Around the middle of the previous decade, Roger Ebert said that movies about superheroes could only be properly graded against other movies about superheroes. “When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to Mystic River, you're asking if it's any good compared to The Punisher,” he wrote.
One could sense that the views of Ebert – and perhaps film critics in general – being forced to evolve due to 2008’s entries into the superhero genre, namely Iron Man and The Dark Knight. The storylines in those movies were about real issues facing American society in the post-9/11 landscape, and the performances – Robert Downey, jr.’s quirky interpretation of Tony Stark and Heath Ledger’s terrifying Joker – set the bar for escapist entertainment undeniably higher.
And that’s what Open: An Autobiography will do for the sports memoir. After Andre Agassi’s unusually erudite look into his past, readers will expect more of athletes (tennis players in particular) who want fans to pay good money just to hear the athlete tell his/her story.
About two years ago I recommended Pete Sampras’ A Champion’s Mind with at least some enthusiasm even though it required the help of Tennis magazine’s senior writer Peter Bodo just to raise Sampras’ storytelling abilities to the level of pedestrian. I felt the book’s message – that great results require single-minded determination – was one worth reading, and enjoyed looking into the life of an elite tennis player.
I don’t know that I could review A Champion’s Mind so positively now, nor do expect On the Line with Serena Williams, currently sitting on my shelf, to fair well by comparison. Regardless of what one feels about Open’s controversial subject material, the book is nothing short of a revelation.
Part of this is due to the book’s searing sense of honesty, which was well-documented in the weeks before it hit the shelves. Much more than that, though, are the words themselves. The journalist/author J.R. Moehringer did help with its composition, but there’s a good reason why he passed on having his name appear on Open’s cover: Agassi has long been known as one of tennis’ more eloquent and philosophical players. Moehringer may have helped, but these words are Agassi’s.
And the words bring to life a message that’s far deeper than simply achieving your dreams by dedicating yourself to them. Agassi bluntly states on numerous occasions that he hated tennis during his playing days, therefore his “dreams” were never what was motivating him. During the first, much more tumultuous decade of his career he was driven by an even greater hatred of failure; following his awakening in late-1997, it was the realization that most people dislike their jobs, but make the most of them anyway.
The attention he pays toward his father has been focused on, with some saying that he had “demonized” the elder Agassi with stories of his temper, his violent behavior, and his outright exploitation of his sons’ tennis talent. The book’s portrayal of Mike Agassi is more complex than that, however; he is indeed violent, temperamental, and determined to make his sons tennis stars into tennis champions regardless of their own wishes, but that’s not the sum of it. Agassi makes clear that he blames his father’s overbearing mother and tumultuous upbringing in Iran for his character flaws.
The best example of this may be when he calls his father following his five-set victory in the Wimbledon final of 1992 only to be greeted with, “You had no business losing that fourth set.” Agassi writes that his father wants him to succeed, wants to congratulate him, but doesn’t know how. It’s a complicated portrayal, but “complicated” is Mike Agassi in a single word.
Other well-known tennis figures receive scathing treatment in Open, which employs the literary device placing each event in the present tense, meaning that they are portrayed just as Agassi saw them at the time. Just a few examples:
• Jim Courier is jealous of Agassi’s close relationship to Nick Bollettieri, and uses his victories over Agassi in the late ’80s and early ‘90s as a chance for gloat-filled revenge.
• Jimmy Connors is insufferably arrogant, using his pugnacious fighting spirit and elder-statesman status in the game to mask his disdainful treatment of other players and even support staff.
• Boris Becker is, in the words of Agassi’s coach Brad Gilbert, “B.B. Socrates,” a backbiter with delusions of intellectualism.
• Ilie Nastase, who taunted Agassi after being cajoled into practicing with the young prodigy, is a “big, stupid Romanian.”
Agassi’s outlook softens toward both Connors (at least somewhat) and Courier by the book’s conclusion, but it’s not hard to see why Becker and Nastase have been among Agassi’s harshest critics when his revelations of meth use and his hatred of tennis were revealed. For the sake of immediacy, to make the reader feel what a youthful, confused Agassi felt at that very moment, he may have drastically reduced the number of friends he has among tennis luminaries.
But the approach leaves readers with numerous passages that are haunting, even stunning in their beauty or resonance. My favorites include:
• Phil Agassi, forced to play on despite a disastrous switch to a one-handed backhand, sees a pre-Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras struggling with the same switch and declares, vehemently, that “someone should pay” for the damage done to their careers.
• Andre Agassi, struggling in his relationship with his father, hears from a spiritual leader that God isn’t like Mike Agassi at all, and begs to be told again.
• Agassi, expecting his first child with Steffi Graf, informs his loyal, massively built bodyguard Gil Reyes that he will name his son Jaden Gil, prompting the two to meet in mid-room so that Agassi can be embraced by a man with a 52-inch chest.
Agassi’s description, late in his career, of the way new string technology has changed tennis is intriguing, and helps explain a lot of his up-and-down results in the 2002 season, but contains the book’s most confusing passage: Here he says that strings have turned “average players into greats, and greats into legends.”
Who is he talking about here? Probably the only truly “legendary” players to have emerged in the past decade were Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Does Agassi think these two owe their considerable success to string technology? Seems doubtful, as Agassi gushes over both men later in the book, saying that he “can’t fathom” Nadal’s court coverage and describing Federer as “the most regal player I’ve ever witnessed.”
For a book so unflinchingly honest, this part seems unnecessarily vague, or perhaps hyperbolic.
But the honesty is intense in other places, sometimes painfully so, as Agassi describes destroying his tennis trophies in a jealous fit when then-wife Brooke Shields shot a racy scene for the TV series Friends. Before that, he admits to a downright frightening vendetta against Boris Becker for some unkind comments the German made in 1995, prompted Agassi to dedicate an entire summer to revenge against Becker.
And then there’s the meth use, in which the celebrated star describes the pits of his 1997 nadir, risking his career, family, and reputation for the relief of a temporary high. Readers may decry his decision to lie his way out of suspension for drug testing, and recoil at the intensity of his outbursts against Becker and Shields.
These, however, are criticisms of Agassi the man, not Agassi the author. What separates this book from just about every other in the sports autobiography genre is this player’s commitment to the story, even if it means knocking himself off the pedestal we’ve built for him.
And that’s what makes this book much more than tennis-related escapism. Like a comic book fan watching The Dark Knight, the fan seeking heroism will get it here, particularly as Agassi rededicates himself to the game and completes his career with a Roland Garros win. Then the hero gets the girl, winning the heart of Graf, whom he’d silently longed for for the better part of a decade.
But like in the movie, the hero must overcome a terrifying, all-too-real villain; it’s just that the bad guy in Open wears the same face as the hero. Any man who can overcome that opponent has a gripping story indeed.