Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Andre Agassi - Open [audiobook review]

* Released in November 2009
When Andre Agassi's autobiography was announced, it was his admissions of drug and wig abuse that received the most traction in the media. Those juicy revelations are only a couple of the many fascinatingly candid disclosures that Agassi offers in the book. One of the first things you notice when listening to/reading the book is how well it's written. No, Agassi is not as prodigious a writer as he was a tennis player - the exceptional literary talent is courtesy of ghost writer J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
Agassi and Moehringer do an excellent job in sustaining the non-fan's interest, providing a nice balance of insight and reflection on both his personal and professional life. As someone with basically no interest in tennis, I feared the minutiae detailing Agassi's matches and training routines would wear thin, but such was not the case. In fact, I found the detailed match breakdowns quite gripping. His biggest rivalry is with Pete Sampras, who usually seems to have his number, and there's also a blatant dislike for Michael Chang (who annoys Agassi with his habit of giving thanks to God after a win), Jimmy Connors (who everyone else on the tennis tour despises), and Boris Becker. The story about Becker pushing Agassi's buttons at a U.S. Open semi-final match by blowing kisses to Brooke Shields, his fiancee, is hilarious.
Incredibly, Agassi carried a deep hatred for the sport throughout his life, ingrained by the fact he wasn't given a choice not to play by his overbearing father. He hid this disdain well, even up until the end of his career. Once he reaches the age where he can make his own decisions, Agassi still feels trapped by the sport and its pressures, threatening to quit on several occasions (even giving away all his racquets at one point), but ultimately returning to it because he can't think of anything else to do for a living. Late in his career, despite a number of painful injuries, he keeps at it, intent on providing as much of a nest egg for his family as possible, while also contributing his winnings to setting up and operating a charter school for underprivileged youth in Las Vegas, where he was raised. His tennis career was obviously one of significant accomplishments, especially the latter half, where he bottomed out at a ranking of #141 and then rededicated himself to getting back to the top spot, which he managed to achieve. Tennis magazine ranked him the 12th best player (male and female) of the modern era and while he takes pride in all of that, it appears to be his philanthropic achievements which make him most proud, especially as someone who never finished high school.
His personal life is no less interesting. Agassi ends up in a short, unhappy marriage with Brooke Shields and his level of frankness about her apparent lack of substance as a person is surprising (why did her marry her then?). His recount of her taping of a Friends episode, which was her biggest professional break in years, displays his immature and jealous side, as he bolts out of the studio when she has to make out with one of the actors. She also doesn't like his friends and he doesn't feel comfortable with her showbiz friends, which only contributes to their tension. In the midst of this unhappiness, his career also hits the skids, leading him to start using crystal meth regularly. After failing a drug test, he lies his way out of it, blaming the presence of the drugs in his system on a spiked drink he unknowingly consumed. Tennis officials bought the explanation. Once he gets his life and career back on track, he romantically pursues tennis legend Steffi Graff, ultimately marrying her and starting a family.
Contradictions abound with Agassi. He despised the famous "image is everything" advertising campaign for Canon that made him millions and brought plenty of scorn, and maintains that he didn't believe in the philosophy, yet when his hair started thinning at an alarming rate he did everything he could, including wearing bad mullet wigs, to maintain the illusion. Despite his rebel image, which he insists wasn't deliberately orchestrated, Agassi demonstrates a decidedly middle-of-the road (and that's being kind) taste in music, favouring the sounds of Celine Dion, Richard Marx, Barry Manilow, Kenny G, Michael Bolton, David Foster, and Barbra Streisand, even developing friendships with a number of them. His business relationship with Nick Bollettieri also raises questions. Bollettieri ran the world famous tennis school where Agassi was sent at age 13, a place that Agassi recalls as "a prison camp", with little good to say about its owner. Even after turning pro at age 16, Bollitieri travels with Agassi as a mentor and coach, working with the young star for several years, even though Agassi characterizes him in the book as someone who is egotistical, obnoxious, greedy, and unknowledgeable about tennis.
To begin to understand Agassi, one needs to shine the spotlight on his father Mike, a former Olympic boxer from Iran who possesses a truly scary drive to see Andre become a world champion and is worthy of a book all by himself. Mike's first three attempts at tennis stardom with Andre's two older sisters and brother flamed out, leaving Andre as the last hope. And so we have a steady stream of stories and anecdotes about Mike's bizarre, tyrannical behaviour. He puts a mobile with dangling tennis balls above Andre's crib, encouraging his infant son to hit them with a ping pong paddle taped to his hand. At four years old, his dad has him hitting balls against pros like Jimmy Connors. Mike uses Andre to hustle other tennis players for money, roping them in with his boy's young age that initially masks his prodigious tennis skills. One victim of the hustle is NFL Hall Of Fame running back Jim Brown. At seven, Andre is hitting 2,500 tennis balls a day (which works out to almost 1,000,000 balls a year), fed from a machine that his dad has modified to increase the serving speed up to 110 miles per hour. Further examples cementing his title as Worst Sports Dad Ever are Mike secretly giving his kids amphetamines to boost their performance on the court, making Andre's older brother play a match with a broken wrist, pulling his kids out of school so they can get extra practice, and yanking a trophy that Andre has just won out of his hands at a national tournament and smashing it on the ground, because it was only for good sportsmanship and not for winning the tournament. And those are just the sports-related oddities. Mike also has a violent temper, leading to a road rage incident that has him assaulting a truck driver and leaving him unconscious in the middle of the road, while Andre watches from the passenger seat. Mike is also prone to making sure he never leaves the house without a pocketful of salt and pepper (lest he encounter bad company and need to blind someone in a street fight), grooming his nose hairs by just yanking them out, and shaving his face to a bloody mess without using shaving cream, soap, or water.
Open would benefit from a slight paring down, or maybe it just feels longer than it is because of the audiobook's reader, Eric Davies. Davies' voice pushes on your nerves somewhat, especially when he adopts different silly voices for a woman or child character. Clocking in at over 18 hours, his delivery may prove to be a minor challenge to endure, but the content from which he draws is rarely dull.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆


  1. If this were a book about Boris Becker, I'd read it.

  2. I should try and edit just the sections that talk about his rivalry with Becker for you. I'll try to get on that...


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