I started writing about Andre Agassi’s new autobiography Open last week. In excerpts of the book released at the time, we learned that Andre had done crystal meth and gotten away with it and his multicolored ‘do depended on a wig. While those revelations were surprising, they didn’t change my opinion of Andre all that much. He’s always been outrageous relative to the rest of the rather staid tennis world.
But that was before I took off on a cruise to the Caribbean and found myself restricted to my bed as our ship tossed and turned and banged into waves on its circuitous path around hurricane Ida. By the time I re-emerged, new excerpts of Andre’s book had been released and now my feelings towards Andre have changed.
First, let’s credit the publisher of the book with p.r. genius for releasing excerpts with increasingly titillating revelations. Second, let’s credit Andre for being the showman he’s always been. His father really missed the boat considering his longtime employment in Las Vegas casinos. He had a performer on his hands in Andre and he diverted him into tennis instead.
This, actually, is the essence of the book. Andre has hated tennis ever since his father cobbled together a hulking ball machine that loomed over 3 year old Andre like a videogame monster. The book is nothing if not a sharp portrait of the ways we spend our lives negotiating our relationships with our parents.
According to Andre’s father, Mike Agassi, he made his son hit a million balls during the year he was 7 years old. In response, Andre figured out that hitting the ball off the frame of the racket sent the ball over the fence and gave him a short reprieve while his father retrieved the ball. When his father gave him speed before a junior nationals final, Andre figured out that keeping the match close before finally winning it would tell his father that giving him speed didn’t make that much difference and might dissuade him from doing it in the future.
Fast forward to Andre’s adult activity with crystal meth and two marriages with women who had overbearing fathers, and you can see that the process of processing our parents is a never ending trip. Steffi Graf is his current wife and her father Peter Graf is one of the few tennis fathers on earth who compares to Andre’s father in the race for overbearing tennis parent. This is amply illustrated in the book when a meeting in Las Vegas between the two fathers results in a confrontation that Andre has to break up.
I know this world on a much smaller scale. My mother treated me like Cinderella. I was the one cleaning the house and ironing my mother’s darling son’s clothes while he was out being a juvenile delinquent. I got back at her by accidentally breaking off most of the rays on her prized sun clock and outperforming her darling son in every aspect of my life.
You can feel that same kind of bitterness and jealousy in Andre’s voice. And not just towards his father. He trashes Pete Sampras for being a one-dimensional player and a bad tipper. Andre is hardly in a position to slam Pete for being one-dimensional considering how much time he spent in the middle of the baseline and the bad tipper thing is just silly.
Andre’s stated reason for writing the book is to unburden himself, but this book is just one more example of the acting out he describes in the book and that’s why he’s getting so much grief from the sports community. The tennis community wants to know why such a great champion would wound them by saying he hates tennis and always has, and the rest of the sports world is mocking Andre for being an adult who’s still crying about his father.
But the sports world is used to reading sports books not memoirs. Sports books about champions focus on adulation and overcoming odds while memoirs are often records of screwed up family relationships and people’s screwed reactions to those relationships. Memoirists know they’ll look bad.
Andre does too and I appreciate him all the more for it.