Monday, May 10, 2010

Books: Open


What if you hated something you were insanely good at? That's the fundamental dilemma explored in "Open," an autobiography of tennis great Andre Agassi, written with (substantial) help from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J.R. Moehringer.

In the book, Agassi provides an inside account of the intense, obsessive training a child tennis prodigy is subjected to: being forced to practice in his backyard on his father's custom tennis court, beign encouraged by his father to skip school in order to play tennis, being sent away to Nick Bolletieri's hypercompetitive Florida prison tennis camp. If you've ever wondered the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to return a 130 mph serve, here's your answer.

Agassi also lets loose with candid details about his personal life, a life lived in the harsh spotlight of the rock star fame he garnered as a mass market tennis rebel. Agassi explores his doomed marriage to Brooke Shields, his insecurities, and the friends and family who helped him along the way. Agassi seems to size up everyone in the book, from his loving but submissive mother to his fellow players.

These are the times when "Open" reads like a petty screed, with Agassi airing out every grievance he has against some of the greats of the game. Michael Chang's Christianity annoys him, Jim Courier taunts him, Pete Sampras is a lousy tipper. In interviews after the book was released, Agassi claimed the jabs are a record of what he was thinking at the time, but the ugly spat he got into with Sampras at a charity exhibition seems to belie that explanation.

Another bombshell dropped in the book is the revelation that Agassi took crystal meth and lied about it in his subsequent drug test. The fallout from that admission seemed to reverberate through tennis: from Martina Hingis and Richard Gasquet's positive tests for cocaine, to Wayne Odesnik pleading guilty to importing HGH and playing a tournament in Houston the next month. At the very least, "Open" may be remembered as sparking the public debate about doping and drug use in pro tennis.

Overall, though, the book is much more than insults and secrets. Agassi's warm words for his wife Steffi Graf, as well as the humor laced through the work, are enough to mitigate some of the distasteful blows in between, and Agassi acknowledges as much. That's a pretty good life lesson to get from a sports autobiography.

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