Tuesday, September 4, 2012

From Punk to Paragon (Book Review: Open by Andre Agassi)

When Dr Manmohan Singh took over as Prime Minister of India in 2004, of the many things he spoke of in his first press conference, one line stuck out. “Life is never free of contradictions,” said Dr Singh, about the Congress’ association with the Left parties in spite of many policy differences. While the thinking man’s prime minister was making a political analogy, almost 15,000 kilometres away, a 34-year-old tennis player’s life was a living example of the maxim. Andre Kirk Agassi’s journey was all about contradictions, and that’s what the eight-time Grand Slam champion writes about in his thoroughly engaging, unputdownable autobiography—Open.

The book, superbly ghost-written by Pulitzer prize-winning author J.R. Moehringer, follows the journey of a ninth-grade dropout who’s proudest accomplishment—in a celebrity life full of silverware and moolah— is a school he builds for underprivileged children. “Life is a tennis match between polar opposites,” says Agassi. “Winning and losing, love and hate, open and closed.” Agassi looks at his whole life through the lenses of contradiction. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself,” he quotes from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. Agassi is proud of who he is as a human being; he is proud of his life, even if it is flawed and imperfect.

Now, one can’t quite imagine Andre Agassi’s life to be flawed and imperfect, right? After all, he is a man who has won 869 tennis matches in a 21-year pro career. He has won 60 career titles including eight Grand Slams and the Golden Slam—all four Grand Slams plus the Olympic Gold Medal. He has dated and married two of the most beautiful and successful women in the world, Brooke Shields and Steffi Graf, eventually settling down and having kids with the latter. Isn’t that a fairy-tale life?

Not really.

Through Open, Agassi in-depthly describes how his whole life is anything but a fairy tale and revolves around one grand, shocking truth. “I hate tennis,” says Agassi, repeatedly throughout the book. When a number of people he tells this to do not believe him, he stresses, “I really do (hate it).” Why? “(Because) I’m not suited for anything else. I don’t know how to do anything else. Tennis is the only thing I’m qualified for. Also, my father would have a fit if I did anything different.”

Agassi’s flashback begins with his childhood home in the middle of the Las Vegas desert and how he went from the crib right on to a tennis court built in his backyard by a domineering, “fire-belching” father who wanted him to be number one in the world someday. Agassi himself had no such ambitions and says that he craved to be a normal kid and do normal kiddy stuff. But instead of action figures and Lego, Agassi’s only toy was a ball machine—christened “The Dragon”—which was modified by his father to continuously shoot balls at 110 miles per hour. When he describes the machine, you can’t help but feel that it is the seven-year-old Agassi talking. “Midnight black, set on big rubber wheels...the dragon has a brain, a will, a black heart—and a horrifying voice. Sucking another ball into its belly, the dragon makes a series of sickening sounds. As pressure builds inside its throat, it groans. As the ball rises slowly to its mouth, it shrieks. For a moment the dragon sounds almost silly, but when it takes dead aim at me and fires a ball 100 miles an hour, the sound it makes is a bloodcurdling roar. I flinch every time.”

Agassi describes how his seven-year-old self was made to hit almost 2500 balls per day and given a target of hitting a million balls-a-year by his father. At age 13, he is booted off to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in order to “eat, sleep and drink tennis”. It is here that Agassi becomes a rebel, drops out of school at age 14 and builds his “punk” image that he was infamous for in his early pro career. Agassi talks of his pink-mohawk look and his denim shorts and how sportswriters “murdered” him for it, branding him a “punk” who’s trying to get noticed. But Agassi explains how he wanted anything but be noticed.  He says, “They (sportswriters) say I’m trying to change the game. In fact I’m trying to prevent the game from changing me. They call me a rebel, but I have no interest in being a rebel, I’m only conducting an everyday, run-of-the-mill teenage rebellion...I’m doing nothing more than I did at the Bollettiery Academy. Bucking authority, experimenting with identity, sending a message to my father, thrashing against the lack of choice in my life.”

It is from this point that Agassi starts to accept who he is and what his life is and begins to see things in the positive. He begins to tell reporters not what he actually thinks but “what they seem to want to hear” him say. He talks of how humbled he is with his growing popularity and how fans finally accept his “punk” image and begin to dress like him. He talks of how flattered, yet confused, he is with people wanting to be like him. “I can’t imagine all these people trying to be like Andre Agassi, since I don’t want to be Andre Agassi,” he says.

Aside from the fact that he actually hates tennis, Agassi also brings forth some other scandalous revelations that he had hidden from the public his entire career: like his falling hair and use of a hairpiece in the early nineties and how he was so terrified of it falling off on court that he lost his first Grand Slam final due to his consciousness; the reasons behind his mid-career downfall,  how he took to crystal meth to get out of depression and lied to the authorities to escape suspension; the infamous “Image is Everything” advertising campaign in which Canon duped him into using his rebel image to sell their products. In a way, Agassi pleads with his readers to recognise that he wasn’t indeed the “enfant terrible” that he was projected to be in the first half of his career; that he was just a guy who was finding it difficult trying to figure out his own identity; that he was just human.

Talking of his plummet during the 1997 season and his resolution to “change” thereafter, Agassi gives a valuable lesson on how to stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with it. He says, “I tell myself, So what if you hate tennis? Who cares? All those people out there, all those millions who hate what they do for a living, they do it anyway. Maybe doing what you hate, doing it well and cheerfully is the point. Hate it all you want. You still need to respect it—and yourself.”

Agassi is very careful to make sure that Open doesn’t come across as an anti-sports book and gives sports fans their due. He summarises several of his memorable clashes and even gives a ball-by-ball account of the best. He talks of his rivalry with contemporaries such as Boris Becker and Pete Sampras and how thrilled he was at upstaging the latter for the world number one ranking. His description of “The Summer of Revenge” in which he vows to defeat Becker for some unflattering comments made about him by the latter is surreal. The passion and desire to win is apparent in Agassi’s gripping description of these matches and brings out another contradiction in his life: how he hates tennis but hates to lose more. He wants to win: at times for his loved ones and sometimes just for himself.

Agassi surprises many by revealing how jealous he is of Sampras: not for the Californian’s greater number of titles, but for his apparent “lack of need for inspiration”, for his suave image compared to his own brash one. He also talks of how he evolves during the second half of his career, from a tennis player to a father and family man. “Many people benefit from every tennis ball I hit,” he says, explaining why he keeps on going. “I play and I keep playing because I choose to play. Even if it’s not your ideal life, you can always choose it. No matter what your life is, choosing it changes everything… I’m a father first, a tennis player second, and this evolution happens without my being aware.”

Agassi’s relationships with people, whether they are his immediate family or his extended—comprising of his trainers, coaches, managers and even tournament officials—is a lesson in life for upcoming players. Deprived of a proper father figure in his early life, Agassi’s account of his everlasting relationships with multiple father figures is touching and engaging.

Overall, Open is a beautifully choreographed memoir of someone whose life was scripted out for him even before he was born. Andre Agassi is your classic deer caught in the headlights; a grilled-from-birth perfectionist who hated doing something he excelled at. It is an exquisitely penned journey of a young-dropout-rebel-turned-educator; the journey, as tennis historian Bud Collins rightly termed, “from punk to paragon”.