I’ll preface this review by admitting I have very little interest in professional, organized sports. Perhaps due to my complete athletic inability, I have no desire to watch or read about sports of any kind. This being the case, Andre Agassi’s Open was probably the best sports memoir for me to read. Despite being written by one of the biggest names in one of the most popular spectator sports, Agassi’s memoir is less about trying to succeed as a professional athlete than it is about trying to survive life in spite of athletic success.
Agassi, as the title would suggest, is utterly candid about both the professional and personal aspects of his life in Open. The most surprising of these revelations is Agassi’s tumultuous and fraught relationship with the sport that made him famous. Forced into tennis from the time he could swing a racket by his demanding, and at times, abusive father who was determined to mold him into the ‘number one tennis player in the world.’ This early conditioning, as well as Agassi’s natural aptitude for the sport, destined him to take on ‘boy wonder’ status. At age 13 he moved from his Las Vegas home to live and practice under famous tennis svengali Nick Bollettieri at his Tennis Academy in Florida. But as he was pushed down the narrow pathway to tennis success, Agassi resisted through rebellious behavior throughout his teen years (this resulted in the rock star look that he would become famous for later in his career). Although he went pro at age 16, his difficulties with both himself and the sport did not cease. Agassi details the emotionally and physically grueling tennis schedule that dictated the patterns of his late adolescent and early adult life – constantly hopping continents to meet the schedule of tournaments or ‘Opens’. This schedule was marred by a seemingly endless series of excruciating losses which he was required to bounce back from quickly. It comes as no surprise that Agassi often laments in the book that he ‘hates’ the sport. He is motivated to continue by the belief that it is the only thing he knows how to do.
Open also offers a truthful perspective on the contrast between public perception and personal reality. Long before the internet accelerated celebrity culture, Agassi was a subject of much media attention and speculation. He expresses frustration at the media’s characterization of him as an arrogant punk with a ‘devil may care’ attitude. As he puts it: “Millions of fans like me apparently…and yet each day I’m vilified because of my look, because of my behavior, because of no reason at all.” His struggle with the media is paradoxically surmised in a Cannon ad Agassi appeared in with the slogan ‘Image is Everything’. As Agassi proves in Open, image is a betrayal of the truth particularly in celebrity culture.
Like most good memoirs, Open is written with the clear perspective of hindsight. Agassi is reflecting back on his life from a place where he can see how all the pieces fit together, and how they have made him the person that his is. The most profound aspect in the book came after Agassi is ranked the number one tennis player in the world, the title he had worked his entire life to posses, and discovers that it changes nothing about the way he feels about himself and gives him no greater sense of happiness or inner peace. Beyond being a compelling story of one man’s personal struggle, Open is a treatise on the hollow values of professional sports. In an industry that is based on numbers and statistics and rankings, on the thin line between winning and losing, the art and love of athleticism is lost in favor of titles based on egotism.