This one was on my reading list for a long, long time. Not only am I a huge tennis nut in general, but I was also a huge Agassi fan back in the day. You know, when he had the long flowing locks and such. Had the poster on the wall, the works. I even stopped watching tennis for a bit in the 90s because I couldn’t take the simian Sampras’ dominance over him and the tour. It’s really quite ironical that what brought me back to tennis was the even more dominant Roger Federer… but that’s a whole other story.
Of course, there was the entire controversy and subsequent publicity over his revelation that he took crystal meth and lied to the ATP to cover it up yada yada yada. But, as a close friend and fellow tennis nut put it, when you read the book, that fact doesn’t actually cause much of an impact. It’s a minor bump in the road, at a very low point in his career, at a time when he was barely winning anything (so any argument that a lack of ban somehow took away opportunities from other non-drug-taking players is moot). What really does stick out is the raw emotionality of the book from the get go. Whether it’s about his abusive father, or about his amazingly supportive trainer Gil, the emotions are right there (and Agassi’s a very emotional guy who claims to have an incredible memory for detail) — in your face, no-holds-barred and very, very honest. That makes ‘Open’ compulsively readable — I for one read non-stop for about a day and a half, late into the night and again first thing in the morning before I finished it.
A word here about Pulitzer-winning writer J.R. Moehringer who helped him put the book together (though he declined a mention on the cover ). It is obvious, especially to a journalist who has on several occasions been called to do ‘as told to’ interviews (where the final article in meant to be entirely in the voice of the interviewee), that he has done an outstanding job. The voice here is clearly Agassi’s — indeed the flow is so wonderful that you feel like he were talking directly to you. But it has been pieced together so very well that there is not a single dull moment or a hitch or even a shade of clumsiness in the structuring of the story.
The very openness and the way Agassi has chosen (one might almost say dared) to bare his emotions can also make it all feel a little uncomfortable at times. His resentment of Sampras is so very obvious… any compliment, if it is that, is backhanded (he envies his ‘robotic’ consistency, which doesn’t require any inspiration, for example). Unlike almost every other person mentioned in the book, there is almost nothing positive said about Sampras, a great champion, who for all intents seems like a pretty decent guy (for all that I wasn’t a fan of his). And that leaves a bit of a sour taste. Similarly, his portrayal of Brooke Shields towards the end of their marriage is coloured by disenchantment and negativity, and again, you feel like she deserved better. And the potshots he takes throughout at poor little Chang… Still, it all comes, as Agassi has said in an interview, from ‘writing in the moment’, as in, recreating his feelings at particular times in his life. Taken in that sense, it is very, very effective. The only case where Agassi has been obviously careful, where you feel more has been left out than he lets on is his relationship with Stephanie Graf (as he refers to her). The warmth, the deep regard, the affection is all there… there are just fewer details, which makes sense as she is a deeply private person.
Above everything else though — even the deep insights it gives into the ‘whirlwind’ that is the tennis tour and how exhausting it can be, the behind the scenes glimpses into locker rooms such as the incredibly sweet bonding moment between him and Marcos Baghdatis after their outstanding match at his last US Open — ‘Open’ is that rare thing; a truly inspiring book. This is a powerful read for anyone who has ever struggled with finding inspiration, anyone who has ever beaten themselves up for not being perfect. It’s all described beautifully — how Agassi internalises his father’s constant quest for tennis perfection even as it makes him hate the game, how he berates himself and can sometimes not function at all when he falls short by even by tiny amounts, and how he slowly learns to just play and ‘win ugly’ if need be, in the words of Brad Gilbert (you will like Gilbert a whole lot more after reading this book). It’s also about finding yourself, cliched as it sounds, and will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to understand who they are.
There are few books that succeed on so many levels — as a life story and a career chart, a study of individual character and of various relationships, as emotional catharsis for the writer and inspiration for its readers. This is a book that will naturally appeal to tennis nuts like me, but also to anyone given to introspection about life, relationships and themselves.