Reviewed by Deborah
I don’t normally enjoy reading autobiographies. In fact (if you’ll pardon the pun), I generally don’t get warmed up by non-fiction. I’ve tried to discern why this is. Possibly I get irritated by the idea of someone rather self-importantly trying to impose a sense of external, retrospective order on life events, presenting him or herself as some sort of mysterious work of art, interpreting the influence of upbringing, interests and environment on their big MOI. Biographies are even worse: someone who wasn’t there giving their supposedly objective gloss on another’s life? No, ta. Rather than voyeuristically reliving the peripatetic exploits of some actor or politician, I like to read characters and events genuinely crafted by an artist. (Because I’m not self-important at all).
Then my sister recommended Open, Andre Agassi’s autobiography. I’ve been learning to play tennis for a couple of years, so I decided I’d give it a go. I soon found myself hooked on the book; like Agassi, addicted to something I dislike.
In Open, Agassi confesses his love-hate relationship with the sport at which he excels. Recurring throughout the book are conversations where he informs people that he hates tennis. Their reply is always the same: “Yeah, but you don’t really hate it.” These snippets of dialogue are left hanging, balls in the air, waiting until the end of the book to be smashed down. We wait to discover whether his relationship with the sport is ever to be rehabilitated, or if he retires with a sense of relief.
There isn’t much relief to be had. Tension is served up from several sources. Agassi’s father is portrayed as a bully visionary (as many sporting parents are), determined to turn at least one of his children into a tennis superstar. He forces Agassi’s older brother to play tennis with a broken wrist, giving his son a permanent, chronic injury. He adapts a ball machine into a monster with which the young Agassi must do battle for hours every day. Praise is in short supply. We wonder whether this dad, an ex-Olympic boxer, will ever be satisfied.
We follow Agassi’s love matches too, from childhood sweethearts to Brooke Shields to Steffi Graf (or Stefanie as we learn she prefers). The description of the moment where Stefanie’s dad meets Agassi’s dad, and their clash of antlers, is a reason to read this book in itself. Dates with Barbara Streisand, romantic proposals on stunning private islands, and secret flowers sent to hotel balconies, lift the mood a little, but also serve to add more testosterone to the mix. It’s a heady cocktail. Will Agassi himself ever find contentment?
He does seem to find fraternity among friends, coaches and his team. The building of this surrogate family around himself, and their dedication to him, is a redemptive element of the book.
Fascinating too are the interactions with other tennis stars and with the media. Some might argue that sour grapes are squeezed into Agassi’s descriptions of Sampras as a tight-fisted dullard. Jimmy Connors – whom I remember from my childhood as a light relief buffer between the competing dark and light forces of McEnroe and Borg – comes across as a very unpleasant man indeed. Agassi met him as a child and has clearly never forgiven the sarcastic shrift to which he was treated.
We are bombarded, as one would expect, by clever tennis metaphors and – as is the point with most biotales – life’s events are spun into bildungsroman learning curves. Perhaps I am turning into a sucker for (auto)biographical style? Agassi’s dad may be hard to satisfy, Agassi is equally dissatisfied with himself, and his frustrating career trajectory keeps us on edge. Yet, this is pleasingly countered by the way each chapter or episode ends with a neat backhand reference to a prior happening.
For some reason I was able to overlook the features of biotales that annoy me, with this book. Agassi stripped his torso naked in a practice hit with Graf, in an effort to seduce. Have I too been seduced by this allegedly stripped-down version of the man? Possibly. Moreover, this Agassi is almost like a character in fiction, shaped from the start by an author-creator: his father. The inevitable ups and downs of his life, neat little anecdotal drop shots, and cringeworthy errors, trace a pattern through the book, and left me excited, exhausted and inspired – like an epic tennis match. The only character I am left wondering about, standing in the shadows like a good coach, is the ghost writer.