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As I mentioned in a previous review, I recently found a 4-in-1 set of autobiographies compiled by Readers Digest. It's out-of-print now and was purchased because I liked half the books and was at a good price!
I cannot say that I'm a big fan of Agassi, but I know of his impressive achievements and unfortunately with the number of tennis autobiographies being a little lacking, thought that this might be interesting! It has excellent reviews and one thing that is consistently said about this book is the honesty.
Honesty that includes him talking about wearing a wig during matches to hide his hair loss, how he met Steffi Graf - and whilst I'm here, he doesn't call her Steffi, and much more (but I wouldn't want to spoil it for you!) He adds a lot of humour to the writing that is refreshing and makes duller parts of the book easy to read. It also paints a sad picture of what life can be like for a child when it is the parents pushing and living their dreams out on them, which seems to be the case with Agassi's father. Before reading this book, I wouldn't imagine that such a successful athlete actually grew up loathing tennis because of the training he was put through. It would have been nice for him to talk about his later life since much of it is devoted to what happened up to him getting really successful and calling it a day. The ending finishes on a satisfying note and the book is a bestseller for a reason. I would even say that it is a must-read for tennis fans and gives a lot of insight into the life of a high-performing athlete such as Agassi. You go through many emotions reading this book from sadness for parts of his childhood, to happiness for his triumphs and everything in between. For a more intimate picture, I would recommend this for a first tennis autobiography!
I have always enjoyed watching tennis and been a fan of the sport but in 2012, amid the buzz of the Olympics and Andy Murray's successes, I became a real mega-fan and started following every ATP tournament, attending events and even playing fantasy tennis competitions online! It was during this time I first picked up Andre Agassi's autobiography at my local library. Agassi is a player that was always on my radar when I was a teenager and I often watched his enthralling games on television. As many other people were I was amused and interested by his energetic style, his wild lion's mane hair and his much publicised love life! He was a real character in the sport and a huge success on the court but other than this I didn't know anything at all about him. I was interested to read the book to hear about his experiences of playing the game and what it meant to him. To say that I was very surprised and intrigued by his admissions when I started reading this book is a massive understatement.
The first thing that I noticed when I started reading the book was the amazing writing style. It is written in the style of a drama laden novel rather than that of a factual, chronological biography. I was really impressed by the intelligence and descriptive style of the writing. Whilst the book's sleeve implies Agassi was the sole author here it actually transpires that he had help from writer JR Moehringer who transcribed taped conversations into this marvellous prose.
The book begins at the end of Agassi's career when his body is so exhausted from playing that he can barely get up out of bed in the morning and make it to the shower. The raw descriptions of physical pain really bring to life how much stress tennis players put their bodies through and what the consequences are. It helps a non athlete to really understand how endless training and matches takes a terrible toll on these guys. I loved feeling like I was inside Agassi's head in these early descriptive passages as it really makes you empathise with the man, something I think is necessary to be able to accept some of Agassi's bold confessions in the following chapters.
This biography is filled with amazing confessions that I just never would have imagined of this tennis player in a million years. Silly ones include the fact that his trademark flowing locks were in fact a wig! It might seem daft now but his retelling of the emotional trauma he experienced in feeling like he needed to wear this hair piece is almost tragic. I felt so bad for him when I was reading about it! His admission about this is one of the facts about Agassi that make me feel like his true persona was always concealed. Agassi the man and Agassi the tennis player were two completely different people for a very long time.
More serious confessions include the fact that he took a recreational drug at one point in his career. This is something I was less surprised by as I think drug taking in any sense is probably more common than is publicly discovered. The accounts of Agassi's private life are sometimes a little too revealing to make for comfortable reading. I found the revelations about his wife Brooke Shields to be a little sad and too personal, making me wonder if he now regrets being so open about everything.
The most startling revelation, however, is the fact that Agassi hated tennis. It's a hard fact to actually get your head around at first but then as you read accounts of Agassi's torment in his childhood, pushed to the edge of breakdown by his obsessive father, a rebel forced to conform at a specialist training school, you can appreciate why he might have formed such feelings towards the sport. Saying this, I found it contradictory that Agassi focuses much of the book in retelling intimate moments of tennis matches. These passages are so vivid and detailed that it's difficult to imagine it's being narrated by someone who detests the game. Of course, there is a twist in the tale to this admission, since Agassi's redemption and ability to 'let go' comes at the end of his biography when he talks about his relationship with his wife and family. It's a beautiful, fairy tale ending to an astonishing story.
I thought this book was a really fascinating read and I think it would appeal to anyone, even those who don't enjoy tennis as much. It's far more than the story of a tennis player and his career, that's for certain, it's a story about man, his place among people on this earth and how his spirit responds to that. An excellent autobiography overall.
This review is also on Ciao!
The front cover for this book says it all: Andre Agassi, bearded, looking slightly tired - almost world-weary - straight into the camera, lips slightly parted as though he's about to share a deep dark secret. You get the sense that what's between the covers is going to be incredibly intimate, and you'd be right. It always feels like Agassi is talking to you and only you as he tells you the story of his life, framed by his second round US Open match with Marcos Bagdhatisa at his final US Open.
I've been a tennis fan since I was small - one of my earliest memories is watching my sisters make banners for their trip to Wimbledon when they were teenagers - but the players I always loved were the ones who wore their hearts on their sleeves and fought for every point like they genuinely cared. When I first got into tennis I remember watching matches between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, and I always cheered for Andre. So at some point along the line it was inevitable I'd read his autobiography.
Before I read the book, I (and I suspect many others) knew Agassi mainly for his crazy hairstyles, his 'interesting' dress sense, his marriage to Steffi Graf, his awesome returns and the sheer emotional investment he had in the sport. What I didn't know, and which forms a key thread running through the book, is that he always hated tennis and only played it due to huge pressure from his father. As the youngest of four children, and with three elder siblings who'd all given up the game, all that focus - good and bad - fell on Andre. Consequently, some of the early scenes in the book are heartbreaking; the fear as a nine-year-old Agassi plays a man at the tennis club for his family's savings, the aching loneliness of life at the Bolletieri Tennis Academy where he was sent aged just twelve to hone his game. Several times when reading the book I felt tears coming to my eyes as I went through the pain with him.
When the book was first published, its big controversy was the apparent relevation that Agassi had dabbled in crystal meth and lied to the ATP when he failed a drug test for it. Personally, that's not the big drug controversy to me; that's the scene, early on and glossed over, where a young Andre is warned by his elder brother not to take the speed his father will offer him at the next tournament. In fact, the early part of his life is so shocking that by that point you feel like you can't be shocked any more; even his flamboyant on-court style and bad behaviour just seem sad rather than anything to be appalled by. The crystal meth scene, on the other hand, feels like a moment where a young man who needs an escape has a moment of weakness, but is shocked out of that fantasy world when a terrible tragedy occurs.
But it isn't all doom and gloom. The book's other thread is Steffi (or, as we learn she likes to be called, Stefanie) Graf, who Andre silently adores for years, even through his tumultuous relationship with Brooke Shields, and eventually marries. In contrast to the hatred of tennis, Stefanie acts like a glimpse of hope for Andre, as the one person who seems to truly understand him. The relationship, although it only fully emerges late in the book, seems to be a place where Agassi feels truly able to be himself, and it transforms his game at a time when many of his contemporaries were retiring, as well as making him a much more playful, laid-back person within the relationship. There's also a beautiful sense of coming full circle when, inspired by Stefanie and his children, the ninth grade dropout founds a school for disadvantaged kids; he plays for others, not for himself, and seems to finally hit true maturity in his late 30s. It almost makes me wish Steffi would write a book, I'd love to hear her side of their story (but then I am obsessed with tennis books). The constant presence of Gil, Andre's coach who becomes almost a surrogate father, is also a touchstone throughout the book.
Ultimately, this is a coming of age story; Agassi goes from the young boy forced into a role that his family chose for him, battling his demons on the way to number one, rising and falling and, eventually, rising again as the person he always wanted to be. You'll feel like you've been through the wringer when you read it, but come out the other side feeling uplifted and positive. It's much more about human relationships than it is about tennis, only touching on Agassi's major rivalries despite being mapped out in travel and tournaments (a disjointed style which could frustrate some people, but which I quite like), but it's so good that not being a conventional tennis autobiography means that when you finally have to put it down, you almost don't care
According to the revelations in this extraordinarily good autobiography yours truly and Andre Agassi have a lot in common. He hates tennis, Yup! He fell in love with Steffi Graff, a big yup, and he likes cheesy soft rock, red face yes. Thankfully we don't share the same passion for Crystal Meth, the books most shocking revelation. After just two pages of this you already know you are reading the best sports book of the year. By the first chapter it's already the best book of the decade.
The writing style is mesmeric as it is loquacious and intelligent as you are sucked into Agassi's angst and sulky world like matter into a black hole. If you read the wavers the suggestion is he wrote this book without a ghost but in the final thank you's he confesses to dictation. But whoever put the final full-stop in, this is a fabulous read and Agassi is far more intelligent and interesting than we ever knew. I beg sports fans to read this before they go to their grave. Again it is quite extraordinary, the pages becoming a blur as you race through it. Even if you don't like the sport it's a must. This is a very complex guy that opens up his heart and a sport to anyone who wants to listen.
The book begins at the end of Andre's impressive career, his final game drama in the US Open, a 36-year-old, eight time major winner doubled up in pain in his hotel room, a degenerative back condition from birth called spondylolithesis (a back disc displacement) finally getting the better of his courage, body and mind. It's in the first few paragraphs where we really get to grips with just how much Agassi confesses that he did indeed hate the game and what drove him on to this point of agony and what kind of books is to come. His life was very much like the graceful Swann on the surface but the legs going like crazy under the water to stop him drowning in his own self loathing, depression and contradiction.
"Please let this be over. I'm not ready for this to be over."
(Andre Agassi - 2nd Round 2006 US Open v Marcus Baghdatis)
The little bo-legged kid from Vegas...
The early days of Andre's life reveal the hard working immigrant family and predictable pushy parent, dads drive to make something of his family's lives in America through sport and punishing toil the overpowering dynamic of the book. Dad was an Iranian and double Olympian boxing champion and so weighted down by that vicarious need for his kids to live the life he really wanted in America - that of wealth and sporting recognition in the west. He was also an angry man, ready to put up the dukes at the drop of a hat to any stranger that irked him, which there were many, at one time pointing a gun at some poor truck driver who cut him up at the lights.
They moved to Vegas when the kids were young because dad needed to buy a property big enough to build a tennis court in the backgarden, the desert ideal for cheap space and the isolation needed for his kids punishing regime to come, determined to make champions of them, very much in that Richard Williams method. He would build his own tennis ball machines and fire the yellow-green missile at the kids all day in the searing heat, memories that would haunt Agassi's youngest years and emotions, the point where he really began to hate tennis and because of his dad's tortuous regime on the practice court that would make him the wealthy and revered man he is.
The writing in the book is eloquent and emotive when it comes to that father-son dynamic and really personal as we get to grips with the thoughts in Andres head at this time of the conflicting relationship with dad and tennis. He wanted to please dad but that could only be done on the court, which pulled them apart...'the pain of losing and the pain of playing', as Andre quotes. He describes that schizophrenic relationship with tennis like being in love with a beautiful girl: 'You can't let her go even if you don't love her as somebody else will own it and touch it'. Men always want to own things.
Although his brother and sister were also good players it was Andre who showed the most promise, dad soon hustling locals down the park courts with his prodigy son. At one point he allowed his son to pay a rich businessman for ten grand, dads' life savings!
As a brilliant junior his first defeat was to a nine-year-old Jeff Tarango, no less, the loud mouth American that commentates at Wimbledon, who cheated to win that game by calling the ball out, things like that Andre used as motivation and never forgets and so reaps his revenge later. When dad was 5-2 down to his son in the back garden he refused to finish the set in a huff and they never played again. Its also the first time his dad instructed his son to take 'pills' to help his stamina in tournaments. They turned out to be amphetamines and Andre did as he was told, although he claims not for long.
It's hear in the book we learn that there are tennis genes in the family, not quite the rags to riches story we expected. Dad was a floor manager in the casinos and mixed with people from all walks of life, never nay talk of the Agassi family going short in the book. Dad would also string Jimmy Connors rackets when he was in town and the famous player Poncho Gonzales was married to Andre's older sister.
By Andre's teens he was ready and it was time to dispatch him to the infamous Nick Bolletieri Academy in Florida where he received a rare scholarship. It was here where Andre was toughened up mentally, not a place for homesick kids. He describes the academy as a prison and he is even less complimentary about Bolletieri. He quickly rebelled and soon the Mohican wearing bad boy going nose to nose with Nick. Nick had dad's dollar signs in his eyes and was not going to let this kid fail, whatever stunts he pulled, which were many.
In 1986 at just 16 he turned pro and soon winning, beating the then world number 12 Tim Mayotte in just his third tournament to make the quarter-finals. He chose to take his big brother along as coach and support, a relationship that blossoms in the book for you to join in with. Nike took a like to his big hair and attitude and soon offered him a 25k a year deal, by now Andre and his brother flat broke on the road and so welcome funds. But the form didn't last, embarrassingly beaten in the US Open on a wildcard, Britain's Jeremy Bates no less. Defeats by Lendl and a fading Conner's would soon follow, Lendl dismissing him as a "haircut and a forehand".
Andre would win a tournament for the first time the following year in an invitational event in Brazil, the country falling in love with the showman from Vegas with the frosted mullet and devastating forehand. His first Slam final would be the French in 1990, getting the run around from dirt rat Gomez. Jim Courier and fellow Bolletieri graduate would out slug him in a five setter in the following years French Final.
Its here in the book we delve into the great rivalry between Samprass and Agassi, a seamless progression from the legendary one between McEnroe and Conners in the 1980s. But Samprass would crush Andre in the US Open final in 1990 and the nearest he ever got to beating Pistol Pete in a Slam final.
The Vegas kid was not that keen on Wimbledon and famously commenting that "Grass was for cows". But, ironically, it would be his first Slam win, beating big serving Croat Goran Ivanisevic in the 1992 final, threatening not to wear all white to annoy the snotty organisers. It's also here where his infatuation for Steffi Graff grew; disappointed that he would not get to dance with her at the traditional Champions Ball after she won the Woman's crown. That tender side of the book is surprising that famous people also are shy and romantic with each other.
But, being number one in the world and playing rock n roll tennis and adoring Sports Illustrated magazine and the like it was only right he pair off with the world's most beautiful woman, Brooke Shields, again Agassi somewhat ambiguous on his emotions for her in the book. You can really feel the contradictions by the middle of the book on the real Agassi coming out as he begs you for his sympathy on every page, like a true nonracist and depressive. These guys need to be loved of the court or they just can't deal with the emotional demands of their egos.
"I looked at my warped reflection in the trophy. That was the real me"
(Agassi winning the Miami Dade classic in 1994)
After a big loss of form new coach Brad Gilbert turned him around. Agassi had dropped out of the worlds top 100 by 2000, playing challenger events in local parks where player are expected to be their own ball boys, do the scoring and ignore cat call from the fans. It was an extraordinary fall and rise that saw him become the first unseeded player in the modern to win The US Open, beating the precocious Michael Change in the 2004 Final. 2000 was also the year he decided to reveal his new bald head look after fighting the battle of hair loss, actually wearing hair weaves on the top of the contrived mullet in the early 1990s. Incredibly he almost admits that he nearly lost the semi-finals in the Aussie Open on purpose because he didn't want to face humiliation by Boris Becker in the final, a guy he detests even today, which he lost to in that final. But he would later win a record four Australian Opens and the Olympics (1996) to become only two players ever to win all four Slams and the gold medal, the other being his soon to be wife Steffi Graff, a match made in tennis heaven.
His pursuit of Steffi is rather sweet through out the book and the first time his narcissistic side is softened. I had a huge crush on both Brooke and Steffi back then and can see why his heart raced every time he saw the statuesque ones.
Perhaps the books most startling revelation is the confession to taking crystal meth in 1997, a homemade powerful social drug that destroys families all across America and heading to the UK to a council estate near you soon. More intriguingly was the US Tennis Association let him off the offence after reading his explanation that it was in his 'friend's bottle of beer, the Vegas kids' entourage a colourful bunch. The question now is how many more failed drug tests are the American tennis authorities keeping stuck on? More shockingly we learn in the book that he played 'commando' (no pants) for the whole of the last six years of his career! There is no mention of performance enhancing drugs in the book though. Maybe that will be in Boris Becker's book.
It's fabulous and you will race through the first few chapters as you marvel at the poetic prose and beautiful and intelligent flow to the book. He talks of each grand slam event and the court services like the different seasons or his tennis bag feeling like a sniper going to war. Whoever wrote those lines has a real sense for sports writing. I want to believe its all Andre's words and he does say that English and short stories were his best school subjects but it seems just too good to come from the guy with the Bon Jovi hair.
The middle of the book drags you down with Andre's depression and apathy, by now you part of his life forever more the way great autobiographies can achieve. His troubles are your troubles but magnified one hundred times in different ways, never a guy to have money worries like you and me but suffering the same insecurities that it will all famous people do that it will all go away and they are somehow not worthy of it. Agassi really lets you get into his head here and lays everything bare but his darkest secrets.
This is so good because normal sports autobiographies are ego listings of achievements and the occasional put down of fellow players and managers and so you don't feel you really know the person. Here its mix of everything, Agassi's sulky style over winning somewhat blaze but shows how fragile sports stars are away from the public image, the winning bit isn't easy and takes everything you have and no surprise it becomes part of your moods and psyche off the court. There is no doubt Andre plays down his achievement s out of guilt the way working-class hero's do but he also brings the reader up to his level in a way you believe he has written this book just for you. It's a truly brilliant read and should be sitting next to your towel and sun cream for the beach next week guys...
- - - Records - - -
He won 17 straight games as a teenager, only recently beaten by Nadal
Fastest to $1 million dollar career earnings after just 44 tournaments.
Has won all four Slams and the Olympics, the so-called 'Golden Slam'.
Oldest World number one at 33 years, 13 days
One of only six male pros to win over 800 matches
Highest US money winner behind Samprass
A record 21 US Opens played
Made 4 straight slam finals
4 Australian Opens (level with Federer)
26 Aussie Open wins
127 hard-court wins
Played the most games ever
Played the most sets ever
13 hard-court titles
46 career title wins
13 ATP Tour titles
Sport is all about average people doing amazing things.
When sports people write books, what is most often created is a record of those amazing achievements but written very, very averagely.
Luckily, Andre Agassi doesn't do average.
The winner of eight grand slam titles has had a remarkable career, but the attraction of Agassi is that he is a flawed hero. And he reveals how flawed in Open - an eye opening account of the sacrifice and dedication needed to reach the top of the sport.
Agassi cleverly invoked the aid of Pulitzer prise winning journalist J. R. Moehringer in putting his story together and the results are magnificent. Moehringer refused to take credit for the book, turning down requests to have his name included on the front cover - but his influence is woven tightly into the pages, producing tense, readable prose that will have you hooked from the start.
The main thing that separates this book from the clutch of other sporting autobiographies is the honesty. The title 'Open' is apt, with the reader feeling as if they are taking part in a counselling session but without the intrusion. Agassi lays bare his demons and his honesty is captivating.
The highest recommendation this book can be given is that it is a really good book, not just a good sports book. Even those with no particular interest in the sport will find themselves turning the pages entranced. It is an amazing achievement.