Sunday, January 3, 2010

Andre Agassi: How Open is "Open"?

Posted By on Sun, Jan 3, 2010 at 4:01 PM

When a professional athlete writes a book and calls it "Open," skepticism is in order.

Andre Agassi's autobiography is uncommonly interesting, uncommonly well written, and — to an extent we may never know — uncommonly open. But I had a feeling after I finished it that I had been shortchanged on the story.

On the first count, Agassi won eight major tennis tournaments, dated Barbra Streisand and married and divorced Brooke Shields, and made a comeback from drug abuse. On the second count, he had the help of author and professional journalist J. R. Moehringer, who declined to put his name on the cover or the title page. Very noble, but suffice it to say that a ninth-grade dropout writing a book as polished as this one is as unlikely as a journalist winning a national tennis tournament. On the last count, Agassi's celebrated disclosures about using crystal meth and lying about it and hating tennis all his life simply do not ring completely open

Memphis tennis fans saw Agassi at his best and his worst. When he was 18 years old, Agassi won the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships at the Racquet Club in 1988. He mentions that tournament in passing, as well as the young Memphian who was his girlfriend for a year. In 1996, Agassi lost in straight sets in the first round to Luke Jensen, a doubles specialist who was never ranked in the Top 100 in singles. This match doesn't make the book, but anyone who saw it knows that Agassi tanked and took the appearance money.

In 1997, according to the book, Agassi used crystal meth with a man he names "Slim." “Slim dumps a small pile of powder on the coffee table. He cuts it, snorts it. He cuts it again. I snort some. I ease back on the couch and consider the Rubicon I’ve just crossed.” Agassi lied to the Association of Tennis Professionals to save his career and avoid a suspension. We are to believe that an admitted wild child, charmer, and serious drinker rehabilitated himself and never slipped again.

Agassi also says he hated tennis. Well, all right. But he played the sport almost daily for more than 30 years. There must have been some enjoyment in there somewhere.

For tennis addicts, some of the more interesting observations concern equipment and other players. Agassi says the biggest change in the game in recent years is not the stronger players or the bigger racquets but the new elastic polyester string that imparts more spin on the ball. And his comments on rivals old and new are, as he says, pretty open. Here is a sample.

Jimmy Connors, Regions Morgan Keegan champion in 1978, 1979, 1983, and 1984: “He’s now coaching Roddick. Poor Andy. It makes me laugh. I can only admire that Connors is who he is, still, that he never changes. We should all be so true to ourselves, so consistent.”

Ivo Karlovic: “He’s a totem pole, a telephone pole, which gives his serve a sick trajectory. When Karlovic serves, the box technically becomes twice as large. The net becomes a foot lower. I’ve never played anyone so big.”

James Blake. “He plays pretty, graceful tennis, and I’m not in his league, not today. He’s simply younger, faster, a better athlete. He also thinks enough of my history, my accomplishments, to bring his A game. I like that he comes out loaded for bear.”

Lleyton Hewitt: “He’s among the best shot selectors in the history of tennis.”

Brad Gilbert, Agassi’s coach and Regions Morgan Keegan champion in 1986 and 1989: “Tremendous coaching skills, odd people skills.”

Todd Martin, champion in 1994 and 1995: “A deadly opponent. He has a nice hold game and a solid break game. With his own serve he’s uncannily accurate. He hasn’t the vaguest interest in hitting the inside of the line, he wants to hit the outside half.”

Jim Courier, champion in 1993: “The good news is, I know how to beat Courier. The bad news is, it’s personal. We began in the same place, in the same barracks at the Bolletierri Academy, our bunk beds a few feet apart.”

Michael Chang, champion in 1997: “Every time he beats someone he points to the sky. He thanks God — credits God — for the win, which offends me. That God should take sides in a tennis match, that God should side against me, that God should be in Chang’s box, feels ludicrous and insulting.”

Tommy Haas, champion in 1999, 2006, and 2007 who beat Agassi at Wimbledon in 1998: “He tells reporters he grew up idolizing me. I used to look up to Agassi, he says. I can say I beat Andre Agassi, a former number one who’s won a couple of Grand Slams. It sounds like a eulogy. Does the guy think he beat me or buried me?”

Chris Woodruff, who is from Tennessee: “He always reminds me of a country-western singer, and plays as if he’d rather be performing at a rodeo.”

Ivan Lendl, champion in 1991: “Asked about my game, he sniffs: ‘A haircut and a forehand.’”

John McEnroe, champion in 1980: “It feels like playing John Lennon. The man is a legend. I’ve grown up watching him, admiring him, though I’ve often rooted against him, because his archrival, Borg, was my idol.”

Mark Philippoussis, champion in 1998 and 2001: “An Australian kid with tons of talent and a reputation for squandering it.”

Pete Sampras, champion in 1996: “Our rivalry had been one of the lodestars of my career. Losing to Pete has caused me enormous pain, but in the long run it’s also made me more resilient.”

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