Portrait of the Athlete as Human Being


Pete Croatto


In 1994, David Foster Wallace wrote an awe-inspiring takedown of Tracy Austin’s Beyond Center Court: My Story, the former tennis prodigy’s memoir. Wallace was exhausted by the author'’s insipidness and how she offered no insight beyond the well-worn memoir clichés. The book  “could have been about the seductive immortality of competitive success,” Foster wrote. He added that Austin’s book was “inanimate,” containing “no real feeling and so [it] gives us no sense of a conscious person.”

(Translation: It was like every post-game interview and press conference except in expensive book form, just like most sports memoirs. The good news is that the prolific, brilliant Wallace probably read the book brushing his teeth and wrote his review while flossing.)

Andre Agassi’s Open: An Autobiography (now available in paperback) is the exact opposite of how Wallace viewed Austin's wobbly effort. Written with honesty, heart, and verve, Open shatters the memoir template and dances on the pieces. Agassi doesn’t offer an apology or write as if his publicist is hanging over his shoulder. He describes how someone else's desire for competitive success made him live an unwanted life and how, eventually and painfully, Agassi got the one he wanted. It’s the portrait of the athlete as a human being, and it’s a glorious reprieve from the “one game at a time” boilerplate. Wallace, if he were around, would have loved it. 

Like a browbeaten son handed the keys to the family factory, Agassi had no choice regarding his career path. His perpetually angry father, Mike, was determined to make his youngest child into a tennis star. When Agassi was a year old, Mike hung a mobile of tennis balls above Agassi’s crib and encouraged his son “to slap at them with a ping-pong paddle he'd taped to my hand.” At three years old, Agassi was given a sawed-off racket by Mike, who instructed him to hit anything.

It gets worse.

Mike buys a house for the sole purpose of building a tennis court in the backyard, which becomes Andre’s prison. At seven years old, Agassi is required to hit 2,500 balls a day from a souped-up ball machine, a.k.a. “the dragon.” What's worse: Agassi is an exceptional player. He wins $500 from football legend Jim Brown in a bet orchestrated by Mike. At eight years old, Agassi enters tournaments. Before one, Mike attempts to improve his son’s game by forcing him to take speed. This in addition to Excedrin, which is loaded with caffeine.

Agassi becomes the best player in Las Vegas as a seventh grader, Mike sends him to the infamous Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida. Mike found out about the school on 60 Minutes, somehow ignoring that the show exposed how the academy was basically “a tennis sweatshop that employed child labor.” The family scrapes enough cash to send Agassi away for three months. Once Bollettieri sees Agassi as his meal ticket, the youngster is given a free ride. Agassi is crestfallen. “The warden has tacked several years to my sentence,” he recalls, “and there's nothing to be done but pick up my hammer and return to the rock pile.” 

Such a situation is a breeding ground for rebellion, which Agassi does with aplomb—getting a mohawk, boozing, smoking pot. Realizing that Nick needs him, Agassi negotiates for no school and better instruction, which allows him to turn pro at sixteen. Agassi is ambivalent, but there are no other options. He’s on a course that was laid out for him years ago. There is an unforeseen consequence: Agassi becomes an adult way too soon. It’s a tumultuous process that involves lots of losing (Agassi was a pro for six years before winning his first Major, Wimbledon in 1992), failed relationships (Brooke Shields is painted as oblivious and narcissistic), crippling depression, and loads of personal reflection. He drops to 141st in the world in 1997, which means playing a series of demeaning challengers—“the bottom of the pro tennis ladder,” Agassi explains—where players operate their own scoreboards on shabby public courts.

Agassi uses it all as fuel to improve his game and his life, and everything comes together during his golden years on the professional circuit. Of course, he makes some good decisions, like working with people (his older brother Phil, trainer Gil Reyes, coach Brad Gilbert) who are his biggest allies. Agassi was also blessed with common sense. He ditched the robotic lifestyle he was exposed to for sixteen years to become his own man, and never fully succumbed to the relentless pressure that accompanies athletic stardom at a tender age. So many things could have gone wrong—and did—yet Agassi is happier than he’s ever been. He’s become a functional adult who refuses to define himself by his athletic greatness; his acclaimed charter school and family is what he boasts about the most in Open. The biggest testament to Agassi’s restored soul  is that there is no tennis court at his Las Vegas home. Think about that. He’s one of the best male players ever. His wife, Steffi Graf, is the best female tennis player of all time. They have two kids who are genetically equipped for stardom. If anyone wants a game, though, they pay fourteen dollars an hour at the public court. 

The painful journey of Agassi shedding his skin makes Open an incredible read, one that never feels gossipy or generated by self-help selfishness. (It doesn't hurt that Agassi’s ghostwriter is J.R. Moehringer, whose coming-of-age memoir, The Tender Bar, is a masterpiece.) Agassi doesn’t  preach or assign his values to others. He just talks about how he broke through, and he’s not done evolving. “When I broke into tennis, I was like most kids: I didn’t know who I was, and I rebelled at being told by older people,” Agassi writes. “I think older people make this mistake all the time with younger people, treating them as finished products when in fact they're in process.” He’s embraced that he’s a whirl of contradictions. He still plays the game he hates, a game he and his wife vow their kids won’t play, a game that he played until his mid-thirties, despite his father’s objections. Open may lack the black-and-white contrivances of the sports memoir that so many people like or loathe, but there’s a conscious person on every page. And it’s a wonder to behold.

Books mentioned in this column:
Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi (Vintage, 2010)
Beyond Center Court: My Story by Tracy Austin and Christine Brennan (William Morrow & Co., )
The Tender Bar: A Memoir by J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion, 2005)


Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.



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