as Andre did. This is what I sensed when I read Pete Samras’s autobiography earlier in the summer. When another blogger asked me how I would describe his autobiography, I struggled for a few minutes. I finally said, “It is a good and happy book about a good and happy person.” I stand by that description. Pete Samrpas’ most soul searching conclusion is that, “in his heart of hearts,” Andre brought out the best in him. Other than that, there is little doubt about the course in his life. Pete clearly wants to play tennis, does not doubt himself in the way that Andre does, and is never filled with the personal anguish that at times seem to consume Andre. Pete also maintains that he lived a good life in tennis, stating that he never did drugs or chased women. This assertion has a sense of veracity; I find it difficult to doubt him. As a result, Pete Sampras emerges as a very static character. He is very much the same person at the end of his career as he was at the beginning of his career.
One aspect of the autobiography that intrigued me from the very beginning was the fact that the book has no quotation marks when the characters are speaking. I’ve seen this done before, but I wondered what possible reason the book could have for this choice. Indeed, at first I was almost distracted by how the lack of quotation marks made me feel, because I was desperately trying to figure out the effect that this choice. I finally decided that the lack of quotation marks does two things. First of all, it implies that the lines of dialogue are approximations of what was said, rather than exact quotes. Second of all, it leads to a little bit of confusion over who is saying what. I decided that the purpose of this conceit is that it conveys the idea that the people, ideas, and events in this book are the impressions of the narrator. In a way, I know nothing about Brooke Shields, but I know what Andre Agassi thinks about Brooke Shields. In the same way, I know nothing about Gil, but I know what Andre Agassi thinks about Gil.
The book also expresses the passion that Andre has for the great loves of his life; his charter school and Steffi Graff. Andre writes about how he hated school and dropped out in the ninth grade. This action seemed to be a double edged sword. At the time, Andre hated school, and bullied Nick into letting him drop out of school. Since Nick had been a tyrant to Andre for most of his time at the academy, this act allowed Andre to feel some degree of control over his life at the time, and an opportunity to stand up to the bullies in his life. However, dropping out of school also trapped him into pursuing a career in professional tennis, which he hated, because his lack of schooling left him with no other options. As he matured, he becomes enamored with the idea of helping others, and wants to found a charter school to help the poor children living in Las Vegas. This becomes a great drive in his life, and the book ends with an eloquent description of Agassi Prep Academy. His second great love, according to the book, is Stephanie Graff, one of the greatest women tennis players in history. The book portrays Agassi as pining for Stephanie for years, even as he pursued relationships with other women, including a marriage to Brooke Shields. Agassi’s fumbling attempts at courtship are recounted hilariously, especially a shared practice session. The book also portrays Brad Gilbert as having an active role in encouraging their relationship; at times, it seems he spent just as much time coaching Andre’s love life as he did coaching his tennis. Stephanie Graff also seems to have a controlling (alright I’ll say it, crazy!) father, and the story of Mr. Graff meeting Agassi’s father is very funny, in a frustrating way. The book ends by recounting a match between Stephanie and Andre, “with nothing but pride on the line.” The ending is poignant, because it shows Andre as fully formed, and largely at peace with his life. He plays tennis with Stephanie, enjoying the game he professes to hate.
The book is very eager to show Andre’s life story as a transformation, or as the book states, a formation. Clearly Andre and his ghostwriter want to portray Andre’s life and career in tennis as a desperate, and at times erratic, search for his own identity. As a result, the writer is able to use the life story of Andre to create a fascinating, cohesive narrative, and to create a complex character. Open successfully portrays Andre’s search for a sense of self, and celebrates his self discovery as his greatest triumph.