Thursday, December 31, 2009

Open, An Autobiography

For a tennis fan, Andre Agassi's autobiography, is simply necessary. A huge slice of contemporary tennis history belongs to him. This is a fascinating peak into the thoughts of a champion.

I've been a fan of Andre's since before he shed the wig and shaved his hair. For a decade, I watched nearly every one of his televised matches. I got up in the middle of the night to watch live coverage of his matches from the other side of the globe.  I took time off of work to watch his matches. I preferred him and rooted for him over every competitor he faced, except Patrick Rafter when I was neutral. I believed he could win every one of the matches I watched, but now I know he did not believe he could win every one of those matches. (For some matches, he didn't even care about winning as much as I cared about him winning.)

It's stunning really to read about the degree of misery he was in and to observe the fragility of his confidence. By ALL measures, he was one of tennis' best players. There'd be some debate about where exactly he should place among the best, but no one would dispute he makes the top 15 of all time.  (He'd make most people's Top 10.) That's top 15 out of the thousands, or tens of thousands, of people who've played pro tennis. He won 8 Major titles. He was the first man to win all four majors on three surfaces (grass, clay and hard) and the only man to win a career golden slam (all four slams plus an Olympic gold).  (Incidentally, Andre's wife, Stefanie Graf, was the only woman to win a golden slam; she won them all within a calendar year.)

Surely, someone who is THAT good at what they do for a living should feel accomplished at their profession. But no, he was constantly addled with frustrations about not being good enough. His struggle to find satisfaction without finding perfection will resonate with people in all kinds of professions. This is one of the universal themes of Andre's story.

The other universal theme is Andre's search for a purpose for his tennis career, in spite of hating tennis. He found purpose and motivation when he found a reason to play that wasn't about him, but instead was about service to others. In the last years of his career, he found satisfaction in playing to be able to deliver financial backing to the charter school in Las Vegas that bears his name.

I was delighted to read about his very fond memories of his match against James Blake at the U.S. Open in the quarterfinals in 2005. (Contemporaneous news stories about it: WaPo, AP.) That match was my all-time favorite tennis-watching memory.  K and I watched at a sports bar downtown.  It was empty except for us;  in the beginning the staff peaked in now and then, mildly curious to see the score, but by the end they were watching and whooping with us.  The match was drama-packed, with Andre coming back from two sets down, and every single point was top quality tennis.

The book is missing some of the details I would have enjoyed, but that may not have been interesting to anyone else. How many hours a day did he work out? How many hours of tennis practice? Who did he practice with? What drills did he do? What did he eat? How many calories a day did he eat? His very close friend and former business manager Perry Rogers sued Stefanie in December 2008 for management fees. What's that story? What kind of deals did he have with sponsors (e.g. there were stories that in his later years, he made them contribute to his school)? He mentions that Nike dropped him along the way; was there any drama with that? Does anyone continue to sponsor him? He says they have no tennis court and that the kids will not play tennis, but what are they doing (because it'd be surprising if they weren't athletes with those genes)? His serve improved markedly after his comeback; how? why? what did he adjust?  Why meth, of all drugs? It'd have to be a multi-volume set to satisfy my curiosity.

There are lots of interesting tidbits, though:
  • Pete Sampras was comically stingy with tips;
  • Jimmy Connors was particularly douchey to Andre;
  • Jeff Tarango was a jerk when he was 8 years old (I could have guessed that. We saw Tarango play pro doubles at a tournament in Arizona and that man just oozes bile);
  • Rafter and Federer actually are the class acts they seem to be;
  • Show Andre a picture of your kids, mention that you're worried about how you'll pay for college and he'll write you a check. (Bless him; he's a trusting soul, but cynical readers will observe several people in Andre's life taking advantage of him while he seems oblivious. Still, it was this act of funding college for someone and feeling really happy about being able to do it that gave him the spark of the idea to start the school, so cheers to un-cynical oblivion.)
  • Andre is a herd creature:  he is miserable being alone and competing alone.  He needs people around him.  Oh, the irony, that his dad channeled him into one of the only sports that you play entirely alone -- with no team and no coaching breaks.  Even the opponent in a tennis match is physically remote.
  • He's still claiming that he didn't even notice Pres. Clinton's arrival during his loss to Grosjean in 2001 at the French Open.  And I still don't believe him, although I can't fathom why he'd lie about that when he's come clean about the wig and the meth.  

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