Tuesday, March 23, 2010

All that racquet: Andre Agassi’s memoir gets intimate

Open: An Autobiography
By Andre Agassi, Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95

The front and back cover photos of Andre Agassi’s new memoir, Open, epitomize the world-class tennis star’s life story.
On the front, Agassi’s 38-year-old face fills the entire cover, speckled with sun spots from three decades of hard time on the court. His amber eyes look directly at the reader.
On the back is a late-‘70s shot of a 7-year-old Agassi in a trim white polo and jean cut-offs, Dodgers-blue Adidas set off by red-banded crew socks, racquet poised to slam an incoming tennis ball.

It is ghostwritten by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author J.R. Moehringer, whose memoir The Tender Bar Agassi devoured while competing in the 2006 U.S. Open. (Moehringer also wrote the L.A. Times magazine article about a homeless man claiming to be former heavyweight boxer Bob Satterfield that later became the film, Resurrecting the Champ.)
The book is so grittily honest and electric, you wonder if two years of collaboration tightly intertwined Agassi’s photographic memory with Moehringer’s journalistic gift for writing, causing the two voices to be inextricably and brilliantly bound for this project.
The story opens with the tennis champion mustering every ounce of verve he still possesses just to rouse himself from the floor, where Agassi sleeps most nights to assuage the excruciating nerve and spinal pain that have crippled this relatively young man’s body — making it more like that of a 96-year-old.
Even if you’ve never done more than volley a tennis ball over a net and couldn’t come close to understanding the game, let alone outline its major features, you’ll find Agassi’s account so compelling, his frank, staccato style so heart-pounding, that it won’t matter.
And that gets to the heart of the appeal of Open — what we consider a charmed life is actually fraught with strife.
It might shock some that Agassi reveals he has hated the game since as early as he can remember, when, he’s told by his mother, his father, a former Iranian Olympic team boxer, taped a ping-pong paddle to his infant hand and encouraged his son to bat at a tennis-ball mobile above his crib.
As a toddler Agassi is given “a sawed-off racquet” by his cruelly driven and violent father and told to hit whatever he wants with it.
“I specialized in salt shakers. I liked serving them through glass windows. I aced the dog. My father never got mad.”
At age 7, his father made Agassi train like a pro, hitting 2,500 balls a day. In seventh grade, his father sends Agassi to a tennis boarding school in Florida run by a former paratrooper, after he sees a story on “60 Minutes.”
Not being able to afford the annual tuition of $12,000, his dad sends him for three months to a place his mother later tells him is led by Nick Bollettieri, “who was in essence running a tennis sweatshop that employed child labor.”
The bombshell in this memoir is Agassi admits he was addicted to crystal meth and lied his way out of a positive drug test by the Association of Tennis Professionals that could have penalized him with a three-month suspension from the game.
From his rock-star hair and unconventional tenniswear, his on-court battles with greats Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, an ill-suited marriage to actress Brooke Shields, his notorious anger fits on the court, championship wins and losses, and eventual marriage to former tennis pro Stefanie Graf, the birth of a son and daughter, to his last tournament in 2006 and current charity work, you’ll ride the peaks and endure the sinkholes of this intimate look at an American Everyman. n

No comments: