Friday, May 19, 2017

Andre Agassi - Open

In Pune, a week ago, the first thing I got was a gift from Gauri - a book that I have been wanting to read - Andre Agassi's autobiography 'Open'. I started earnestly because I have heard several reviews praising the book for its honesty. Like Chris Gayle's, it gives an insight into what goes on in a champion's mind.
Vintage, 385p

Agassi's tale begins with his favorite line - straight out of G.H. Lawrence's 'Sons and Lovers' - I hate tennis...and in the same breath...I love tennis. The close connection between the opposites is something he realised early. And then he plunges into that epic match he played at the 2006 US Open he played with an injured back, thriving on cortisone injections, against 21 year old Marcos Baghtatis, a match he won 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5. It is considered the best US Open match ever. And he writes it in excruciating detail. The pain, the doubt, the feelings he has for his opponent, the will to win, his entire life, his eye for details, for numbers, for seemingly disconnected and inconsequential patterns. The time he spent in the bath, the strings on his racket, the number he saw somewhere. It is a match I watched and I would love to watch again.

Agassi's father was an Armenian-Assyrian who grew up in Teheran. He represented Iran in the1948 and 52 Olympics. He was fascinated by tennis, a game which he saw the British and American soldiers playing. He moved to the USA, married a local girl and settled down in Las Vegas. He had fur children, Andre being the youngest. Mike Agassi bought the house because it had a yard big enough to accommodate a tennis court even though it was far away from home. He built the court himself, developed machines that would spew balls at the children who were subjected to hitting 5000 balls a day. A regimen that none of the other kids could survive, but Andre did, though he hated it. For Andre the machine was a dragon and his father, the perpetrator, the kidnapper of his childhood. Mike put Andre through tough coaching regimes, made him hit balls with every celebrity who passed through Las Vegas. Andre recalls his father's temper, a fight he had with a truck driver who disagreed with him that left the truck driver lying on the road in the rain, with a good likelihood of being run over by another vehicle. You did not disagree with Mike Agassi. On the other hand, his mother loved her crosswords and was an oasis of peace in their lives.

Pretty soon the cocky hitter of thousands of balls became a junior level champion and was shifted to Nick Bolliteri's camp. Andre blows the lid off the famed Bolliteri and reveals the many run-ins he had with the man and his methods, his contemporaries included Courier. But then the enormous talent of the boy somehow takes time to fructify. Agassi talks of days with Perry his friend, Phil his brother, when he was broke and trying to break into the game. The uncertainty of growing up on the professional circuit and how he adjusts to it, though a little late, and in his own way. The scene where he first meets Ivan Lendl in the locker room, all chilled out in his tennis shoes and nothing else, was hilarious and also a reality check.. The way he builds his rivalries - with Chang who was so religious that he never cared much about but still surprised that someone like Chang won a slam before him or even Sampras whom he had no high opinion of until Sampras started winning against him.

The pressure of not performing to his own expectations and perhaps his father's get to him and Agassi reaches out to the perfect support team intuitively - Perry his friend becomes his partner and simplifier, a pastor (musician) VJ becomes his spiritual coach, Gil becomes his trainer, bodyguard and big brother and in later years Steffi Graf becomes his huge support system. Andre continues his love-hate relationship with tennis and far longer than some of his contemporaries and retires on his own terms. One can sense his evolution through the years, the way he uses that one thing he knows so well, tennis, to find his true self. And in his later years he finds himself, with those epic rivalries against Sampras, and even more interestingly against Becker. Agassi and Gil dedicate one season to take revenge against Becker who says something nasty about Andre. In that season he trains as the Pandavas did, with only one objective in mind, to vanquish Becker. So much so that he hoped Becker would not lose before he came up against him.

His relationship with Brooke Shields and how it ended, his jealousy at the Friends episode, breaking up all his trophies and then the relationship shows another side to him. At no stage does the story run ahead of its time, always told as he felt that moment, and then comes the next. That was very well done.

For years Andre struggles with his falling hair. For many years he plays with a hair piece. In one match he fixes his hair piece with staples and somehow plays , hoping it won't come off. When he reveals his secret to Brooke Shields (I think) she makes him take it off and present himself as he is. Perhaps the first step to his transformation, to accept himself as he is. He loves his writing and he loves his music and both come across. In another life he could have been a writer, a showman.

Agassi comes across as any of us, with his insecurities , doubts, anger and love and hate. He cares deeply about those who are his close circle, who mean something to him. His charity work, his Charitable Foundation for underprivileged kids, take up much of his time and his energy now. He reveals his dabbling with drugs in a weak moment and how he gets away without a ban. But he tells it honestly and we all know how it must be under the pressures he was in and like all humanity, do not have the energy to hold it against him. It's a mistake and he has accepted it so let's move on. Nothing to prove any more. That's exactly what 'Open' does to you. He starts out as the brash, cocky Las Vegas show man ( a picture I had in my mind) and by the end, gives you nothing to hit at because he is open about it. He has nothing left to prove and you grant him that.

The journey comes across beautifully - from fear and dislike and rebellion to feeling on top of the world to doubt and apprehension to finally making peace with himself and reality. He makes peace with his father as well when he undergoes surgery, knowing that he did the best he knew. Like Chris Gayle's this one is honest and does not cover any areas or weaknesses too much, in fact he dwells on them, and you wish there was more of the 'good' parts of his life which I am sure he must have had. But they say the bad overrides the good many times over and this is what he must have felt or gone through and this is what might have got him going as well. Brief references to Ramesh Krishnan (he spared him) and Paes (complimentary yet with a slight dagger) were interesting. His remark on Sampras's parsimonious tipping ways reveals more about Agassi than Sampras but then you don't hold it against him - he is like that - the eight Grand slam winner who came back from the brink of retirement.

There is no malice in the words though he rips everyone apart with candour using the words they used, the behavior they displayed. What I loved was the way the book never gets ahead of itself - it deals with things in the now and then moves on for better or worse. If I never liked Agassi during his playing days, now, I don't not-like-him. I think I understand him a little more. Would I recommend it? Unhesitatingly - as someone said - one of the best memoirs ever, period.

Some lines I'd like to quote.
"When you know that you took the other guy's best punch, and you're still standing, and the other guy knows it, you will take the heart right out of him. Attack the other man's strength. Take away his pride."

"You're hurting right now, hurting like heck. But that means you care. Means you want to win. You can use that. Try to use this day as motivation. If you don't want to feel this hurt again, do everything to avoid it. Are you ready to do everything?'

"Hurt a while longer. But then you tel yourself that's it, time to get back to work."

"Dream while you're awake, Andre. Anybody can dream while they are asleep, but you need to dream all the time, and say your dreams out loud, and believe in them...In other words, when in the final of a slam, I must dream. I must play to win."

'Andre, I won't ever try to change you, because I've never tried to change anybody. If I could change anybody I would change myself. But I know I can give you structure and a blueprint to achieve what you want. There's a difference between a plough horse and a race horse. You don't treat them the same. You hear all this talk of treating people equally and I am not sure if equal means the same. As far as I am concerned you are a race horse and I will always treat you accordingly. I will be firm but fair. I'll lead, never push. I am not one of those people who expresses or articulates feelings very well but from now on, just know this: it's on man. It is on. You know what I am saying? We're in a fight and you can count on me until the last man is standing. Somewhere up there is a star with your name on it. I might not be able to help you find it but I have got pretty strong shoulders and you can stand n my shoulders while you're looking for that star. You hear? For as along as you want. Stand on my shoulders and reach man, reach." - Vince Gil and the perfect lines any coach ought to say

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