Prior to Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open, I had never bothered to read a bio of any professional tennis player, or any athlete, for that matter. In fact, I can only name one book I've read that is explicitly about tennis, Brad Gilbert's Winning Ugly, which is pretty much required reading as a strategy guide for any hacker like myself, but doesn't purport to be an intensely personal story of success and/or strife.
I had been totally prepared to ignore Agassi's entry into the hall of ghostwritten histories, as I did those from Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, James Blake, et al. Agassi was never a favorite player of mine, in part because I found his early image off-putting, perhaps because I was such a slavish Bjorn Borg fan in my youth and that Swedish stoicism never seemed a part of Agassi's make-up (oddly enough, since Agassi himself claims Borg as an idol; then again, having an idol doesn't mean you replicate your idol). Even as he grew into an elder statesman of the game worthy of respect for both his accomplishments and attitude, I never found myself warming towards him or his game.
What caught my eye was the controversy over Agassi's admission of crystal meth use in the '90s -- during a time when his game and ranking had hit unexpected lows -- and the predictably ostentatious lamentations and condemnations that followed. Having had my own dalliances with meth -- and more than dalliances with some other things -- I know that not every instance of ingestion of a substance leads irrevocably to a rock-bottom crash into a life in the gutter that must be overcome by heroic personal struggle or succumbed to in a life of bad gums and meth-procuring prostitution.
For many people, they simply do some stupid shit in their lives, like meth, and then they stop doing stupid shit. Because we know we must.
From all appearances, Agassi seems to be one of the latter.
Anyway, I didn't suddenly become an Agassi fan because I found out that he's snorted something illicit and then moved on, giving us something in common. But I did find his admission fascinating and thought, "Hey, that may actually be an interesting read." And, it truly is.
In the very first pages of the book, he describes tennis in a way that speaks to anyone who takes the game seriously, whether they're a world-class pro or a weekend hacker:
"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 darkest. It's our choice."
Life as a series of minute decisions, made quickly and often under pressure, that lead up to our finest moments or deepest disappointments, all depending on what we choose to do, who we choose to be. All of which, to be honest, makes me glad that I'm better at life than I am at tennis, even if at times I wish it had been the other way around.
I finished Open last night, impressed that Agassi had produced -- with the help of writer J. R. Moehringer -- a book that went beyond recaps of famous matches yet never really lapsed into a bathetic plea for understanding. He actually comes across as rather a prick, and I admire that he's willing to let that hang out.
I'm still not what you would call an Agassi fan, but more than I ever did before I have respect for Agassi the man.