Many years ago on a bright, early fall afternoon, I was walking down a street in Manhattan. I can’t remember who was with me or where we were headed, but as we approached the steps leading down to a subway, a young man came up the stairs and emerged into the sunshine.
It was Andre Agassi, in full ragamuffin glory–his hair (or hairpiece, as we now know) blond and shaggy, his clothes so very late-’80s. His face lit up as his eyes met mine. He could see I recognized him, and he was expecting me to approach. Not only expecting it, but wanting it. At this moment in time, he was clearly savoring the perks of his new stardom, not hiding beneath a baseball cap and dark glasses.
I have a weird thing about celebrities. No matter how much I might like them, I dislike giving them the satisfaction of fawning over them. It’s just this little loveable quirk I have. Well, maybe not so loveable, but definitely a quirk. So even though Andre slowed down to meet me, I kept right on walking.
Yes, that’s right. I snubbed Andre Agassi.
By virtue of this close encounter, I consider myself uniquely qualified to write about his memoir Open. So many of you have read this book, a traditional review seems unnecessary. Instead, I’m just going to list some of the things that stood out to me in the book, some of which raised questions for me.
1. Agassi says repeatedly in the book that he hates tennis, but…did he really? Sure, he hated the way his father forced it on him, making his childhood lonely and miserable. He hated his father’s bullying and being shipped off to the Bollettieri Academy in 7th grade. He hated not having any choices in his life.
On the other hand, he did find some ambition and drive in trying to win all four majors–a goal he set for himself. He also has come back to tennis in recent years, first as a consulting coach for Novak Djokovic and, now, for Grigor Dimitrov. Most telling, the very last line of the book is “I want to play just a little while longer.”
I think his feelings about tennis are definitely more nuanced than “hate.”
2. In my fantasy life, I imagine being a child prodigy and going to the Bollettieri Academy. Agassi’s description of it–more like a sweatshop than a tennis camp–was eye-opening. I would not have been happy living that life and working that hard.
Some of the Agassi’s descriptions of the academy gave me pause, though:
“We eat gruel–beige meats and gelatinous stews and gray slop poured over rice–and sleep in rickety bunks that line the plywood walls of our military-style barracks. We rise at dawn and go to bed soon after dinner. We rarely leave and we have scant contact with the outside world….The constant pressure, the cutthroat competition, the total lack of adult supervision–it slowly turns us into animals. A kind of jungle law prevails. It’s Karate Kid with rackets, Lord of the Flies with forehands.”
I recently re-read Jane Eyre, and Agassi’s description reminds me of the young Jane’s years at the brutally spartan Lowood Institute for orphan girls. Do you think Bollettieri was really as bad as Agassi makes it sound? Or did he exaggerate some of the claims for the sake of a more powerful story? I don’t know the answer to this, only that the description feels heavy-handed. Jim Courier attended the academy at the same time as Agassi. It would be interesting to hear what he made of the experience.
3. I found it surprising that Agassi didn’t identify with the “Image Is Everything” slogan in his ads for Canon, as well as the fact that he didn’t see himself as a punk or a rebel. (He liked Barry Manilow music! That just blows my mind.) Agassi claims that he wasn’t wearing the loud clothes and wild hair to be noticed. He was trying to hide behind that image. This sounds plausible to me–does it to you?
4. One of my favorite parts of the book is how Brooke Shields convinced Agassi to ditch the hairpiece and shave his head. She tells him it will liberate him. He finally agrees.
“You were right, I tell her. My hairpiece was a shackle, and my natural hair, grown to absurd lengths, dyed three different colors, was a weight as well, holding me down. It seems so trivial–hair. But hair has been the crux of my public image, and my self-image, and it’s been a sham.”
I love this scene so much that it makes me a little sad that Agassi portrays Shields as shallow and cold elsewhere in the book, treating other people as merely bit players in the feature film that is her life. I don’t have any idea if that’s a fair characterization of her, but it feels like an unnecessary dig.
Agassi launches a similar broadside at Pete Sampras, who seems like a decent enough person. Agassi depicts him as hopelessly one-dimensional and dull, and includes the now infamous claim that Sampras was a stingy tipper. Certainly Sampras wasn’t as flashy as Agassi, but I’m not sure what he did to deserve being caricatured in this way.
5. But I did enjoy Agassi’s confirmation that Jimmy Connors really is a jerk. I’d always been a Connors fan and never really knew what to make of John McEnroe’s dislike of Connors. After all, McEnroe was no choir boy himself. Agassi writes that after the final match of his career, he retired to the locker room to the applause of all his fellow players…all except Connors, who at that point was coaching Andy Roddick. Connors stood to the side, watching, with his arms crossed. That’s pretty low.
6. Agassi (actually, the credit should go to Open‘s ghostwriter J.R. Moehringer) brilliantly captures the diverse personalities and speaking styles of the people in his life–Steffi Graf’s no-nonsense directness, his father’s hot tempered bluster, friend Perry’s cheery optimism, his brother Philly’s dopey mopiness. Best of all, for me, was the reproduction of Brad Gilbert’s rapid-fire speech:
“With your talent, if you’re fifty percent game-wise, but ninety-five percent head-wise, you’re going to win. But if you’re ninety-five percent game-wise and fifty percent head-wise, you’re going to lose, lose, lose. Again, since you’re from Vegas, put it this way. It takes twenty-one sets to win a slam. That’s all. You need to win just twenty-one sets. Seven matches, best of five. That’s twenty-one. In tennis, like cards, twenty-one’s a winner. Blackjack! Focus on that number, and you won’t go wrong. Simplify, simplify. Every time you win a set, say to yourself, That’s one down. That’s one in my pocket. At the start of the tournament, count backward from twenty-one. That’s positive thinking, see? Of course, speaking for myself, when I’m playing blackjack, I’d rather win with sixteen, because that’s winning ugly. No need to win with twenty-one. No need to be perfect.”
That’s quintessential Brad Gilbert.
7. I appreciated Open‘s theme about the role adults play, for good or bad, in shaping the lives of young people. His father’s ambitions destroyed Agassi’s childhood. Bollettieri let him down by allowing him to quit school after the 8th grade. It wasn’t until he met trainer Gil Reyes that Agassi finds a true father figure, someone who prioritized Agassi’s happiness. The book does an excellent job of showing why Agassi would eventually end up opening his own school, what he calls his greatest achievement. Is Agassi right–is his school and philanthropy his true legacy?
8. Finally, my New York encounter with Agassi didn’t make it into the book. Too painful for him? Who can say…
So, there you have it. Eight totally random thoughts about Open.
What did you think of the book?
I haven’t read it – and with your 8 points, I now feel like I don’t have to read it. Thanks!
I had no idea that you snubbed Agassi, but I’m not at all surprised. Let’s be honest, though: Would you have snubbed Borg?!
I would not be surprised if the tennis academy was spartan and authoritarian. At the time, the Russian athletic machine was churning out top performers in so many sports – and I think many programs here tried to emulate them. The intensity and adversity built grit, they thought. Still, I agree that it would be interesting to hear other former students corroborate the claims. I imagine the book would generate articles by former students or press coverage that delves into the claims.
Thanks again for the interesting Cliff Notes. And keep up the snubbing!
I would not have snubbed Borg. Good point. 🙂
And back when Agassi went to Bollettieri’s…well, it was a different generation. You probably couldn’t get away with the same stuff today as you could at that time. So maybe nothing was exaggerated.
There’s a documentary about Bollettieri–I think it’s called Love Means Nothing. I’m going to watch it at some point. I’m curious about whether there was ever any controversy about his academy. I don’t know if I can really read Jim Courier’s book though. He kind of bored me as a player, so I can’t imagine wading through his prose.