I picked up Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, with a number of preconceptions. I was expecting the usual drive-to-succeed, how-I-found redemption motifs of the sporting memoir, seasoned with a hint of scandal. After all, this is Andre Agassi we are talking about – the enfant terrible of tennis who fell in love with the Hollywood lifestyle and spiralled into drugs and scandal, only to work his way back to the top, fall in love, and re-emerge as one of the elder statesmen of the sport. I might have picked up the book, but I thought I knew how this story went already.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Agassi spent his career being drawn by the media as a caricature of himself. This book is his chance to finally present the whole story, and he does so with brutal honesty. A childhood dominated by a tyrannical father features prominently, and is one of the most memorable parts of the book. In a real sense, Agassi’s father shaped both his tennis game and his personality, and Agassi seems to have been searching ever since for a separate identity. There is a wistfulness and a paradox at the heart of the book – Agassi desperately wants to know what kind of a person he would have been without his father’s influence, but accepts that he will never find out.
Agassi’s love-hate relationship with tennis is also a central theme of the book. Dropping out of school and turning pro at seventeen, he never had a chance to explore other career options. For a while, he stubbornly maintains that he hates tennis, but eventually the media pressure becomes too much and he starts to give them what they want, lines about how much he loves the game. But while Agassi never comes to love the game in the pure sense, it does give him a great deal of satisfaction over the years. More importantly, by earning money it enables him to help others. The Agassi who dropped out of school discovers through others the value of education and it is genuinely moving to watch him try to create for others the opportunities that he was denied.
While the book is well-written enough, it’s not the prose that I will remember. Rather it is the sense that Agassi mined his soul for the book and laid himself bare on the page. I started the book thinking that I knew who Andre Agassi was; in the course of it I discovered I was wrong and I didn’t know him at all. It’s the rediscovery that takes place on reading the book that is the real revelation. You discover a man who has always been more of a thinker than a doer, who has struggled to free himself from his past and only partly succeeded, and who has made his peace with that. At the end of the day, you can only respect his courage and hope that his life post-tennis continues to give him the happiness that was missing in his early life.