Those of you who know me will probably be surprised to see the review of a sports biography on my blog. I will freely admit that this is not a book I would have chosen for myself; instead, it was a choice of my book club. That being said, I found Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi to be extremely interesting and even touching.
In making notes for my review, though, I came across another problem–how to review a biography of a living, well-known figure except by relating some of its disclosures. For some assistance on this, I took a peek at the review in the New York Times, but they obviously had the same problem. However, a phrase in that review caught my attention. The reviewer remarked that from the first time Agassi first appeared in the sport, he looked like a deer in the headlights. Now, look at the picture of him from the cover of the book.
This expression is a lead-in to a story about a sad, sad boy who seems to have finally grown up into a mostly happy, contented man. His big secret, which by now everyone knows, is that this athlete, who is considered one of the best tennis players in the world, ever, has always hated tennis. He was forced into the game as a young boy by his fiercely competitive (and I would say, although he never does, abusive) father, a former Olympic boxer who never succeeded professionally but was trying to live his life through his son.
His fate was so predetermined that his father gave him a tennis racket to hold in his cradle, and when as a boy he found he preferred soccer because of the camraderie (he frequently remarks on how lonely a sport tennis is), his father made him quit so he could spend more time on tennis. The vision of Agassi as a small boy facing the machine his father had rigged to fire thousands of tennis balls at him at an unbelievable speed is a chilling one.
I was particularly outraged by the attitude of his father and other adults toward his schooling. Agassi is clearly an intelligent person. He can remember, literally, everything, but as he explains in the book, except in English class he had difficulty grasping concepts. He had to have them explained to him a few times, and then he could remember them. When you watch his farewell speech at the 2009 U.S. Open or any of his speeches about his charter schools, you can see that he is a thoughtful, reasoned, even eloquent speaker who does not need notes. I am guessing that he may have had some sort of learning disability.
I feel so sorry for a boy who needed help with his lessons instead of a father who regularly had him skip school to play more tennis. Later he was sent to a tennis training school at the age of 14 (a school that sometimes sounds like something from Dickens and other times like Lord of the Flies), from which he was allowed to drop out of school to pursue, you guessed it, more tennis. This “preparation” gave him no other recourse–he was forced to follow a career in tennis because he had no other prospects and couldn’t do anything else.
Open is about Agassi learning to grow up and make peace with himself. It is terrifically engrossing, and his descriptions of some of the games made me wish that I had seen them. (Actually, I watched some of them on YouTube.) He avoids any kind of self-aggrandisement. In fact, as the title says, he is open for the first time in his life. Although he expresses himself honestly, he does not use the occasion of writing this memoir to slam other people or tell anyone’s secrets but his own. His depiction of certain other well-known figures (for example, his marriage to Brooke Shields and his rivalry with Pete Sampras) is balanced, and it seems, fair. Finally, I found it touching to see how a person who grew up in such a harsh environment would turn out to be so caring of others.