Sunday, January 14, 2018

Open: Andre Agassi Autobiography

I don't know if the Japanese or Germans invented a word to describe the splendid after taste one has after reading such a delightful book. They should've. The feeling is so awesome that it should be honored by a dedicated word for it. This is one of the best written books I have read in a long time. I kept thinking to myself "I am truly enjoying this. This is amazing" for the most part. It is not just the beauty of Agassi's personal story but the fascinating way in which it was narrated. I wanted to understand what motivated Agassi, get closer to his soul and probe his thoughts. I was overwhelmed with the way Agassi focussed on his true self without any posturing or pretentiousness.

Agassi tells his story as a person who was being pushed with crushing force in a direction he did not want to go. The more he resisted the greater the the push. The narrative arc of this book is Agassi trying his best to rebel against this incarceration that suffocates him. He was in places he loathed and has a body he really didn't understand. Agassi's story, similar to many tennis players before and after him, was that of huge parental push towards sport. The difference lies in his reaction to it. The beauty with which he brings out the details of the house his father bought, the custom backyard-turned-tennis-court and the dragon shaped ball machine that hurled 3000 balls per day at great 100+mph to little Agassi from a great height and acute angles (which is why he became so good in returning serves) is just fascinating. This story could've been told in many ways. But Agassi (and his ghost writer) uses colorful metaphors to take use through his journey.

Agassi's Open is really a scream. A loud scream of a person suffering from great pain. He militates against the existence of this sport and fills most of his pages with a dark humor based wisdom that is so rare for a sports book. While my fandom was always dedicated to Boris Becker, for any non-Becker match, I wanted Sampras to win. Sampras, to me, personified excellence, and a jedi like dedication to the sport. I read Sampras and Agassi's autobiography back to back recently and the books completely changed my perspective. Sampras' book was pedestrian and a mediocre token sports book with no trace of self-awareness. It is the kind of book that can be used an example of how not to write your story. In contrast, Agassi tells us his version of "the meaning of life" via his book. Through his eyes we learned what his father did to his mother, to his brothers, to him. What Nick Bolleteri's methods did to students who joined his academy. What the Academy did to the people there. What Brooke Shields did to herself.  What tennis did to him. He doesn't eulogize the sport, it is not hagiographic by any means. Everything from his tennis, to drugs to marriage is told in a way that sounds - real. Nobody has kept it more real than Agassi does in this book.

Most times, the personality of the tennis player becomes as enriching to the sport as the skill the player brings to the table. What is tennis if Becker and Ivanesivic didn't meltdown and crush fan expectations by suddenly folding in 3 sets? What is tennis without a McEnroe tantrum that fueled him to do better. These players had game and personality that contrasted the Lendls and Stefan Edberg's dour personalities and winning game. Agassi and Sampras were tennis players I really tracked in the 90s. And they represented the personality Vs craft players in an interesting way. While Agassi did look like a personality player, beneath the denim shorts, the rebel hair styles and screaming girl fans, Agassi had a solid game. His personality hid how solid and complete his game was. Similarly this book's personality hides the excellence of his tennis. Tennis though fully and meticulously covered, almost appears like a side point of this book. This book would look great even if Agassi's profession was knitting flower baskets.

The book does contain interesting trivia about tennis coaching technics, on how Agassi saw Sampras' shift from two handed backhand to one-handed, the small tournaments he participated in, the dugs scandal etc. But the larger arc that led to Agassi marrying Steffi Graf and how he completely avoided getting his children into tennis is so beautiful that tennis trivia didn't matter. I developed new found respect for Brad Gilbert by reading this book and went ahead and bought his autobiography. Looking forward to reading that next.

Like I said, there must be a word for "great feeling after reading an excellent book".