Thursday, April 8, 2010

Open: An autobiography by Andre Agassi

Did you know

(a) That Andre Agassi's long-haired famous mullet was actually a wig?

(b) That the reason he lost the 1990 French Open Final to 30-year old veteran Andres Gomez was because his wig threatened to fall off?

(c) That Agassi has a wonderful way of appearing to compliment people when he's really insulting them? (C.f. Brooke Shields, Pete Sampras).

(d) That he's really really sore about losing so many times to Pete Sampras but can channel his resentment wonderfully by focusing, for example, on Sampras' boringness or his inability to tip well?

(e) That he and Brad Gilbert called Boris Becker "B. B. Socrates" because they thought that he (Becker) tries to come off as an intellectual when he's just an "overgrown farm boy". That Agassi's hatred of Becker sustained him to play well for at least a year?

If you didn't know any of these, and if you like tennis and/or Andre Agassi himself, then by all means, read Open, Agassi's pretty well-written autobiography. I had a great time, for sure.

The first clever thing that Agassi did was in getting J. R. Moehringer to write it for him. The combination of Agassi's personality and acute observations along with Moehringer's writing makes the book worth reading.

Agassi also doesn't make the mistake of trying to distill his life to any easy lessons. Of course, there's a lot about what a tyrant his father was, and how Andre struggled to find himself, but not something like "If you want to lose weight, you must do X, Y and Z."

He also doesn't just give a censored version of his life but puts some of the juicier bits in as well. Drugs, bits of his love life, his tangled relationship with his family, his hair loss, everything's in there. (Not everything, of course. But what's in there is fairly interesting.)

He also gives some wonderful descriptions. Here is one, that occurs at the beginning of the book, of his own exhaustion, and of playing through pain and how the service box appears to shrink in size:
Easier said than done. The box is shrinking. I watch it gradually diminish in size. Can everyone else see what I'm seeing? The box is now the size of a playing card, so small that I'm not sure this ball would fit if I walked it over there and set it down. I toss the ball, hit an alligator-armed server. Out. Of course. Double fault. Deuce number eight.
There's a wonderfully funny passage where he imagines people's reactions had his wig fallen off during his French Open Final:
With every lunge, every leap, I picture it landing on the clay, like a hawk my father shot from the sky. I can hear a gasp going up from the crowd. I can picture millions of people suddenly leaning closer to their TVs, turning to each other and in dozens of languages and dialects saying some version of: Did Andre Agassi's hair just fall off?
His remarks about Jim Courier, Michael Chang and Pete Sampras winning a grand slam before him:
Bad enough that Chang had won a slam before me. And Pete. But Courier too? I can't let that happen.
There's a wonderful description of how he tanks a match (which I don't quite buy):
But losing on purpose isn't easy. It's almost harder than winning. You have to lose in such a away that the crowd can't tell, and in a way that you can't tell -- because of course you're not wholly conscious of losing on purpose. You're not even half conscious. Your mind is tanking, but your body is fighting on. Muscle memory. It's not even all of your mind that purposely loses, but a breakaway faction, a splinter group. The deliberately bad decisions are made in a dark place, far below the surface. You don't do those tiny things you need to do. You don't run the extra few feet, you don't lunge. You're slow to come out of stops. You hesitate to bend or dig. You get handsy, not using your legs or hips. You make a careless error, compensate for the error with a spectacular shot, then make two more errors, and slowly but surely you slide backward. You never actually think I'm going to net this ball. It's more complicated, more insidious.
I could go on and on. But I'll stop right here.

I'll make one point before I end though. In Freud's terms, everyone consists of an id and an ego. The id is your unconscious, responsible for all the dark desires, the weird likes, the irrational hates. The ego is your "rational" half, regulating everything, making you appear civilized. The problem with superstar autobiographies is that they tamp down on the id, neutering it, which results in a boring book. Open uses Agassi's phenomenal id in just the right amounts -- the result is a fun read.