I’ve only recently read Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open. Nine years after its publishing. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long. But I do know that this is one of those books that is relevant regardless of times and timing. It is not just one of the best memoirs I’ve read, it is simply a great book. And what makes it so special is that it is not a classic, so to speak, success story of the type “how I have reached my childhood dream through practice, hard-work and perseverence”. Quite the contrary.
It is a book about an extraordinary sportsman, one of the most gifted tennis players of all time, who has hated his entire life the sport that made him famous. About dedicating his life to a sport he never chose, but which his father chose for him even before he was born. About having to live with his talent and learning how to make peace with it. About accepting that the thing he knows how to do best, the only thing that he is good at is also the thing that he hates the most. About change, about sacrifice, about honesty, about doing good (the greater good, not just on the tennis court), about giving back, about hitting rock bottom over and over again and getting up over and over again, about fighting your own battles, about learning from your own mistakes. And about some thrilling insights into the world of tennis: the good, the bad and the ugly.
Left: Agassi, 8 years old, with his idol, Björn Borg | Right: Andre Agassi, moments after winning his fourth slam, Roland Garros, 1999
The book is beautifully written, in collaboration with the Pulitzer prize winner journalist and novelist J.R. Moehringer, but Agassi’s contribution is deeply felt, too, especially in the humour, in talking about his childhood, in his inner struggles, and in the haunting, excruciatingly precise recollection of every painful loss and every extraordinary win in his career. And there’s also the love story with Stefanie (as he calls his wife) Graf. That’s not a classic celebrity story either: it’s sincere, unpredictable, funny, in which perseverence, determination, timing and chance all played a part. A slice of life. Just like a tennis match.
“It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it’s all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It’s our choice.”
“Freed from the thoughts of winning, I instantly play better. I stop thinking, start feeling. My shots become a half-second quicker, my decisions become the product of instinct rather than logic.”
“Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players – and yet boxers have their corner men and managers. Even a boxer’s opponent provides a kind of companionship, someone he can grapple with and grunt at. In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him, but never touch him or talk to him, or anyone else. […] In tennis you’re on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement…”
“Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last long as the bad. Not even close.”
“Wimbledon has become hallowed ground for me. It’s where my wife shined. It’s where I first suspected that I could win, and where I proved it to myself and to the world. Wimbledon is where I learned to bow, to bend my knee, to do something I didn’t want to do, wear what I didn’t want to wear, and survive. Also, no matter how I feel about tennis, the game is my hone. I hated hone as a boy, and then I left, and I soon found myself homesick.”
“One of the great joys of my life. […] I’m sobbing. I’m rubbing my head. I’m terrified by how good this feels. Winning isn’t supposed to feel so good. Winning is never supposed to matter this good, but it does, it does, I can’t help it. I’m overjoyed, grateful. […] I even reserve some gratitude for myself, for all the good and bad choices that led here.” (After winning the French Open, in 1999, his fourth major slam)
“I’ve never cared about computer rankings, and I’ve never cared about the number of slams. Roy Emerson has the most slams (twelve), and nobody thinks he’s better than Rod Laver. Nobody. My fellow players, along with any tennis expert and historian I respect, agree that Laver was the best, the king, because he won all four. More, he did it in the same year – twice. That’s godlike. That’s inimitable.
I think of the greats from past eras, how they all chased Laver, how they dreamed of winning all four slams. They all skipped certain slams, because they didn’t give a damn about quantity. They cared about versatility.”
“If I had beaten Pete more often, or if he’d come along in a different generation, I’d have a better record, and I might go down as a better player, but I’d be less.”
“He’s growing before my eyes into one of the game’s all-time greats. He methodically builds a lead, two sets to one, and I can’t help but stand back and admire his immense skills, his magnificent composure. He’s the most regal player I’ve ever witnessed.”
“It’s real simple. Most people have weaknesses. Federer has none.”
“Into to Montreal and scratch and claw my way to the final against a Spanish kid everyone is talking about. Rafael Nadal. I can’t beat him. I can’t fathom him. I’ve never seen anyone move like that on a tennis court.”
“I hope it will be one of many books that will give them comfort, guidance, pleasure. I was late in discovering the magic of books. Of all my many mistakes that I want my children to avoid, I put that one near the top of the list.”
“We ask one thing of every teacher: to believe that every student can learn. It sounds like a painfully obvious concept, self-evident, but nowadays it’s not.” (Talking about his school, The Andre Agassi Academy)
“We thought it important that students wear uniforms. Tennis shirt with khaki pants, shorts, or skirt, in official school colors – burgundy and navy. We think it creates less peer pressure, and we know it saves parents money in the long run. Every time I walk into the school I’m struck by the irony: I’m now the enforcer of a uniform policy. I look forward to the day when some Wimbledon official happens to be in Vegas and asks for a tour. I can hardly wait to see the look on his or her face when I mention my school’s strict dress code.”
“You know everything you need to know about people when you see their faces at the moments of your greatest triumph.”
“Even if it’s not your ideal life, you can always choose it. No matter what your life is, choosing it changes everything.”