Andre Agassi: Image Isn’t Everything

I was young when I first fell in love. I was raised on tennis the way a lot of kids are raised on football and baseball. I was raised on Pete Sampras, Monica Seles, Patrick Rafter, and of course Steffi Graf.

But Love? That was how I felt about Andre Agassi. It wasn’t a romantic love, but a fan’s love. Whenever he would play I would sit on the edge of my seat knowing that he would pull it out of a fifth set. And when he said goodbye in 2006 I cried.

My knowledge of his personal life was limited to broad strokes — he was married to Brooke Shields, then Steffi Graf. I knew he was Armenian-American. And I remember talking to my dad about how when Agassi was happy in his personal life his game seemed to suffer.

Which makes Agassi’s autobiography Open all the more interesting. I fully intended to read the book when it first came out in 2009. I actually bought a copy for my sister as a Christmas present, but for some reason I never got around to reading it myself. I knew that the big shock was him taking crystal meth–but didn’t know much else about what the book contained.

This week I finally got around to reading it — and found it well worth the wait. As the title says Agassi lays it all out. He’s honest, almost brutally so, on his own game and the game of other tennis players. He lays out his flaws and acknowledges how his upbringing made him hate the game that shaped his life — and how that in turn impacted his personal relationships.

What hit me the most about the book was its ability to move. In his honesty Agassi is unafraid to reset expectations. To understand that even in defeat there was relief. That the struggle brought him towards a happier future. And perhaps more importantly — that in seeking perfection, he also sought failure. Here he is about his final tournament in England.

“But 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 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 home. I hated home as a boy, and then I left, and I soon found myself homesick. In the final hours of my career I’m continually chastened by that memory.

…Reporters ask, Why now? Why did you choose to retire now? I tell them I didn’t. I simply can’t play anymore. That’s the finish line I’ve been seeking, the finish line with the inexorable pull. Can’t play, as opposed to won’t play. Unwittingly I’ve been seeking that moment when I’d have no choice.”

As a historian autobiographies interest me. While historians shape their histories in subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle ways), autobiographies are blatant. My life, from my perspective. There is a mystery there about the person that we don’t know and this book will solve it. But if the writer is clear, and seemingly honest, you do get a glimpse into a competitor, a human spirit, and leave with a sense of how that individual transferred his hate into something productive and generous.

Nowadays my family conversations every year revolve around Federer, Nadal and all the players coming up behind them. But I think Andre Agassi said it best in his farewell speech. “You have given me your shoulders to stand on, to reach for my dreams–dreams I could never reached without you.”

Hear him say farewell, and check out the memoir.

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