September 29, 2010
Open: A Tennis Champ's Autobiography
"Open" isn't merely an autobiography. This one reads like a very good sports commentary as well. "Reading" about the matches felt as though I were watching them all over again. However this time, the vantage point is at Agassi's eye level, on the court, in his mind.
His narrative is pleasantly detailed, even superfluous at times. However, they satisfied my curiosity. He explains the intricacies of the competitive game, the accessories of tennis that mean so much for a meticulous player like himself, for example, how the grip of the racket has to be personalized. Indeed, I learned many tennis trivia, such as the difficulty of moving from one type of tennis court to the other: hard, grass, clay, and the impact such shifts have on the body.
If I exercised my memory, I could probably remember the most remarkable games he has played; at least when and where he won the grand slams. The book is therefore a Titanic kind of story, because we know that his ship will eventually sink. Agassi, as we all know, is retired today.
The narrative is catchy and unpredictable. Most of the time, we are surprised by the outcome, as Agassi himself seemed to be. But we don't have to be a good tennis player (which I am not), just a good tennis fan to know that you play worst if you play against someone whose game is inferior to yours. Agassi confirms it: "I am at my worse against lesser opponents". It feels good to hear it from him. I was not speculating after all!
Agassi has the charm of the vulnerable champ. He has always cultivated that image. In this book, he explains his feelings of vulnerability, the ones I could decipher on his twisted brows. His grand slam games are like arena fights or boxing matches: Indeed, his dad was a boxer and trained him to become a "boxer with a racket".
He describes his opponents well. These are often famous, perhaps not charismatic. He is often reverent. However, sometimes, and with humor, he admits his antipathy. Take Chang, who demands God's protection on court. "I beat Chang and savor every blasphemous stroke." There is no doubt Andre is always the "bad boy" ont he court. Did he consult Steffi Graf, his spouse, when he used the German word, "doppelganger"(his double in name) to talk about his most decisive opponent: Andrei Medvedev, the man he faced before winning his fourth different slam?
In the post- match against Baghdatis, the imagery of the locker room resembles a scene from the film "Rocky". Agassi makes a clear statement, with fancy vocabulary: "tennis is non contact pugilism". The tennis players are wiped out and acking from injuries. His opponent could be a lion, or a bull and he is a Roman gladiator despite himself. He is modest in admitting his fear, he is honest in describing his opponent. He does not pretend to be "above it" because of the spirit of sportsmanship.
What is surprising is that, even in the late eighties, a champion like Agassi, wouldn't have thought of getting a fitness trainer sooner. Doesn't a tennis champion or even a golf, swimming, soccer athlete need body conditioning? I remember wanting to join the swim team in college in the late eighties and being required to do weight training as well. (I thought of it as being too time consuming and decided thus not to join the team). In this decade, even all the desperate housewives, one of which I can confess to being, have fitness trainers!
He openly talk about his addiction to junk food. I therefore wasn't all that wrong when I told my kids, in extremely simplified terms. "Why did our hero lose and stop playing tennis? Well he became old because he stopped eating his veggies. So did Zeinedine Zidane."
Although Agassi became too old for a tennis career, I thought he was quite young to write his autobiography, Agassi now a retired champion, comments on his childhood. I peeked on the jacket of the book and the New York Times Review of Books coined it as a "bildungsroman". Another adequately used german terminology for a coming of age novel, like the epitomous "Catcher in the Rye".
Hilarious childhood stories abound. But also sad ones. The story almost reads like "David Copperfield" or "Tom Sawyer". His childhood is bitter sweet. Agassi has a harsh father and an even harsher coach, Bollettieri. When he becomes a teenager, he chooses to rebel. The look he first brought to court was really his own. He decided on the mohawk and the now trademark earrings as a way of getting across to the tyrant Bollettieri. The latter, who recognized his talent, gave in to him because he could predict his success. What is most noticeable is how resolute the man is. Agassi can be so stubborn!
Agassi has jazzed up tennis, the ultra conservative sport, with his denim shorts and Las Vegas attitude. He has also made it an emotional game; bringing his heart, tears and feelings to the court. That is how I became a fan. He seems to have jeopardized his health and well being for our entertainment. He was an idol and I appreciate his sacrifices.
In the book, he does use another German term (that I looked up with curiosity) : "wunderkind", which is child prodigy, to describe Roger Federer. I have been very fortunate to watch them play in Dubai, not atop Burj Al Arab as they did for fun on the helipad, but a real match. Agassi lost. My son and I dried our tears and transferred our affection and attention on the" best tennis player ever": RF!
Andre Agassi had passed the torch. In his own words: "I can't help but stand back and admire his immense skills, his magnificent composure. He's the most regal player I've ever witnessed." Agassi became a king maker by expressing his reverence and respect for Roger. In his American English he says: his "jaw breaks" in amazement.
Long live tennis!