I always liked Andre Agassi for his swagger, his courage under pressure, and his high highs and low lows. I respected him for dumping Brooke in favor of Steffi (talk about an upgrade!) and the way he worked on his kids' school in Vegas. But now, having read his recently published autobiography, Open, I am in full-fledged love with the man.
Who writes so honestly about the breakdown of his first marriage and then thanks his first wife in the book's acknowledgments for fact-checking the first draft of the text? Who takes recreational drugs at a moment of despair when his life is imploding, fails a drug test, blatantly lies about it to the governing body of his sport, and then decides it's a good idea to include all that in his book? A guy who has grown up and figured out a lot about life, that's who.
Agassi describes better than anyone else I have read the mixed blessing of extraordinary talent and drive. He has hated tennis from the age of 7, when his dad forced him to hit 2,500 balls a day ("Because hitting one million a year will make you number one") out of a device nicknamed the Dragon -- a homemade rocket launcher designed to shoot balls at 110 mph. Yet Agassi also loves the game. He's addicted to the attention he gets from playing it. He knows his gift is like a magnetic force drawing him into battle after battle until he finally unlocks its full expression.
It is nearly impossible to write about the challenge of being a superstar without coming off as a whiner. ("Try fighting in Iraq or doing a few shifts as a police officer," I think whenever I hear an athlete complaining about his job.) But Agassi speaks the truth about his duel to the death with tennis in a compelling, contradictory, and fascinating way that encompasses both his hate and love for his craft.
Tennis, Agassi points out, is unique in its isolation: It's a one-on-one battle; players are forbidden to speak to their coaches during a match; there is no physical contact with your opponent; matches swing wildly based on the dominance of one player over the other. Consequently, players spend much of their time between points talking to themselves or, in Agassi's case, yelling at himself.
Success in tennis is a matter of emotional will, developed over years and honed to a razor-sharp dagger used to stab your opponent directly in the heart at critical junctures of a match. Agassi describes in agonizing detail the moments when he was stabbed and when, triumphantly, he finally learned how to do the stabbing under extreme pressure. Nothing is more fun to read about than the grudge match between Andre and Boris Becker, who bad-mouthed Agassi to the press. Agassi takes a commanding lead, so Becker resorts to blowing kisses at Agassi's then-wife, Brooke Shields. Agassi keeps his rage in check just enough to rip Becker's lungs out on the court, where it counts.
Open ultimately is about one man's struggle to find himself. In that sense, Agassi's challenge is not unlike the one each of us faces. A friend of mine once defined a good man as one who finds a way to live a life of congruence, meaning that he is the same guy in public as he is in private, the same guy at work, with his kids, in his marriage, and in his friendships. He is always true to a single core self.
Extreme celebrity plays havoc with the attempt to find such peace of mind. We need look no further than Tiger Woods, countless politicians, and entertainers of all kinds to see the agony of not living a congruent life. I doubt Tiger or Spitzer or Madoff is enjoying himself much these days.
Open is an attempt to get under the fraud. All of Agassi's meltdowns are born out of his desire, despite his amazing gifts, to find a home on this planet. His huge heart ultimately allows him to become number one but, more importantly, become a good man on every level. The reward, of course, is happiness. Not fame. We could all use that reminder.
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