For the past couple of weeks I’ve been wondering why some people write autobiographies and some don’t. Andre Agassi’s book is suitably named. I don’t know how open he has really been about his life (I’m willing to take his word for it though), but one thing he’s opened for sure is a big ol’ can of worms. Which, no doubt was partly the idea. The result is a compelling chronicle of an extraordinarily long career and a life that’s the stuff of great fiction. But it’s also a book that makes me like Agassi less. And since I was never a huge fan to begin with, I feel vindicated.
An abusive immigrant father, unearthly talent, celebrity girlfriends and wives, drugs, million-dollar endorsements, fluorescent clothes, this is the larger than life narrative of a rock and roll tennis star. From the very beginning, Agassi was perceived and presented as a rebel, a flashy kid from Las Vegas, more sound than substance. In the much-celebrated transformation, Agassi may have managed to re-package himself as modern-day saint but the more cynical among us (not too many out there I’ll admit) would find it hard to overlook his one constant unwavering trait. He’s an exhibitionist. Maybe that’s why some people need to write autobiographies.
Consider this. What makes the new Agassi so exemplary? That he got married and had kids? Um, shall I give a count of how many tennis players are married with kids by the time they retire? That he is bald? So is Nikolai Davydenko, but no one’s patting him on the back for being such a great role model. That he runs that school for inner city kids in Vegas? Yes, that’s not something I’m going to diss. It’s a wonderful thing Agassi does. But hey, other athletes have charities too. Most of the top tennis players have foundations that provide some sort of assistance to kids in developing countries. Few of them make as much noise about it as Agassi does.
Let’s face it, Agassi gets all this love because he was once such a truant. When a juvenile delinquent goes to rehab and comes out clean, some back-patting is natural. But let’s not lose perspective here. The main reason Agassi is upheld as such a paragon of virtue is because he’s re-branded himself that way. Yes, Andre, much as you will hate me for saying this, image is still everything.
I read Open as soon as it was published, and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s highly entertaining, provides plenty of dirt on Agassi’s main rivals, gossip about Barbara Streisand and Brooke Shields, and, most of all, thanks to Pulitzer-Prize winner J.R. Moehringer’s ghostwriting, it's extremely well-written, both lucid and dramatic. Moehringer weaves patterns throughout the book. Agassi first saw his future girlfriend at age seven, his best friend predicted that he would date Shields before he even became famous, Brad Gilbert predicted he would marry Steffi when she was blowing him off. All the foreshadowing and parallels and symbolism is pretty neat. I’ve read other autobiographies (Monica Seles’ From Fear to Victory comes to mind) and this one far exceeds them for style.
It’s not just the style that makes this a good read. The content, if you don’t mind detailed descriptions of some tennis matches, is fascinating. I grew up watching most of the matches mentioned here. I followed the careers and off-court dramas of most of the players. I feel like I know the characters in this book. Locker room gossip by an eight-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1. What’s not to like?
I’ll tell you what’s not to like. Andre Agassi.
If the book had a catch line, it would be Feel sorry for me. Poor little helpless kid forced to play tennis by his horrible monstrous father and the violent ball machine, The Dragon. Poor helpless, misunderstood teenager treated horribly at Nick Bollettieri’s boot camp. Poor neglected boyfriend and husband of a Hollywood star. Agassi seems to have suffered from a pretty severe persecution complex. Everyone was out to get him, the media, the fans, the coaches, the sponsors, the advertisers. NOTHING was his fault. Not the Image is Everything ad, not the marriage to Brooke Shields and subsequent divorce, not the matches he lost. And certainly not the drugs.
In recent weeks, every interview I’ve seen of Agassi’s, he’s looked
tearful and vulnerable. He’s begged for compassion from the likes of Martina Navratilova who have dared to condemn him, he’s gone on and on about how badly he needed help and how miserable he was.
In other words, Agassi is a victim. He blames the media and sponsors
for conspiring to project him as an image-conscious guy. Even the insistence that he hated tennis, with the constant rhetoric that he was forced into a career he didn’t want and a marriage he didn’t want seems tuned to the victim complex. Who forced him to shoot ad campaigns he didn’t agree with or to wear a wig when his hair was thinning? Who held a gun to his head, asking him to date or marry Shields? When he was 25, he could have quit tennis if he hated it so much. Surely he wasn’t worried about paying bills? A grown man with that much money and power can make some choices Andre.
There’s another reason why people write autobiographies. To get back at people. Anyone who didn’t pander or enable or gush is the enemy.
I can understand the fear and lack of trust for a pushy parent and we all know how pushy tennis parents can be. But what is the motivation behind describing how Mike Agassi would sometimes shove a fist up his nostril and pull out a bunch of nose hair? No really, why do I need to know that? As a fiction writer, the only reason I can think of is to make the character look more unsympathetic. I told you, it’s a well-written book. Towards the end, Agassi does soften his stance towards his father a little, but by then it’s too late. He’s already been established as an uncouth, ignorant man with severe anger-management issues, something of a savage who littered the roof of their home with dead hawks he’d hunted.
Then there’s Brooke Shields. Not once, not for one brief second, does Agassi even wonder whether he treated her badly, hurt her in any way, or was a bad boyfriend or husband. It’s all about how shallow and vain she was, and how ridiculous Hollywood actors are as a group. He remembers being out of place in all the actors’ outings but never acknowledges that Shields may have felt just as weird with his friends. He self-righteously brags about walking out of her Friends shoot, saying that her character kissing Joey’s hand was “disgusting.” He confesses to having had no interest in her career, yet he implies that she was too selfish to support his.
It comes as little surprise therefore that the early years of his marriage to Steffi Graf were all about him. How easy to gush about people who are at your beck and call. Agassi boasts about how Graf would rush home during the US Open to make lasagna for him. It’s very sweet that they didn’t have a chef and all, but really? Is that what it takes to win his love and admiration? The feminist in me cannot help but be bitterly disappointed, although I don’t know why I should have expected any different from Agassi. Maybe I just expected different from Graf.
The fact is that Agassi has clearly identified the handful of loyalists and sycophants to whom he pays tribute in this book. If his tributes to Graf annoy feminists, then wait till you read about Gil Reyes. No doubt he’s a great trainer, but the endless gushing about how unbendingly loyal Reyes is, how he literally, physically, stood guard outside their house or beat up people who made a rude comment about Agassi in a bar, or told Agassi when he barely knew him to “stand on his shoulders” and reach for the stars, is a bit sickening. You have to question what led Reyes to be this subservient. It’s not a hard one, for Agassi was already a star, a household name, when the two met.
A very telling moment in the book comes during Agassi’s last US Open in 2006. He comes out of a match, exhausted, and is instantly surrounded by Reyes, Graf, and coach Darren Cahill. All of them rush to provide him with whatever he needs, Cahill drives his car around, Graf clearly has the lasagna ready. Agassi puffs up his chest to drive home the fact that they were there as soon as he got off the court, ready to serve. This is what it’s ultimately about. The beck and call of the egomaniacal sport star. Are you in or out?
One man who’s clearly out is Nick Bollettieri. But I remember how close they appeared to be in Agassi’s early days. He gave Bollettieri’s daughter soft toys. Now he says Bollettieri demanded the toys. Bollettieri coached him for free. Now he tells us he did it only because Agassi would draw more clients to his academy. Bollettieri has no redeeming qualities. Maybe that’s true. But what does that say about the posing and the facades of the younger Agassi? How do we know that a few years later, we won’t hear him trash talk Steffi Graf if they happen to split? When he’s lied about his hair and drugs in the past, why should I believe anything he says now?
Speaking of trash talk, Boris Becker is a phony (how would Agassi know a phony?) intellectual, derisively nicknamed B.B. Socrates, Jim Courier is a jerk, Jimmy Connors is stuck-up and self-absorbed, Michael Chang is a weirdo who thanks Christ after each match. Agassi doesn’t just make fun of these people, he genuinely dislikes them. He says he really disliked Chang for assuming that God was on his side of the net. Hey, Serena Williams thanks Jehovah after every win, Juan Martin Del Potro makes the sign of the cross after every win. It’s understandable that in such volatile and intensely competitive situations, you might feel irritated by the smallest of things, and also that you’re human. But when you write it in a book, it sounds petty and petulant.
Much has been said about how this book is meant to inspire people. The biggest lesson a young fan can get from reading it is that if you're rich and famous and powerful, in other words, if you're Andre Agassi, then you can get away with anything. If you get 2 speeding tickets within the hour, the judge will ask for your autograph and let you go. If you snort crystal meth and test positive, you only have to submit a written lie and the ATP with throw out the test results. And anyone who dares to cross you (or worse still, beat you in a tennis match) will have to pay when you write your autobiography.
Perhaps no one will understand this better than Pete Sampras. Once again, in recent interviews, Agassi has said that he makes good-humored fun of Sampras. Someone please don’t tell me when Agassi’s in a bad humor. First, he takes pains to point out that how many Grand Slams you win is nothing compared to winning one on each surface. Everyone, he says, knows that.
Then, he and Brad Gilbert take even greater pains to verify how much Sampras tips the valet who brings his car around. A dollar, says valet. Agassi drops his head in dismay. How can he and Pete be so different? In case you’re not sure what he means, fear not. He will remind you, several times, of all the great magnanimous things he’s done, rent cars for people (Gil Reyes), fly people to hospitals (Gil Reyes), build schools for people. Agassi even makes patronizing comments about Sampras marrying an actress. Agassi is a poet, he needs inspiration to play, he’s generous and soulful and deep. His main rival is a robot, a tennis machine. If Agassi is the saint, then who do you think is the sinner? That guy who won 14 Grand Slams but is clearly a lesser player because he missed the French.
I guess you’re not supposed to like Sampras when you read this book. I guess it backfired a little because I don’t like Agassi.
Despite all my criticism, the paradox is that I loved the book. And in the end that’s all that will matter to Agassi. The book will sell out. But as far as I’m concerned, the man sold out a long time ago.