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.