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Open By Andre Agassi – an absolute must read

August 14, 2015

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Somewhere in my memory banks I feel like I remember hearing that Andre Agassi’s Open was an extraordinary autobiography. I’m glad for the recall, because by the end of the vivid, brutal prologue in which Agassi describes one of his last tennis matches, I could tell that I was in for something special. It was an incredibly detailed and powerful introduction to the book and I was immediately hooked. There is no co-author listed, so Agassi seems to have written this book mostly on his own and the quality of the writing is stunning for a star athlete – and high school dropout.

I was surprised by this book. Not just by how engrossing and well written it was, but by how wrong my impression of Andre Agassi was. I’m no tennis fan, so as one of the most notable stars of the sport during my lifetime, I just assumed that a) Agassi was a confident athlete and b) that he dominated the sport for his entire life. Open tells quite a different story. In fact, two of the biggest themes in the book are overcoming constant failure and battling a severe lack of self-confidence. We’re talking about a man that was so insecure that when his hair started thinning, he wore this catastrophe on his head:

Agassi says that one of his brother’s was nicknamed “born loser,” but after reading this book, it’s a pretty fitting description for Agassi himself throughout much of his life. Though Agassi clearly reached the pinnacle of his sport, it was a roller coaster of a ride with plenty of ups and downs and his biggest obstacle throughout his career was frequently himself. Throughout his book, he states that he “hates tennis” and never once wavers from this stance. From his days as a child when his father forced him to return tennis balls in their backyard in scorching Las Vegas heat against a serving contraption Agassi coldly refers to as “The Dragon,” for hours upon hours day after day, to his days at #1 in the tennis rankings, he consistently expresses contempt for a profession he never really chose for himself. It’s a life his father chooses for him, unrelenting pressuring Andre, until the day his son’s body physically can’t take it anymore. My favorite moment in the book involving Agassi’s father is when NFL legend Jim Brown is looking to play someone for money and Agassi’s father gets Brown to agree to play a 9 year old Andre heads up for $10,000. Unfortunately for Team Agassi, someone warns Jim that he’s going to get smoked and they wind up playing for a measly $500 and Andre destroys him.

While Agassi’s relationship with his father was hard and single-sighted, he develops plenty of father-like relationships throughout his career. In fact, if one is to believe Agassi’s description of his psyche, I’d say the team of men he surrounds himself with is highly responsible for most of his success. Without this incredibly strong foundation, Agassi seems like the kind of individual that would have eventually crumbled under his own self-doubt, rendering himself irrelevant in the tennis world. The team consists of Gil, Agassi’s strength and conditioning coach, sometimes bodyguard, and frequent rock; JP, a pastor with a unique approach that helps guide Agassi spiritually and mentally; Perry, Agassi’s lifelong best friend; and Brad Gilbert, his tennis coach and the final piece of the puzzle to get the struggling star to the top of the tennis world. There’s little doubt that without these men in his life, helping him along, Andre Agassi would have been remembered for his ridiculous hair and little else.

The women in Andre’s life don’t seem to have quite as profound an affect on his career, but were still very notable due to his high profile relationships. He spent a significant amount of time with Barbra Streisand and Andre leaves things quite a bit vague as to how intimate things actually were with the famed singer/actress, who had a whopping 28 years on him. While it’s pretty clear that they dated, he never goes into detail about their sex life and their relationship seemed platonic enough that maybe they didn’t even have one. Though Agassi winds up marrying and staying with Stephie Graf, his Holy Grail, that he declares an infatuation with from a young age, it’s his troubled marriage with Brooke Shields that takes center stage in Open. From the beginning, if one is to believe Agassi’s depiction of things, the Shields-Agassi union seems to come to fruition more so because it can than because Andre actually wants it to. So when they eventually become married, things quickly unravel because they just don’t seem to have any real chemistry together. Perhaps the most interesting moment of his time with Shields is when she gets a guest appearance on the hit show “Friends” and Agassi steams off stage after watching Brooke lick Matt LeBlanc’s hand. It’s a moment I’ve seen a number of times on the show that now carries a little extra weight to it.

Open is a great piece of writing. Agassi makes a sport that I’ve never found particularly interesting to watch on T.V., incredibly riveting just by listening to his descriptions of his matches. It’s an incredibly thorough and brutally honest book. I’ve read some borderline scathing biographies before (I’m thinking Mickey Mantle), but Andre Agassi gets so personal and self-deprecating in this book that readers have little reason to doubt anything he says. He admits to using crystal meth while he was bottoming out in his career and there are very few moments in the book that are undeniably happy. It’s a dark book from a man that doesn’t seem to understand himself until after his legendary sports career has come to an end. I couldn’t possibly recommend this book more – it’s easily one of the best sports biographies I’ve ever read and this is coming from someone who is in no way, shape, or form, a fan of tennis.

Finally, kudos to Erik Davies, who reads the book for its audio format. Davies gives quite easily the best non-fiction reading I’ve heard to date.

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