The cover photo of Andre Agassi’s best-selling book “Open: An Autobiography” sets the tone. Agassi’s face is photographed so starkly that it’s reminiscent of a mug shot. If his goal in “Open” was to be brutally honest about his life for the entire world to see, then I’d say he aced it.
The book takes us on the remarkable, nearly tragic journey of one of America’s most beloved athletes. Agassi is the only American of the six men to ever win all four Grand Slam tournaments. He’s the only one to also win an Olympic Gold medal. But all the achievements and enormous wealth came at a terrible price.
The story begins with Andre’s overbearing father. Mike Agassi, a hard-working Iranian immigrant and former Olympic boxer, was obsessed with achieving the American dream for his family. To that end, he was determined that Andre would become the no. 1 tennis player in the world.
Mike drove his son mercilessly. At age 7, Andre would often spend five hours a day in the hot Las Vegas sun returning hundreds of tennis balls shot at high speed from a frightening contraption that Andre called “The Dragon.”
Robbed of a childhood, Agassi reveals for the first time how much he hated tennis. He played not to win matches but to win his father’s love. But his early success only added fuel to Mike’s fiery ambition.
At age 13, Andre was shipped to a famous tennis camp in Florida, which seems more like a child labor camp. School was such an afterthought that Andre dropped out in the ninth grade. Agassi secretly hoped that if he outplayed the other kids he would finally be allowed to come home. It was just the opposite.
The most poignant of his friendships was that with trainer, Gil Reyes. A Goliath-like figure, Reyes helped Agassi achieve the conditioning to outlast younger opponents and also gave him the supportive father figure so missing from Andre’s childhood.
“Open” is ultimately a love story. Andre’s courtship of tennis legend, Steffi Graf, reads like an innocent teenager’s diary. Sending flowers and leaving voice mails, he was as determined in affairs of the heart as he was in tennis. His reward was the love of his life.
Agassi has been harshly criticized for the revelation in “Open” that, in 1997, he often used crystal meth, failed a drug test, and lied to the ATP to escape punishment. It should be noted that crystal meth is a performance inhibiting, not enhancing drug. Regardless, Agassi was clearly in an emotional free-fall that ended in a divorce from Brooke Shields, and saw his top tennis-ranking plummet to no. 141. In openly accepting the criticism, Agassi asks for compassion for others in such desperate straits.
Deeply depressed in ‘97, Agassi shocked and disappointed his millions of fans by leaving the tour. To find his passion and rebuild his game, he went on the Challenger Tour and the minor leagues of the sport. And yet, it was the first time that he was the one making the choice to play tennis. Somehow it worked. Slowly he climbed the rankings and, remarkably, became no. 1 in the world once again. . A few years later, at 33, Agassi would become the oldest no. 1 in history.
Perhaps even more remarkable, Andre Agassi the 9th grade dropout, became Andre Agassi the educator. He raised tens of millions of dollars, and contributed millions of his own, to build the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a charter school in the most disadvantaged section of Las Vegas. This past June was the first senior class with 100 percent graduating and all going on to college. Hard to beat that.
In “Open,” we follow Andre from brash, rebellious teenager to husband, father and humanitarian. Indicative of his evolution was a moment at school.
One day, a shy, 15-year-old boy, whom he had never met, flagged him down. The boy nervously revealed that a year earlier his father had been murdered. Understandably lost, he wanted to thank Agassi for giving him a second chance in life. Overwhelmed, Andre hugged the boy. “I told him that it was I who needed to thank him.”
To help with the book Agassi hired J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer. Andre had read “The Tender Bar,” Moehringer’s touching memoir as the only child of an impoverished single mother, and his lifelong struggle to become a man. In coaches, trainers and writers, Agassi always found the best. But, in the end, he was the one who had to do the hard work, to stare down fear and rise to the challenge.
In his career Andre Agassi won eight Grand Slam championships. Given the candor with which he shared the pain and joy of his life, one could say this book was number nine.
Jack Neworth can be reached at Jackneworth@yahoo.com.