Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book Review: Open by Andre Agassi




As I neared the end of Andre Agassi's best-selling autobiography "Open", I had so many conflicting emotions that I thought it might help to do spreadsheet with one column for things I liked about the book and another for what I didn't like about it. It proved to be a useless attempt to organize my thoughts, because often the things I liked about it were the things I didn't like about it. In others words, my reactions are complicated and contradictory, and in many ways that mirrors the book itself.

Joel Drucker, in his excellent review of the book for the San Francisco Chronicle calls it a "confessional fairy tale," and it's hard to disagree. There are villains, heroes, foes to vanquish, heroines to woo, and it all ends happily ever after. Hanging your life story on a framework like that certainly helps to move it along, take it out of the mundane, daily diary mode, but it necessarily leads to portraying complex personalities only in the context of the roles you've assigned them.

Although I don't live with one, I have encountered some pretty scary tennis parents in the course of the past half dozen years, and yet none of them would come close to Mike Agassi if his son's portrayal of him in the book is accurate. If Nick Bollettieri is as greedy, thoughtless and selfish as he's painted here, it would be hard to imagine how he's managed to maintain the respect of the rest of the tennis world for so long.

As many other reviewers have noted, Agassi's longtime trainer Gil Reyes is cast in the hero's role, and if there's one negative thought or action assigned to him in the book, I don't recall it. And yet, after knowing his wife Steffi Graf for less than five years, it's she whom he calls "the greatest person I have ever known," at her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

An autobiography, which is I guess what we call celebrity memoirs, must be selective; in the very eventful 30 years this one covers, Agassi can't possibly go into much depth on every personality and experience that changed his life. But contrast his treatment of the two most sensational excerpts released before publication: the crystal meth use and the premature balding. The only drug scene presented is the first; the others--"too many" being the only number he'll give--aren't referenced, and the process of getting off what is a highly addictive drug isn't discussed. Yet his obsession with his hair, which is comical in a way that drug usage can never be, is explored much more thoroughly, culminating with a head-shaving scene in wife Brooke Shield's Manhattan brownstone.

This brings me to the central question that I've had since I read those excerpts, and still have now that I've read the book. Why?

Why write a memoir that casts your father as a monster, your mentor as a charlatan, your sport as a prison, your ex-wife as an airhead, your colleagues as boobs, your trainer as a saint, your wife as a goddess?

What's to be gained? Most of us who care about tennis (whether Agassi himself is that category, I still don't know) have seen the change in Agassi over the years. We've constructed our own story about his life; we've been inspired by his second act, his philanthropy, while imagining as best we can how difficult it must be to grow up in the public eye. But once he gives us all these details, and tells that this time he's telling us the truth, unlike all those other times when he was lying to us, the inspiration fades.

It's a fascinating book about a complicated personality, and ghostwriter JR Moehringer deserves much of the credit for making it a compelling read. But it's hard to shake the feeling that, after three years out of the public eye, Agassi needed to get back in the spotlight. Like one of his legendary backhand returns, he hit that target perfectly.


DISCLOSURE: I was provided a free review copy of the book as a member of the US Tennis Writers Association.

23 comments:

Texastennismom said...

Hi Colette,

I'm wondering if you read the same book I read. (You seem to have left out the parts you liked...)

If I may say so, I think you have misread. The book is in the present tense in an effort to convey what he thought at that specific time - of his father when he was a young child, of Bolletieri when he was a teenager, of other players when he was playing them. It has nothing at all to do with what he came to think later or thinks now - so it doesn't intend to say anything about how the Bolletieri academy survived, for instance, and perhaps it wouldn't have done if it had gone on being like that. I seem to recall it did nearly go under before IMG took over. (And I'd wager between the passage of 25 years since Agassi was there, multiple marriages for NB and the corporatization of the academy via IMG, that it is very different now and that's why it's survived.)

Likewise he's not trying to give "complex views" of his competitors. My daughter plays tennis and she'd be quick to tell you she hates girl a or girl b is a horror based on their fleeting interactions at tournaments - Where do you think players would get chance to get complex views of each other? He's wanting to say how he felt at the time of those matches.

Agassi's just trying to convey his perception at the whatever time.

I find it strange that you liked it better when you "imagined" how hard it is to grow up in the spotlight and you prefer what you imagined to the (brutal be it) truth. I prefer the truth myself...

And on Graf - why shouldn't he say he thinks she's the greatest person he's known (after "only" five years together). Why is that offensive? He does obviously adore her and you know I think the world would be a better place if more men openly adored their wives..

Why he 's decided to tel now? No idea and probably many reasons but I don't think desire to be in the spotlight is one - he could have done that many other ways. perhaps you know just tired of this big lie being out there - you know how the saying goes, the truth will set you free. I can imagine it's pretty liberating for him not to be hiding that.

And - $85 million raised for inner city kids later - that's no lie and it's a far worthier way to spend your time and money than most other less "mixed up" 20 somethings achieve in real adulthood...

What it made me think in fact wa about all the young people (tennis and otherwise) who come quickly to extraordinary prominence - success, fame, money, celebrity, pressure, media scrutiny etc. And wilt under it, and even start acting crazily. Maybe we'll be more sympathetic to them. Maybe we'll think how much pressure they're under so young. Maybe we'll be even more appreciative when they don't disappear (as many do) but get back ... Melanie Oudin and Ivanovic both seem to be the in the lost in the maelstrom category right now to name only two tennis examples. I'm hoping they'll be able to follow Agassi's lead and find their forward. I'd be all for all young players reading it.

Colette Lewis said...

@texastennismom:

Thanks for your comment. I fully realize that I'm in the minority in my opinion of the book, but yes, it is the same book you read. I enjoyed the accounts of the tennis matches and strategy sessions. I simply came away with the feeling that Agassi was not a reliable narrator, and I hoped to explain why I felt that.

I'm still trying to answer that question of why.

J said...

Well Texastennismom,it seems like you really like Agassi or you are intrigued by liars, cheaters and ungrateful people. I just hope as a tennis mom you are not raising your child that way, but that's just me. Collette I'm with you on this one, tennis is a sport of integrity, firm principles, honor and truthfullness and Agassi whether then or now has not portrayed these qualities for me to encourage young upcoming tennis to read his book. As for his dad my heart go out to him for the reproach, criticism and accusations labeled on him by his son, who today is enjoying his marriage and life due to the fruits of his father's labor. The only place I see Agassi's future is in The Tennis Hall of Shame!

tennisforlife said...

I agree with Colette - in the interest of full disclosure i haven't finished the book yet but I'm struggling to get through it. It feels contrived to me - like I'm reading an attempt to write a tennis version of Doctor Zhivago - overly dramatic - Agassi is a great personality in the game and he has done a lot of good with his academy but I couldn't help feeling he was writing a book with the express purpose of making a lot of money.... Sorry

Amtex said...

Texastennismom is 100% correct. Most people don't get that the book is written in the present tense at each time in Agassi's life.

Thats what he thought of his dad then....thats what he thought of Nick B. then....thats what he was thinking at each different stage of his life.

It is a phenomenal book, providing some great insights. Andre was not looking for approval or disapproval, just writing what happened in his life and what he was thinking at the time.

I live in Bradenton and have been around the tennis world here for a long time....Nick is not the worshipped saint many think he is. He is feared more than respected as he can make or break kid's chances at will. He is a (self) promoter like Don King....not a true tennis teacher like a Robert Lansdorp or Rick Macci.

And J's judgements are harsh. Sure Agassi made his share of mistakes.

But his foundation and school have helped save hundreds of kids. That makes up for some drug use and a lie to cover it 100000000 times over!

The strange need to paint people as good or bad is silly. We are all blends of good and bad deeds throughout our lives.

abc said...

The book is an autobiography from his perspective. What do you expect? It's going to be his thoughts, his actions. Just about any autobiography that was written from the person's perspective is going to be biased, whether we like it or not.

ReadTheBook said...

Just finished the book today, I am in between Texastennismom and Colette...not sure which way I am leaning. What I did get out of the book that I did not know...Agassi was/is a tortured soul, I am glad he has been able to find some peace with Stephanie (not Steffi as we learn)and hope his philanthropy keeps him that way. I do find it kind of funny that his Academy has such strict rules in that he was such an overt rebel he demands it of the kids...

I also just read that Parry, his childhood best friend and business partner, has recently sued Stephanie...looks like another relationship going sour...too bad, he seemed like a good friend....

Eric Amend said...

Colette, while I haven't read the book yet, I very much enjoyed your insightful critique and it was well written.

All I have to say is TYPICAL comment from J!

J, I knew Agassi's father back then and he was an a**!!! So don't come in here defending him when you have no idea what the hell you're talking about. He was an obnoxious tennis parent and abusive to his kids; just because he's their father, doesn't give him the right to abuse them, no matter what he may have done to further Andre's tennis career!!

lynn said...

Thanks for a great review Colette!

You answered the one big question that had: How did Agassi get off crystal meth? Not an easy task, and one that you would think would be covered in-depth since it probably wasn't an easy journey.

Given that, and the fact that Agassi claims he's using the book as a "confessional" makes me wonder why he isn't spending his time talking directly to youth about drug use instead of doing paid appearances and copious media on a book tour.


Then again, from what I've heard from others, he doesn't talk his fall out with Perry Rogers either. My take-away, which is purely assumption, is that his usage wasn't as bad as what he made it out to be; but it does make for more interesting reading (i.e. book sales).

So, explain to me again just exactly how open "Open" really is? ;^)

oldschool said...

Hey Lynn, before you criticize Andre for not "spending his time" talking directly to kids, why don't you do a little research about what he has done for kids ? As for J's comments, it's obvious that person has not read the book. I respect Collette's opinons, but I found the book to be inspiring and fascinating, not to mention brutally honest.

lynn said...

Hey oldschool: For the record, I'm well aware of what Andre does and doesn't do. But I appreciate your perspective. You're obviously a big fan and you're defending him.

You should know however, that he's out on a major national book tour where he's going on talk shows and chatting an awful lot about his mullet and Brooke Shields, but he's not getting out and talking directly to kids about his drug issues (and no, I'm not including ones in Vegas at his charter school). If he wants to make an impact, that seems to me to much more meaningful.

Cheers

Nancy J said...

Dear Collette,

The medical evidence is that meth is tough to beat. His ease of beating it doesn't seem truthful to me either.

However, anyone who has read anything about Agassi (including Mike Agassi's autobio, already knows that his father was a monster! Mike, himself, in his own book apologizes to daughter, Rita, for "ruining" her life!

So, to be "open," of course Andre exposed certain villains, his father being the worst. Who I feel sorry for is Betty Agassi. However, apparently she didn't protect any of her children. It's tough, but the truth!

Fact is, Mike was a violent madman who once publicly (in SI) spoke of planning to put a hit on Pancho Gonzalez hints of maybe an underage affair with Rita are hinted at...).

This family was troubled. That had to be in Agassi's book, or else why write it.

Brooke Shields. If you read between the lines as well as in the lines, Andre admits that he was unfair to Shields.

Refusing to speak to her for DAYS after a loss or before an important tournament. "Feigning" interest in her and what she cared about. Having his "tantrum" after the Friends debacle.

Maybe Brooke only spoke of "things" with her husband, because it was HE who didn't even want to marry her to begin with, and made it impossible for her to open to him. I get that from the book.

Outside of Betty Agassi, the family treated Brooke like crap. No wonder she hated visiting Las Vegas!!!! Andre did conveniently leave that out of his book.

Another thing, people have blamed Brooke for years about being bad for Andre's tennis. The truth of this book is that he was the one who was toxic for them BOTH!

Brooke was also right about Perry. Last year, his good friend Perry sued the "goddess" Stefanie Graf, and is now "divorced" from Andre (using his words). Score another one for Brooke!

About Graf. He may have known her for only "five years," but he had two rejections of his advances eight and then seven years before she decided to notice him.

They are alike. Read the description of his bedroom in "Bachelor Pad 1." How it was all black -- doesn't it remind you of Steffi's 1992 description of her own bedroom?!

They're both perfectionists (when Andre decides to do anything, he finds an expert in it -- including the ghost writer of Open), moody (Graf would lock herself up in her room for days after her own losses too), and someone who wants to give back after a young life of being only about self (look at Graf's foundation). So, he found the perfect woman for him.

He hated tennis, but it gave him a stable financial life (which was his dad's goal all along - Peter Graf's too), and it gave him probably the most "perfect" person on the planet to understand his pain - Graf, AND it gave him a dad figure - Gil.

Open also has some factual inconsistencies. But it's humorous and tells enough in a style that gives one a glimpse and a sense of how things were for this boy turned man.

I give the book an A+. Imperfect, but what a read. Funny too (although, Mike Agassi's is way funnier).

Nancy J said...

Lynn,

I believe it's enough that Andre admitted a mistake and WORSE that he lied about it. He writes how shameful that made him feel. He doesn't need to talk to kids about it, he's reaching people through media and through his book! We're talking about it. What I admire is how Andre tried to seek atonement with good works when he got his second chance.

It's a shame that in our society we encourage people to admit and then get help for their problems, yet then we don't forgive but merely judge them for ever having the problem in the first place (I'm not talking about you here Lynn, just in general).

I feel that we FORCE people to lie because if they tell the truth about a problem -- we crucify them. I understand how Andre got caught up in drugs and the lie (even if I'm disappointed that he lied).

How Andre is being treated now is how he would have been treated then. Worse. No one would have reached out to help a troubled soul, but rather instead would have loved seeing him fall and lose everything. Which he would have.

So, Andre lied and took full advantage of his second chance to do something great. Help some kids. Save some lives. Inspire some people (like moi).

What disappoints me is how Andre is being judgmental right now towards Serena Williams! Especially if he knows what she suffered at the US Open when she was cheated out of a match due to bad line calls when she played J-Cap in 2004 (?). I didn't like her reaction at this past Open, but I understood it. Stefanie Graf was much more understanding.

Andre admits to be a "contradiction," which he is in his Serena debacle reaction. Also, he himself abhorred authority, yet he makes his academy kids pledge to respect "AUTHORITY!"

He's a living contradiction, but he admits that he is. It must be difficult to be such a perfectionist, and yet realize that he is a walking contradiction full of imperfections.

Texastennismom said...

Interesting discussion:

1) I don't think Agassi's trying to be an "objective narrator," Collete. Just tell his life as he experienced it at the time. Someone else observing the same would have a different account and that doesn't make either right or wrong.

2)Re Rogers. The book ends in 2006 and is very fair re Rogers I think. They split not until 2008 I think, so that's why it isn't it. It's nothing to do with not being "open." Next volume...:-)

3) Getting off crystal meth - seems to have been a repeated but casual user; I've see discussion by several former users on other boards re how they also were able to stop - many variables in people's experience with that; his $$ can buy a lot of assistance short of "rehab" per se; I think he's talked completely honestly about his experience with it in numerous media accounts and I imagine he's going to keep on.

4) I thought Shields actually came out of this well in this way. They were obviously hopelessly unsuited for each other. (In fact one question I'd like some journalist to ask him is why the hell he didn't just break up with her - engaged people break up all the time...) But this last decade, a stable part of the Agassi story in the media has been that she ruined him, she was responsible for his slump. Nobody's ever going to blame her again...

5) Serena - in the comment I read, he said she was totally out of line and that's tennis when so little separates the best of you from the the worst of you. In a couple of reports, I think only the first part of that quote was included - which is a typical press deal as journalists seem always to look for the most sensational angle.

I haven't seen Graf comment on Serena or anything to do with the book in fact yet. Where is that?

He's no angel (and I never thought he was which maybe is why I'm not surprised ... whoever thought his hair was his own? As soon as he appeared with a shaved head, it was obvious he'd been losing his hair for years and that cap had indeed being covering it up as gossip suggested)), but he's grown up to own his mistakes and live a very productive, successful, committed to helping other life - I think that's admirable

(And not J because I admire liars or am raising my kids to be liars - lol. Maybe trying reading the book before leaping to harsh judgment about any of this.)

wi tennis said...

Great reviews from most. I believe reading and interpretation of books is very different for everybody. That's the beauty of literature, art, etc. Right? I'm not trying to get deep, but who's to tell someone (especially the person who provides all of this great tennis information, free of cost for you) that they "misread" a book. Who's to also say that they know exactly what Agassi was thinking besides Andre?

Just a thought about the positive drug test: What if this was going to come out and he beat people to the punch? (like Alex Rodriguez) What if Andre actually tested positive for performance enhancing!? Why would Andre feel guilty about testing positive for a performance dehancing drug??? Really? And why didn't he get super-skinny and his teeth all messed up? Very easy to see signs of meth addicts. You don't just take meth recreationally.

He magically got super strong and bloated at that time. How can you do that with meth? He had just switched with Gil Reyes. Gil Reyes cannot overcome genetics (Andre was always skinny) and meth, especially in a sport where you play 11 months out of the year. There's not a lot of time to just get bigger. Funny how Verdasco is looking like a beast (after switching with Reyes) and was more fit than Nadal in the Aussie Open match, too, after being skinny before. Obviously, if all of the small name players are doping and getting caught and athletes in all other sports are doping, why would top players in tennis not dope?

The need for quick recovery from matches and from strength workouts the same day or the day before a match is very obvious. There is nothing on the planet that works better for that than doping! Maybe, I'm wrong, too???

Nancy J said...

Texastennismom,

Both Andre and Stefanie comment on Serena's US Open debacle in the upcoming Vogue interview,"Perfect Match." The magazine should hit shelves this week or next (Dec 2009 issue).

get real said...

Lets face it people like you want to hear the negative and not the positive, if there is anything in raising a great athlete. People like you want to have the magic potion and want to have a crystal ball into raising your own child or student. It is what it is and i give him credit for speaking out true or not. For every successful person is alot of skeletons in the closet. I personally will wait til i can get it at a discount store(NOT). He has done great things for the lower income families. If all high paying athletes would give back one way or another the world would be a little bet brighter.

The Dude said...

I like Agassi more than I ever did after reading about his exploits from the book. He's forthright and brutal but he's laying it all out which you don't get in today's "politically correct" society. He's selling a lot of books but I am wait listed to reserve his book from my local library which has 17 copies.

Mike Danger said...

Colette,

'Why' is because Agassi just isn't as complex as you think. Like Billie Jean King, who has also done a lot of good things for the world, there's a pettiness, mean-spiritedness and desperation to remain in the spotlight that underscores everything they do.
That's not complex, its sad and kind of pathetic.

Why confess to using crystal meth? Because it's going to lose you less friends and fans than if you admit to using steroids.

Jon King said...

I thought the book was amazing, a masterpiece really. Great stories, brutal honesty, and it hit home numerous times. Every guy I know can relate to Andre's thoughts at various times in their lives.

Tyler said...

I've read Blake's book and Sampras's book. Based on many comments I have little interest in Agassi's unless it's a gift. It seems as if Agassi has positioned himself to sell books almost a like he's doing a movie junket for his book. If Agassi has not sensationalized anything then it sounds as if it is worth reading. I find the French Open hair piece drama as nothing more than reducing Courier's accomplishment. Hopefully tennis channel will show that match so that all can see Agassi getting outsmarted and beat. The book thing almost seems as if it has become a competition beyond the tennis matches, Blake, Sampras, Agassi, Spadea, and now a second McEnroe book a different McEnroe? However if you compare Agassi's honesty with Sampras you would definitely give the edge to Agassi. Sampras never mentioned that Delaney, lawyer girlfriend, who should have been given some credit as a support system during his successful timeframe.

Texastennismom said...

On your skepticism about Agassi's portrayal of the Bollettieri Academy (at that time - nothing about now....), here's an article from SI in 1980 that describes it as .... a prison camp. Also less than flattering about NB. It's remarkably like the Agassi version although the latter is from a teen's perspective and the SI article from a journalists.

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1123505/index.htm

michael gilchrist said...

I know a lot of people criticized Agassi for coming forward with his use of illegal drugs, but I find him to be a very genuine person that is admitting mistakes and trying to move on with his life. He has devoted a lot of his time to helping kids, and I hope he continues his good work!