Locked into a career

Lead review

Locked into a career

Open: An autobiography Andre Agassi HarperCollins, 2009,  pp 388, Rs 599

Even those not convinced that Andre Agassi was the best tennis player of his time will readily admit he outdid all others in attracting attention, beginning in the 1980s, when he was a teenage phenom from Las Vegas who blazed onto the pro tour in flamboyant, Nike-­sponsored plumage — stone-washed denim, skintight ‘Hot Lava’ compression shorts, midnight-at-the-roulette-wheel shades — that blinded many to the granite consistency of his game: the compact, bludgeoning ground strokes, the lethal service return, the lightning reflexes.

Now, three years into his retirement, Agassi’s sterling accomplishments are again being obscured, this time by pre-publication revelations from his autobiography, Open, especially his admission that during one low period he found solace in crystal methamphetamine, supplied by his ‘assistant’, and later lied about it to tennis officials, thus avoiding a three-month suspension. Given the current scandals involving steroids and human growth hormone, Agassi’s infraction seems minor, even quaint, characterised as it was by late-night binges that more likely retarded rather than “enhanced” his match-day performances.

The more arresting news is that Open is one of the most passionately anti-sports books ever written by a superstar athlete — bracingly devoid of triumphalist homily and star-spangled gratitude. Agassi’s announced theme is that the game he mastered was a prison he spent some 30 years trying to escape. His first cell was the backyard court his immigrant father, Mike, built behind the family’s ramshackle house in the parched outskirts of Las Vegas. Armenian, raised poor in Iran and employed as a ‘captain’, or usher, at a casino on the Strip, Mike Agassi was determined to groom a champion and subjected all four of his children to abusive training, yanking them out of school for extra practice time. The three eldest all crumbled under the pressure. The jackpot came with the fourth, who was blessed with preternatural hand-eye coordination, honed in daily sessions in which he swatted as many as 2,500 balls belched forth by a machine at speeds of up to 110 miles per hour, at angles so acute the seven-year-old Andre had to swing the instant the ball landed, lest it bounce over his head — the trick of hitting “on the rise” that eventually would freeze opponents, helpless as even their most blistering shots came screaming back.

All this was nurturing, at least compared with his next incarceration, at the Florida tennis academy, or “glorified prison camp,” operated by Nick Bollettieri, a sun-baked entrepreneur paid thousands of dollars by parents who shipped their children off for months, even years, of incessant drilling, lectures on motivational psychology and nights spent in barracks-like dorms. “The constant pressure, the cutthroat competition, the total lack of adult supervision — it slowly turns us into animals,” Agassi writes. This happened at a time when tennis promoters were eager to feed the public’s infatuation with under-age champions like Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert, not to mention half-forgotten casualties like Jimmy Arias and Andrea Jaeger — a phenomenon that recalls the unhealthy national “love affair” almost a century ago with screen virgin-goddesses like Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters. Agassi rebelled by drinking, brawling, body piercing and sporting “one pinky nail that’s two inches long and painted fire-engine red.”

Dictated by talent
Locked into a career dictated by talent and upbringing, he found escape off-court, surrounded by the entourage, or surrogate family, he assembled and in most instances paid for, in particular the company of two father figures — his physical trainer, Gil Reyes, and his coach, Brad Gilbert. Together they reconstructed Agassi’s body and his game, and made possible his extraordinary, late-career resurgence, when, at last finding joy in tennis, he briefly eclipsed his archrival, Pete Sampras, and staked his claim to being the era’s dominant player. The numerology of pelt accumulation favours Sampras, who won 14 Grand Slam titles, seven of them at Wimbledon, and held a 20-14 advantage in head-to-head matches.

But in his prime Agassi possessed the more complete game, suited to every surface (clay, grass, hardcourt). He is one of only three men in the open era, and the only American man, to capture each of the four Grand Slam titles, compiling in one stretch (1999-2000) a record of 27-1 in successive majors — a ho-hum burst of excellence in the brave new world of Roger Federer, though it was the best streak in 30 years, dating back to Rod Laver’s full cycle of Grand Slam victories in 1969.

There is no sexual boasting in Open, but there are full accounts of Agassi’s two marriages. His first, to Brooke Shields, rich tabloid nutriment at the time, lasted just two years, the classic bad pairing of jock and starlet, a kind of inverse Joe DiMaggio-Marilyn Monroe, since Shields was his elder by five years, her career stalled, while Agassi was nearing his zenith on the pro tour and raking in surplus millions from his Nike contract. The wedding, scripted by Shields, is rendered in Open as bleak farce, from the ceremony in the ritzy coastal town of Carmel, Calif. — “with four helicopters full of paparazzi circling overhead” and the squat groom wearing elevator shoes, so as not to be dwarfed by his towering bride — through the day-after family barbecue, with the couple making their entrance astride horses and outfitted in cowboy wear.

Apart from having been pushed onto the stage as children, the glamourous couple had nothing in common. Soon after his divorce in 1999, Agassi began wooing Steffi Graf, another former tennis prodigy, who, Agassi says, loathed the game as much as he did but surpassed him in disciplined, competitive fury. The two agreed not to build a court behind their home in Las Vegas, to spare their children. Instead, Agassi spent and raised millions to erect a youth centre that grew into a charter “education complex” in the city’s most ravaged district, a superb act of philanthropy that gave underprivileged children, most of them African-Americans, the one advantage he himself had been denied.

Equally hard-won self-knowledge irradiates almost every page of Open, thanks in great part to Agassi’s inspired choice of collaborator, J R Moehringer, author of the memoir The Tender Bar, with its melody of remembered voices. Agassi says he read it in 2006, at his last US Open, and then recruited Moehrin­ger to help him write his own book.

The result is not just a first-rate sports memoir but a genuine bildungsroman, darkly funny yet also anguished and soulful. It confirms what Agassi’s admirers sensed from the outset, that this showboat, with his garish costumes and presumed fatuity, was not clamouring for attention but rather conducting a struggle to wrest some semblance of selfhood from the sport that threatened to devour him.

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