Albert Camus’ The Fall centers on a man confessing a horrible personal failing and then claiming that such a public airing of his actions actually made him feel better. In an era of reality television, self-glorifying blogs and hours spent on social networking sites, decadent focus on the self has never been stronger. Given the pre-sale snippets, my concern was that Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open might venture into this sort of narcissistic self-disclosure.
Thankfully, my apprehension was well off the mark. There were a few moments in the book that I felt could have been handled better. Pat Etcheberry’s approach to tennis helped Jim Courier, Pete Sampras and Justine Henin. Etcheberry deserved better than being repeatedly called a “spitting Chilean” and having his methods questioned. Agassi’s descriptions of marital problems with Brooke Shields were awkward to read at times.
On balance, Open is a great read. I agree with most reviews that the co-author crafted a book that flowed easily while also being intellectually engaging. This is not an easy balance to attain. Stefanie Graf and Gil Reyes come across as being virtuous people one would want as friends. A lot of ink has already been spilled on this book so rather than give a blow by blow account of Open, I will discuss Agassi’s impact on junior tennis in the 1990’s, discuss Open in light of two other tennis books and offer a concluding thought.
Andre Agassi has been a big part of the tennis scene for most of my time as a fan and player. I am roughly 5 years younger than Agassi and started to play tennis competitively around the same time I became aware of Andre’s existence. I remember writing a piece on Agassi in 1987 for my grammar school newspaper. When I was 12 I excitedly hit tennis balls against the wall of my parent’s house on the day of Andre and Jimmy Connors’ 1988 U.S. Open quarterfinal clash. I tried to break down the match in my head as I played Jimbo and the wall played Agassi. I fared no better against the wall than Connors did against Agassi.
Between 1990-1994 I had a first hand look at USTA junior tennis, high school tennis, team tennis, and recreational tennis. Agassi’s impact was quite obvious to any teen playing the sport. It was common to see rubber bands used as vibration dampeners. Many players wielded fluorescent Donnay rackets or black Prince Graphite Oversize rackets. Taking the ball early was not something Agassi invented, but junior tournaments in this time period generally featured players trying to aggressively attack serves and trying to hover close to or inside the baseline during rallies. Agassi was not alone in impacting junior players. I was playing in a statewide qualifying tournament for the Southern Closed regional tournament, and the second day of the event was the Sunday of the 1991 French Open final that Jim Courier won over Agassi. In an act a sociologist might describe as contagious magic, almost every competitor was wearing a white baseball cap during the hundreds of matches being contested. Perhaps we all assumed that the baseball cap gave Courier his grit, fitness, and powerful forehand. At any rate, countless young players were inspired to take up tennis by competitors from Agassi’s generation, but no one had a broader impact on the average junior player from this era than did Andre Agassi.
I have also read Jon Feinstein’s Hard Courts and Nick Bollettieri’s My Aces, My Faults. The context provided by these books made Agassi’s descriptions of the 1990 season and of Wimbledon 1995 more vivid. Bollettieri coached Boris Becker from 1994 through Wimbledon 1995. While reading about Agassi’s “Summer of Revenge” during the hard court season of 1995, I could not help being annoyed that Becker unexpectedly dumped Bollettieri before the 1995 U.S. Open. To get an added glimpse inside of the Agassi-Becker 1995 U.S. Open semifinal would have been great. Maybe B.B. Socrates could explain why he blew kisses to A.A. Aristotle’s wife.
Open offers a lot of context to the cycles of success and failure one saw in Andre’s career from 1988-1997. I think the story of Agassi coming to terms with his gifts, his childhood and his goals is one worth reading. From Rudy to Rocky, many true and fictitious sports stories center on an underdog finding a way to go the distance while defying the odds. Few stories focus on a world class talent going the distance. Talent can be a heavy burden as most failures rest firmly on the shoulders of the talented. Outside of Sampras and a select few other players, if Agassi lost during his twenties, the defeat almost surely was attributed to lack of preparation, lack of confidence or poor strategy. Agassi did at times fail to train or complete as hard as he could have, but tennis fans can also look at countless examples of talented players who never came close to going the distance or to making a recovery from earlier struggles. Agassi may not be the classic underdog, but that makes his story interesting. A player with limited options such as Brad Gilbert has no other choice but to maximize everything to achieve the odd high ranking and an occasional grand slam quarterfinal. Agassi had many options, and still in the end found a way to maximize his abilities and hit the finish of his career at full speed. To me Open is a personal and professional success story that could have easily ended in failure.
An After Thought
Jim Courier and Andre Agassi both spent their formative years at together in Bradenton. I think each would say life as a top flight junior tennis player living at a tennis academy was a strange way to come of age. Courier served as executive producer for the 2007 documentary Unstrung that explored the lives of the top prospects in U.S. junior tennis at that time. Andre Agassi wrote Open. I think Agassi and Courier were in part trying to make sense out of the strange world from which each emerged into adulthood. Courier looked outward to younger junior players and Agassi looked inward to his own story to seek understanding. I think holding the two works together offers great insight into the world of elite tennis.
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