It is usually a dread day when a ghosted sporting autobiography lands at your door. The ‘life’ story, say, of a twenty-two year old who has no wide-ranging experience of his sport, never mind life, written by a hack with one eye on the deadline and the other on the cheque.
But multi Grand Slam winner Andre Agassi is no ordinary sportsman and Pulitzer Prize-winning author JR Moehringer is no hack. The result is an engaging, thrilling and only sometimes scarcely believable autobiography. If ‘image is everything’ (the advertising slogan that linked Agassi and Cannon throughout the 1990s) was the leitmotiv that ran through Agassi’s career, then this book is his attempt to open the aperture a little wider and throw some light on some wild and hedonistic years that tennis fans, with Boris Becker, Pete Sampras and Agassi all in their prime, will remember as equally special.
The serialisation of ‘Open’ in this newspaper, and the furore that followed, centred inevitably on Agassi’s admission that he had taken the drug crystal meth at the height of his career, and that he subsequently lied about it cravenly so as to escape censure. This revelation is not insignificant, and there may yet be some fall-out, but it forms a minor strand of the book whose grand themes are the nature of fatherhood, the often difficult relationship an athlete has with his sport and the search for meaning and maturity in an otherwise gilded life.
The early chapters are dominated by Agassi’s father, Mike, a near psycho who dreams only of tennis greatness for his youngest child. The rest of the book is a journey to cast off the demons imparted by this man who built a tennis court and ball-feeding machine in the desert, whose idea of a childhood for young Andre was a diet of non-stop tennis, who thrust speed down his son’s neck before a junior match and who held a shotgun level with his son’s nose during an altercation with a Las Vegan driver.
Even at the moment of Agassi’s ascent to greatness, his father cannot bring himself to share his son’s joy. After winning the 1992 Wimbledon Championships, his first Slam, Agassi phones his father excitedly: “‘Pops? It’s me! Can you hear me? What’d you think?’
‘You had no business losing that fourth set.’”
Agassi’s father did not attend his son’s second marriage, to Steffi Graf.
Largely as a result of his father’s pathological ambition, Agassi hates tennis. It is one of a number of cues, another being the ongoing rivalry with Sampras, that Moehringer comes back to time and again. Every new character we are introduced to- and Agassi surrounds himself with an eclectic mix- is introduced through this admission. ‘I hate tennis,’ he tells his soon-to-be-trainer-cum-surrogate father, Gil Reyes. ‘You’re kidding, right?’ ‘No, I hate tennis.’
This particular admission will come as no surprise to professional athletes. Everyone, at some stage, comes to hate their chosen (or, in Agassi’s case, non-chosen) sport. Punished by a psychotic father, orphaned off to a tennis academy at thirteen and then a lifetime spent dealing with the extreme mood swings that come with winning and losing, is it any surprise? It is only when he meets Graff, after his divorce from Brooke Shields, that he finds someone who understands. ‘I hate tennis,’ says Agassi, to which Graf merely rolls her eyes as is to say, doesn’t everyone?
Nor will professional athletes be surprised by the anti-climactic feelings at the moments of his greatest triumphs. After reaching the number one slot in the world rankings for the first time, Agassi writes: ‘I tell him [the reporter] that it feels good to be the best I can be. It’s a lie. It’s what I want to feel. It’s what I expected to feel. But in fact I feel nothing.’ Later he muses, ‘if being number one feels empty, unsatisfying, what’s the point?’ In the end, every athlete comes to understand that the glory is in the doing, the competing, and not the wallowing in adulation afterwards.
If these episodes carry the unmistakable whiff of authenticity, then others smell clearly of exaggeration on Agassi’s part which Moehringer was ill-qualified to question. As someone who has suffered from a chronic back condition for years, Agassi’s Lazarus-like recovery from immobility to winning pulsating five-setters stretched my credibility. If true, I wish I’d have had a bad back like his. Likewise, every fast bowler who has torn a rib cartilage will tell you that you simply cannot go out and take a set off Sampras with such an injury.
But these are minor quibbles about what is a superbly-written book. Moehringer knows well enough that extended match reports from Agassi’s glorious career would have bored readers senseless, so he sticks to pithy gobbits of vital games and caustic observations about Agassi’s rivals. Fans of Jimmy Connors ought not to buy this book; nor should Agassi’s former coach Nick Bollettieri, painted as orange-coloured, grasping and a bit of a fraud, nor Shields, who Agassi sees as little more than a vapid clothes-horse. The present tense, used throughout, gives the narrative an added sense of urgency and authenticity.
Although it is well written, it is formulaic in style, and as such, requires a Pauline conversion, as most of these autobiographies do. Moehringer lays down certain road signs: we are told, for example, how Agassi puts down a nest egg for the education of the owner of his favourite restaurant, and the joy that brings him. ‘This is the only perfection there is,’ he writes, ‘the perfection of helping others.’
And so to the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas- unquestionably Agassi’s greatest achievement. And what an achievement it is, this top-class educational establishment, in a run-down area of Vegas, that provides a first-class education to those in need.
Maybe the financial needs of the Academy are the reason for writing this curiously-timed book. Agassi himself can hardly need the money, nor the hassle that may well come out of the drug-taking revelations. But ours is not to reason why: we are thankful that the mature educationalist can look back on his lava hot-panted, hair-pieced younger-self with wry detachment. The best sport’s books are not really about sport- and ‘Open’ is no exception.