I recently attended an event at which an author spoke about his latest project, a biography of an athlete who died in a tragic accident. Following his remarks, one member of the audience muttered to his friend, “What’s the point of buying the book now? He pretty much told us the whole story.” That sentiment would initially seem to apply to Andre Agassi’s autobiography, OPEN. The book has received so much attention, and Agassi has made so many appearances, that one feels there’s nothing left to learn.
Of course, that’s not true. One has only heard the most salacious points: that the former #1 ranked player hated tennis from the very beginning; that he wasn’t too fond of his first wife, Brooke Shields; that he was losing his hair, which became an issue during some of his matches; and that he used crystal meth. But there’s a lot more to Agassi’s progress from prodigy to being a pro’s pro. He achingly describes his childhood under the thumb of a dictatorial father for whom tennis was the be-all, end-all of their existence --- even at the expense of education.
Agassi’s eventual climb to the highest level of his sport is similarly rendered in fine detail, although perhaps too much so for the casual fan. He seems to spend more time discussing his failures than his victories both on and off the court. His courtship and marriage to Shields is rather depressing, and it’s as if he was drawn into the situation with no mind of his own. They were close together in proximity, but miles apart emotionally. On the other hand, the accounts of his wooing long-time dream girl and fellow tennis star Steffi Graf go to the other end of the spectrum. Good for him (Andre, happy at last). And good for him that he was able to surround himself with a cadre of loyal friends and support staff; in fact, those relationships seem almost too good to be true.
Despite having all this going for him, OPEN comes across from time to time as a bit of a “whine-fest.” Agassi educates his readers on just how physically demanding tennis can be, as well as how lonely: boxing without the gloves is one description he offers. Not to mention the numerous occasions when he points out how often he thought about just walking away from a career that brought him fame and fortune: “I want [tennis] to end. I don’t want it to end” and similar phrases are repeated throughout the book. On the one hand, you might wonder how anyone with such a glamorous lifestyle could complain, but on the other, it’s just that type of honesty --- as well as the manner in which it is presented --- that makes it difficult to close OPEN.
While his name does not appear on the cover, J.R. Moehringer, author of THE TENDER BAR, is the real storyteller here, turning Agassi’s memories into compelling prose. Much has been said about the style --- present tense, intimate detail (although not the kind some readers might prefer) --- but it bears repeating. And Agassi, to his credit, has lauded Moehringer’s work during his many interviews.
Despite the occasional eye-rolling copy, it’s easy to see why OPEN has been hailed as one of the best sports memoirs/autobiographies ever written.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 13, 2011