Open: An Autobiography

It figured that the most tawdry of the revelations was the one that caught the news media’s eye first.  In a way, it is hard to blame Agassi or the publishers of Open: An Autobiography for excerpting those passages.  After all, with an advance of five million bucks, gotta make it back somehow.   The media also ran with the revelation that Agassi hated tennis and that his father may have given him speed.  However, the tone of most of the reaction to the revelations are your typical kneejerk reactions that media types seem required to have in order to write columns – I wonder how many took the time to read the volume.  The hyperbolic reaction to little tidbits is symptomatic of what society expects from its celebrities – we demand that a guy or gal be “down to earth” and then when a full unvarnished memoir is in fact written, we criticize the demythifying aspects and revelations.

Really, Agassi stood to gain very little from a truly different autobiography – simply stop at the revelations like the ones made above, but sort of skate by as a non entity.  Any non-by-the-numbers revelations could only chip away at whatever he had built mystique-wise.  That would have made Open like every other sports ghostwritten autobiography – essentially a holy book at the altar for this idol.  However, Open is aggressively NOT that autobiography, and as a result it is probably the best (ghostwritten memoir) of its kind in the last God knows how many years.  First of all, Agassi given a huge advance, picked a terrific collaborator in Pulitzer winner JR Moehringer.  Over the year of interviews and shaping and whatnot, Moehringer succeeds in writing the autobiography in the present tense, in a fairly plausible version of Agassi’s voice.  Second, the book avoids cliche, and more strikingly (for a sports book) avoids a lot of pumped up moments.  Agassi not demystifies his career and image, but also smashes the notion of the glamor and mystique of his own life.  Finally, there is Agassi’s own ambivalence about his career but passion about his life – as he explains, his life is not reinvention (the common theme of his rise from 141 to #1) but just personal discovery – he is still figuring things out.

Agassi starts at the beginning of course.  We all know that he had paddles put into his hands at the age of 3 and was raised by his father to fulfill his vision – the American Dream through tennis.  We are reminded of how similar stories have been written about Tiger Woods, and how he has carefully protected his childhood imagery, and how Earl Woods was sainted.  However, Agassi is uncompromising in describing his hatred for the task, his father’s obsession, and for tennis itself.  He was the object of his father’s vision – it was not a vision of his choosing.  He discusses how his father would make him hit thousands of balls from “the dragon”, the tennis ball machine he crafted – how he would pull Agassi out of school to hit, how he had destroyed relationships with his other children over the obsession.  He also includes a funny anecdote about Jim Brown trying to play him, and how much raw talent he had.

The relationship with his father takes up perhaps the first half of the book, rumbling below the surface, if not actually in the foreground.  Mike Agassi, a boxer from Tehran represented his country in the Olympics and then came to the US to chase the American Dream and ended up doing so in Las Vegas.  He had always seen tennis as a way to rise out of relative poverty and it was an unrelenting obsession – that and his competitiveness in general.  As mentioned above, his obsession chewed up Agassi’s older siblings, and it threatened to do the same to Andre, the most talented of the crew.  The early revelations in the media involved him hating his father – which is not really true.  He hates how his father drove him into tennis without a choice, and without affection – but he also highlighted his father’s hopeless devotion to it and his pride (a recollection of his father on the phone after winning Wimbledon was kind of perfect).  The feelings about his father – a tough stage parent – are complicated, and in a way that says more than anything – even if some reviews of the book present it more simplistically.

Really the book more than anything is about steps and missteps by Agassi trying to figure out what he wants and how to escape a life that he did not choose.  Obviously matches are recounted too, but Agassi and Moehringer tend to breeze past some and linger on others – and not the ones one would think.  His obsession with Boris Becker and the defeat at Wimbledon trumps his win over Sampras in 2000 (one of his greatest wins).  However, the book is vigilant in avoiding the normal athlete bio of having climaxes and conflicts around specific matches (aside from some inevitable ones like the 1999 French Open).  For Agassi is a sensitive narrator, who let personal issues with Brooke Shields (portrayed as an archetypal Hollywood sort) get in his way – and was not gifted at overcoming personal adversity on the tennis court (unlike Pete Sampras, this is the essence of Agassi’s complicated compliment of Sampras “lack of need for inspiration”).  When the real triumphs occur, they are personal ones, for things Agassi has figured out about himself and his life – and settling on his relationship with tennis.  Once again, Moehringer’s description of these resolutions are candid and complicated.  Agassi’s biography is messy and neither he nor his writer try to neaten things up.

Open tells a complicated story about a complicated guy who was raised from the start in a life that it took him nearly 30 years to square himself with.  Agassi did not have a straight path (indeed, he still doesn’t) and to his credit, he bares most in the book.  The book might not be a tell-all, and really a true tell all might be 1000 pages.  However, it is a very unvarnished window into the soul of a man who is in the process of figuring things out.  While not all of the revelations are flattering and might make the neat story of his “resurrection” harder to reconcile – that his story is not a plain arc makes the appreciation deeper and more substantive.  You want a book that digs beneath the empty headed cliches of celebrity – this works quite nicely.

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