Book Review: “Open – An Autobiography”, by Andre Agassi
by Andre Agassi
Illustrated. 386 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95
“Oh my God, Agassi did METH! And he LIED about it to the ATP about it! And he says he HATES tennis! And he wore a hair-piece! Oh. My. God.”
Well I just read the book over the weekend, a totally awesome Christmas present (thanks honey!) and feel compelled to weigh in on it. I can tell you right now; this isn’t going to be like those negative reviews. In fact, I personally think those predominantly negative reviews say more about the reviewers than they do about Agassi. Are they factually correct? Yes. Are those understandably shocking items the sum total of noteworthy stuff in the book? No. Not even close.
Before I get started, I suppose this is as good a time as any to go ahead and admit that I’m a fan, though not in the typical sense. I started playing tennis in June of 2006, and by August, I was hooked. Therefore, the first time I ever seriously watched Agassi play was in the 2006 US Open, his last tournament. And truth be told, I was only rooting for him because, at 36, he was the “old guy” in the draw (and therefore, the underdog), not because of anything I’d ever watched him do on a tennis court. I’m a year older than he is, but from what I’ve come to understand since 2006, tennis years are like dog years; it doesn’t take many to get “over the hill”. Take a look at the ages of the top 100 players. Care to guess how many of them are over thirty?1 Anyway, in August of 2006, I was a “fan” in the weakest sense of the word. I became a much bigger fan after his career was over, because of what he’s done off the tennis court. Long story short, I’m impressed. But enough about my fandom, time to get back to the review.
I have awesome parents. Solid, salt of the earth, decent, hard-working, honest, just plain ‘ol good people. I was raised in a stable, loving, supportive, secure household, taught to value the sorts of qualities that my parents emulate. I went to school regularly, had support and encouragement from my parents (both educators), and had decent friends. Yet, I still managed to be a complete fucking idiot during my high-school and college years; the people that know me from those days are just as surprised as I am that I survived. Many people have done far, FAR tamer things than I did, and paid dearly. I am, and have been, extraordinarily lucky. And so when I read about the completely fucked up, distorted, warped, perversion of a childhood that Agassi went through, what essentially is the polar opposite of my childhood, I’m surprised the worst thing he ever did was Meth2; I’m surprised he turned out to be the man he is today, considering how easy it’d have been for him to never even find the right track, much less get off of it. To his credit, he seems to have a knack for picking good people to surround himself with, and this is undoubtedly as important to his eventual success as his tennis skills. Even his selection of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist JR Moehringer for his collaborator on this book speaks to Agassi’s skill in surrounding himself with talented people.
As I’ve already mentioned, I read several reviews before I read the book, and ALL of them reference Agassi’s drug use. Steve Flink, a highly-respected writer on all-things-tennis, has this to say about it:
“…my feeling is that there was no reason to disclose that chapter in his life. He has said in interviews that he needed to come forward with essential matters in his life since his book is entitled “Open”. But surely he has other secrets hidden away in the recesses of his mind, secrets he had every right to keep under wraps. Could he possibly have been “open” about every aspect of his life? I seriously doubt it. Why did his two children— a son and a daughter of icons— need to be exposed to this? Furthermore, why should the kids at his school be subjected to all of the talk swirling around Agassi’s experimentation with drugs? I don’t get it. I really don’t. Was he really trying to clear his conscience after 12 years? Was he trying to help other athletes avoid the predicament he found himself locked in? Possibly, but in the end I can only conclude he was rationalizing everything and primarily trying to sell more books.”
Or maybe he felt that we needed to understand the true extent of the mountain he had to climb, to come back from doing crystal meth for a year, to winning the French Open? Maybe the point was to inspire a reader (just one would be enough, no?) that they too have a choice, every day, to turn their life around. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I interpret it.
And what NONE of those reviews mention, aside from a courteous acknowledgment of Agassi’s school, the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, is what a giving person Agassi is, and always has been. None of the reviews ever said a thing about how he put his best friend Perry through law school (p184), much less how years earlier, he used to split his daily allowance of $5 with Perry so he’d have money for food and video games (p66). None of the reviews said a thing about Agassi renting a house near the hospital for his assistant Slim, the same Slim that provided Agassi with crystal meth, when Slim’s daughter was born way, WAY premature (p248). None of them said a thing about how Agassi bought shares of Nike stock for Frankie, the manager at Campagnola’s, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, to help with tuition fees for his kids. (p230)
Days later I talk to Perry and ask him to put aside a nest egg of Nike stock in Frankie’s name. When Brooke and I next drop into Campagnola, I tell Frankie about it. The shares can’t be touched for ten years, I say, but by then they should be worth enough to significantly lighten that tuition burden.
Frankie’s bottom lip trembles. Andre, he says, I can’t believe you’d do that for me.
The look on his face is complete shock. I didn’t understand the meaning and value of education, the hardship and stress is causes most parents and children. I’ve never thought of education like that. School was always a place I managed to escape, not a thing to be treasured. Setting aside the stock was merely something I did because Frankie specifically mentioned college and I wanted to help. When I saw what it meant to him, however, I was the one who got educated.
Tell me that guy’s not a screaming stud. How kick-ass is that!
Maybe since Andre is a tennis player, everybody thinks he’s supposed to “just stick to the tennis”, but not me. I’d rather take the tour through his head and try to get to know the person a little better.
Anyway, to wrap up part 1 of this review, I give this book Two Thumbs Up! Anybody that’s a fan of tennis, and doesn’t outright hate Agassi, would probably enjoy it. I don’t regret reading it, which I can’t say for every book I read this month. (More on that later)
Book Review: Open – An Autobiography, by Andre Agassi – Part 2
Tennis-Specific Lessons from “Open“
A big motivation in reading this book, just as when I read Pete Sampras’ book (A Champion’s Mind), was my hope to find tips, hints, suggestions, bits of advice, anything to help out my game. Anything that might help me get to the next level. The book does not disappoint in that regard, and the rest of this “review”, such as it is, will be devoted to tennis-specific items that, if you’re not a fan and/or practitioner of tennis, you may want to consider skipping altogether.
You have been warned.
For those of you still with me, I’d like to thank you, both of you, for your continued patience and understanding.
Though the context is tennis, the parallels with life are many, and cannot go unnoticed. Agassi agrees with this by saying,
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 our darkest. It’s our choice. (p8)
There’s a BUNCH of really good stuff like that in the very first part of the book as Agassi describes his preparation for and participation in a match with Marcos Baghdatis in the 2006 US Open. At the time, Baghdatis was ranked 8th in the world; Agassi, 39th. If Agassi wins, he advances to the next round. If he loses, his career is over, and he retires.
The finish line at the end of a career is no different from the finish line at the end of a match. The objective is to get within reach of that finish line, because then it gives off a magnetic force. When you’re close, you can feel that force pulling you, and you can use that force to get across. But just before you come within range, or just after, you feel another force, equally strong, pushing you away. (p7)
Fact: It’s hard to close out a match. Tennis is weird; you may serving for the match at 40-love, with a 5-2 lead, but even at 5-2, 40-0, the opponent still has a chance, and that means you must stay focused. I’ve been on both sides of that score, and I’ve blown a lead (and a match) that I should have won, and I’ve won matches that my opponent let slip away. I’ve been up a couple breaks thinking to myself, “I wonder if I should offer to buy a beer after this match; he looks kind of depressed to be getting trounced like this”, only to refocus and realize that I’ve been broken twice, and now we’re back on serve. Not fun.
One thing I’ve learned in twenty-nine years of playing tennis: Life will throw everything but the kitchen sink in your path, and then it will throw the kitchen sink. It’s your job to avoid the obstacles. If you let them stop you or distract you, you’re not doing your job, and failing to do your job will cause regrets that paralyze you more than a bad back.3
Not really tennis-specific, but I still like it.
Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement, which inevitably leads to self-talk, and for me the self-talk starts here in the afternoon shower. This is when I begin to say things to myself, crazy things, over and over, until I believe them. I’ve won 869 matches in my career, 5th on the all-time list, and many of them were won during the afternoon shower. (p9)
Nice to know that even a man of Agassi’s talent has to get himself worked up for competition too. Regarding self-talk, if you’re not careful, you start to say things like, “I can’t hit my forehand for shit today”, which morphs into “My forehand sucks”, which leads to making lots of errors on your forehand. The minute you start to THINK about your forehand, for example, you’re toast. It’s hard, but eventually you have to say to yourself, “I’ve hit this shot a thousand times, and I can do it again. I just gotta stay focused, watch the ball, and hit my shots. I can do this.” Here’s some of Agassi’s self talk:
Take it one point at a time. Make him work for everything. No matter what happens, hold your head up, and for God’s sake enjoy it, or at least try to enjoy moments of it, even the pain, even the losing, if that’s what’s in store.
I’ve said it a thousand times before, but this time I mean it: I’m gonna make the preceding advice my mantra: One point at at time. Make him work for everything.
In discussing his preparation for the match with Baghdatis, Agassi says this:
He [Baghdatis] doesn’t have an overwhelming serve, nor do I, which means long points, long rallies, lots of energy and time expended. I brace myself for flurries, combinations, a tennis of attrition, the most brutal form of the sport. (p10)
Lesson to club players: Most of us don’t have overwhelming serves, and if we’re smart, that means we need to get prepared for long points, long rallies, lots of energy and time expended. Doesn’t mean that’s how it’s gonna go down, but at the very least, that’s what we should be prepared for.
Butterflies are funny. Some days they make you run to the toilet. Other days they make you horny. Other days they make you laugh, and long for the fight. Deciding which type of butterflies you’ve got going (monarchs or moths) is the first order of business when you’re driving to the arena. Figuring out your butterflies, deciphering what they say about the status of your mind and body, is the first step to making them work for you. (p11)
Personally, I think “funny” is the wrong word. I know what he means; by “funny”, he means “peculiar”, or “odd”, or “strange”, but one thing they are NOT is funny as in “LOL, that was really funny”. Butterflies are not “LOL” funny, they’re “Hey, can you watch my bag, I gotta go see a man about a Wallaby” funny. I only point this out in the unlikely event that anybody not interested in tennis is still reading this, and is confused on which use of the word “funny” Agassi is employing here.
Simple strategy tips:
Tennis is about degrees of aggression. You want to be aggressive enough to control a point, not so aggressive that you sacrifice control, and expose yourself to unnecessary risk. (p12)
This is easier said than done.
“…you can’t win the final of a slam by playing not to lose, or waiting for your opponent to lose.” (p152)
You can win a club-level match by waiting for your opponent to lose, but this, as Agassi points out, is not a scalable strategy; I honestly don’t think it’d work very often above the 3.5 (NTRP) level of play. Personally, I’d rather play to win every time, but this may be due to the fact that I have a hard time being patient enough to let a point unfold. I don’t like to wait for a guy to lose. Moreover, I don’t want to wait for him to figure out how to beat me. I’d rather get in, slug it out, and be done with it, for better or for worse.
My father says that when he boxed, he always wanted to take a guy’s best punch. He tells me on day on the tennis court: When you know that you took the other guy’s best punch, and you’re still standing, and the other guy knows it, you will rip the heart right out of him. In tennis, he says, same rule. Attack the other man’s strength. If the man is a server, take away his serve. If he’s a power player, overpower him. If he has a big forehand, takes pride in his forehand, go after his forehand until he hates his forehand. (p42)
If you have the talent to do this, OK, fine. I get it philosophically, and the club level, at times, you can make this work for you. At the club level, a lot of guys like to attack a players backhand side, especially on serve. I’ve made a point of developing my backhand into a fairly solid shot, so that by the end of the first set, my opponent (or opponents, if I’m playing doubles) start to make adjustments on their serve, and start going after my forehand. I just played a match like this, and by the end of the first set, they (I was playing doubles) were serving predominantly to my forehand. If I’m on, and on this particular day I was, it causes real fits for the server, because now he doesn’t know where to serve, and it starts to get in his head. I hurt him when he serves to my backhand, and I hurt him when he serves to my forehand. He starts to question his serve, which usually results in double faults, or a lot of soft, “please smash the hell out of me” second serves. Either way, by attacking something he thought was a strength (his gameplan consisted of him winning lots of points on serve by going to my backhand, whereas mine consisted of getting every serve back into play, preferably with a scorching return, right at his feet), I’ve caused him to rethink his strategy. It can work. But if you don’t have the talent, or just simply aren’t on that day, trying to “overpower” the other guy will usually result in you losing that much faster. Some days, you gotta just grind it out, and “Win Ugly“, as Gilbert would say.
Against great players I rise to the challenge. Against bad players I press, which is the tennis term for net letting things flow. Pressing is one of the deadliest things you can do in tennis. (p105)
This is what happens when you try to overpower a guy that you simply can’t overpower, for whatever reason. You start to “press”, and pressing is always, ALWAYS bad. When you press, you lose, and like Agassi says,
A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last as long as the bad. Not even close. (p167)
Amen. Maybe it’s not like that for you, but I can definitely relate to that. There was a tournament that I REALLY wanted to win, and finally – it took me 4 attempts – I won it. I made it to the finals the 3rd try, and had triple match-point in the 3rd set tie-breaker, only to lose 11-9. I can remember the pain of that loss FAR more than the joy of winning that tournament the following year. It still puts a knot in my stomach thinking about it. [Note to self: Stop losing, it sucks.]
Here’s one of my favorite parts of the book where Brad Gilbert, at Agassi’s request, dissects Agassi’s game: (p186-187)
You always try to be perfect, he says, and you always fall short, and it fucks with your head. Your confidence is shot, and perfectionism is the reason. You try to hit a winner on every ball, when just being steady, consistent, meat and potatoes, would be enough to win ninety percent of the time.
Quit going for the knockout, he says. Stop swinging for the fences. All you have to be is solid. Singles, doubles, move the chains forward. Stop thinking about yourself, and your own game, and remember that the guy on the other side of the net has weaknesses. Attack his weaknesses. You don’t have to be the best in the world every time you go out there. You just have to be better than one guy. Instead of YOU succeeding, make HIM fail. Better yet, LET him fail.
When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you’re doing? You’re chasing something that doesn’t exist. You’re making everyone around you miserable. You’re making yourself miserable. Perfection? There’s about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can’t lose to anybody, but it’s not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter. It’s the other times. It’s all about your head man. With your talent, if you’re 50% game-wise, but 95% head-wise, you’re going to win. But if you’re 95% game-wise and 50% head-wise, you’re going to lose, Lose, LOSE!
This is where John Madden says “Boom!” Notice how the GREAT advice by Gilbert contrasts with the well-intentioned, but ultimately flawed advice, from Agassi’s father. Gilbert says, “Attack his weaknesses”. Mike Agassi (Andre’s father) says, “Attack the other man’s strength”. Sun Tzu agrees with Gilbert; attacking the other man’s weaknesses is a better strategy, and is equally effective at getting inside his head.
War? Is that too strong a metaphor for tennis? Not at all:
I tell my friend that tennis is boxing. Every tennis player, sooner or later, compares himself to a boxer, because tennis is noncontact pugilism. It’s violent, mano a mano, and the choice is as brutally simple as it is in any ring. Kill or be killed. Beat, or take your beat-down. (p214)
And who can’t relate to this?
Decisions, especially bad ones, create their own kind of momentum, and momentum can be a real bitch to stop, as every athlete knows. Even when we vow to change, even when we sorrow and atone for our mistakes, the momentum of our past keeps carrying us down the wrong road. Momentum rules the world.
For this next excerpt, I need to set the stage for you. It’s 1999, in the French Open Final, the tour’s only grand slam on clay courts. The score is 4-all in the 4th set against Medvedev, with Agassi, down two sets to one. He’s serving to stay in the match.
Now, at 30-15, I hear Brad telling me to see the ball, hit the ball. I let it fly. I cut loose my first serve with an extra loud grunt. Out. I hurry the second serve. Out again. Double fault. 30-all.
I serve again. Out. I stubbornly refuse to take anything off the second serve. Out again. Two double faults in a row.
Now it’s 30-40. Break point. I walk in circles, squeezing my eyes, on the verge of tears. I need to pull myself together. I toe the line, toss the ball into the air, and miss yet another serve. I’ve now missed five straight serves. I’m falling apart. I’m one missed serve away from Medvedev serving for the French Open.
He leans in, ready to obliterate this second serve. As a returner you’re always guessing about your opponents psyche, and Medvedev knows my psyche is in tatters after missing five serves in a row. He’s guessing, therefore, with a high degree of certainty, that I won’t have the stomach to be aggressive. He expects a nice soft kick-serve. He thinks I have no other choice. He steps up, well inside the baseline, sending me a message that he anticipates a softie, and when he gets hold of it, he’s going to ram it down my throat. He wears a look on his face that unmistakably says: Go ahead, bitch. Be aggressive. I dare you.
This moment is the crucial test for both of us. This is the turning point in the match, perhaps in both of our lives. It’s a test of wills, of heart, of manhood. I toss the ball into the air and refuse to back down. Contrary to Medvedev’s expectations, I serve hard and aggressive to his backhand.
I go on to hold serve.
I have a bounce in my step as I walk to my chair. The crowd is going crazy. The momentum hasn’t shifted, but it’s twitched. That was Medvedev’s moment, and he missed it, and I think I can see on his face that he knows it. (p301-302)
Agassi goes on to win the match, becoming just the 5th man to win at each of the 4 major slams. This is approximately one year after he wasted the year of 1997 doing meth. A year after he played a couple “Challenger” tournaments (the pro tennis equivalent of baseball’s “minor leagues”), and a year after he was ranked #141 in the world. Guys outside the top 10 don’t stand much of a chance in winning the French Open, much less guys outside the top-100. Unbelievable.
I watched this match on Tennis Channel last year (twice), well before I read the book, and it was nothing short of inspirational. To watch Agassi come from 2 sets down, fight tooth and nail and never give up, to include hitting that all-important 2nd serve at 30-40; 4-all in the 4th set, which if you’ve never played tennis, is one HELLUVA gut-check moment…I get a lump in my throat thinking about it. I haven’t seen anything that ballsy since Roger Federer, down two sets to love, facing break point at 30-40, and serving at 3-4, hit that smokin inside-out forehand against Tommy Haas in the 4th round of the 2009 French Open. If Federer misses that shot, Haas get’s to serve for the set and match at 5-3, and Federer’s career, and tennis history, would be significantly different. And to put it in perspective, Fed’s forehand was junk all day long. He must have had 20+ errors on his forehand alone, and yet, when it’s crunch time, and his back is to the wall, he summons the courage to hit that shot as hard as he possibly could. That, my friends, is why I love tennis! Can’t get enough of it!
Wimbledon, 2003 – Kick-Ass Coaching Tips from Darren Cahill
When you get this guy bled [stretched] out to the backhand, early in the match, when you see him hit his slice, be sure to take it out of the air. That way you’ll put him on notice that he can’t get away with safe shots from a defensive position. He needs to hit something special. That’s how you’ll send him a message early and force him into errors later in the match. (p353)
That’s how you get in your opponents head: Fire a shot across his/her bow the first chance you get that says, “Any so-so floaters you send over the net are getting put away!”
Here is Agassi reflecting on his match at Wimbledon, 2003, against Mark Philippoussis
He unloads a 138mph serve, straight up the middle. Obscene speed, but that’s right where I thought he’d hit it. I put the racket out, reflex the ball back to him, and he can only stand and watch. He almost gets whiplash. And yet it lands a half inch behind the baseline. Out.
Had it fallen in, I’d have the break, the momentum, and I’d be serving for the match. But it’s not meant to be. Now, believing he can win, Philippoussis stands a little taller, and breaks me. It’s all gone in a blink. One minute, I’m almost serving for the match, the next minute he’s raising his arms in conquest. Tennis.
I wanna leave ya’ll with a couple “keeper quotes” from the book. Enjoy!
What you feel doesn’t matter in the end; it’s what you do that makes you brave.
This is why we’re here. To fight through the pain and, when possible, to relieve the pain of others. So simple. So hard to see.
- There are zero players 30 years old or older in the top-10, 2 in the top-20, and only 3 in the top-50. All told, there are only 11 of them in the top 100. With the exception of Fabrice Santoro (37), who just retired, none of them are older than 33.
- I’d argue that worse than actually doing meth was the purposeful act of depriving himself an entire year of being competitive as a resultof doing meth. His game went to shit after he started down that path.
- Agassi was born with Spondylolisthesis, the main reason, he says, for his pigeon-toed walk