I'm in the War of My Life / At the Core of My Life / Got No Choice But to Fight 'Til It's Done
I've often said (semi-jokingly) that my future children would be tennis and/or soccer prodigies. Put that tennis racket in their hands around the time they start walking. Learn how to kick a soccer ball once they learn how to stand up straight.
But upon reading Andre Agassi's very candid autobiography, Open, I have had a change of heart.
Dear children that don't even have a chance of existing at the moment,
I am sorry. I take it back. I take it all back! You don't have to play a sport unless you want to. You don't need to be a prodigy and turn pro before you hit puberty. Play with your Barbies and Ninja Turtles, please.
I vaguely remember watching tennis in my house while I was growing up. My parents would watch the US Open while I played with my toys. I didn't care for it. Yet I remember Agassi's lion mane of hair, can you believe that? Tell me to think of one tennis moment from the early '90s and Agassi's bleached mullet and acid-washed jean shorts immediately pop into my mind. He's even an icon to my 5-year-old Barbie-playing self.
I must say that Andre Agassi's book Open attracted publicity for all the wrong reasons. The focus should not be on how he wore a wig to hide his baldness in his early 20s, or how he had a problem with crystal meth and lied to the ATP about his failed drug test. Those are the sensationalized aspects that got the attention of the non-tennis fan. But the book is so much more than these these outrageous aspects of his life that require only a few pages (out of 385) to explain.
It's about how a man who detested the life he was forced into eventually came to terms with it. He learned to respect tennis and appreciate all the doors it opened for him. That is what is most striking about the book.
The book begins when he is 7 years old, battling the "dragon," or the tennis ball machine that his father crafted. Mike Agassi undertakes the infamous role of father living vicariously through his child's experiences. Except he takes it to a whole new level. Andre hits thousands of balls a day and is told that he'll hit one million balls a year. "?!?!?" is all I can really say to that. If my parents ever dared to drag me away from the Disney channel or my Skip-It to hit a thousand balls in one day, I can only say that it would not end well. Tears would be shed. Parents would get bitten.
Agassi provides the reader with a thorough and candid look into his life as a tennis player and a human being, tracing back to his childhood and going all the way to his retirement at the 2006 US Open at the age of 36. It's painful and embarrassing to read at times. He's not shy about giving details about his less than perfect family life or the difficult times he faced as a tennis player. He's not afraid to discuss the gritty details about his relationship with his father or to say less than flattering things about his peers in the tennis world. Considered to be a private person, he lets loose about his marriage (and divorce) to Brooke Shields as well the fairytale-esque way he courted Steffi Graf, his wife (soulmate).
While going through the motions, he eventually comes to terms with the path his father chose for him. He spends most of his young life rebelling against tennis and yet it provides him with his name in history books (one of the few male tennis players to win all 4 Grand Slams) and a wife who he cherishes, truly cherishes. The way he talks about Steffi Graf makes you think she can't actually be real. And it's beautiful to read about. He also finds a father figure in Gil Reyes, his trainer, and it's really special to see how their relationship progresses. Agassi has faith in Gil because Gil has faith in Agassi.
His private life provides the most poignant moments in the books, but his tennis life is worth mentioning, too. I enjoyed reading about his rivalries. Everyone thinks that Agassi's biggest rival is Pete Sampras. While that has some truth because you know, they're the top Americans, meeting in slam finals, yada yada, but Boris Becker is his most hated rival. Becker brings the rage out of Agassi. He's out for blood when he plays Becker and you feel it when you're reading the book. I, too, wanted to beat the crap out of Becker with an inside-out forehand and make him weep. Quite ironic how his most hated rival and the love of his life both hail from Germany.
Definitely thought this was a great read. Fine, I'm a tennis fanatic, but I definitely appreciate Agassi much more. I think people who care as much about tennis as they do about the color of their socks can appreciate Agassi's humanity.
I've seen short documentaries on ESPN and the Tennis Channel. I read a lot about his early years as he neared retirement. Now I finally heard it all from him and that makes the difference. He could have let us all believe in the facade he created. He didn't have to tell us about his anguish and heartache, both on and off the court. But he did and I'm grateful for it.
Being separated from your parents from the age of 12 doesn't make a kid's life the funnest life ever. Traveling the world 11 months out of the year isn't as luxurious as we think. Playing tennis isn't the easiest job in the world, even if you're only spending 3 or 4 hours a day in the "office." I didn't truly realize this until I read Agassi's book.
I hope my kids lack hand-eye coordination just like I do so that I don't get any ideas a la Mike Agassi. Barbies and Ninja Turtles, Barbies and Ninja Turtles.
This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Jen's reviews, check out her blog, I Can Read You, You're My Favorite Book.