Tuesday, December 1, 2009

LITTLE ANDRE, HAPPY AT LAST

I didn’t like Andre Agassi through most of his tennis career. I thought he was a brat who squandered his immense talent with vain display, a rebel without a clue who professed to be a free spirit while slavishly following the dictates of his corporate sponsors. In brief, I wished he’d go away.

I’ve never liked jock biographies, considering them a pure waste of time. The typical compliant that their authors “pull their punches” usually isn’t true because they never throw any punches to begin with. The books mostly are a way for their subjects to pick up a few dollars, pay off some non-monetary debts and prolong their times in the spotlight.

But here comes Agassi with a jockography, and you know what? I liked it. It’s a darned interesting book that appears to live up to its title of “Open.” It’s now on a (very) short list of recent-year sports books I’d recommend, along with Jane Leavy’s biog of Sandy Koufax and Tom Callahan’s marvelous “Johnny U,” about Johnny Unitas and pro football’s gritty 1950s. I feel like the fussy kid Mikey in the old cereal commercial, whose eyes were opened by an unexpected treat.

I wouldn’t be a reviewer if I had no complaints about a book. Like most of its genre, “Open” spends too much space recounting details of matches long forgotten, and doesn’t lack for self-justifying whines by its author. Prominent in the latter category is Agassi’s professed bewilderment that some people reacted negatively to the “image is everything” line he recited in a widely viewed camera ad. While it might have been true that someone put those words in his mouth, it was he who didn’t spit them out.

Those things, however, are quibbles, and “Open” is a pearl among pebbles. One very good thing about it is the work of Agassi’s co-author, J.R. Moehringer, although you have to make your way to the acknowledgments at the end of the book to learn his name. I’d never read anything by Moehringer, but will in the future. His writing brings a spontaneity to the book that makes it come alive.

Another is the undeniable fact that, for a jock, Agassi has had an interesting off-field go of it. That’s led by a tabloid-friendly social life that included dates with Barbra Streisand (he calls her a “passionate friend,” whatever that means) and marriages to the actress Brooke Shields and his now-wife Steffi Graf, who has a bigger trophy cabinet than he does.

Most of the attention the book has gained has focused on Agassi’s admission that he got high on crystal meth for a time during his career and (successfully) lied about it when the tennis tour asked him to explain a positive drug test. Several of his tennis contemporaries have demanded that he be stripped of some titles for the lapse, but that’s off-base. Agassi was stupid to try the brutally addictive stuff, but it hurts rather than enhances athletic performance and is the proper province of the police, not the sports cops.

More revealing by far is Agassi’s account of his childhood, one made no less Dickensian by the relentless sunshine of his native Las Vegas. He depicts his ex-boxer father, a captain in a Las Vegas showroom, as a domineering bully who forced him to spend his childhood on the practice courts and used him to pick up spare cash by hustling matches with unwary adults. Agassi hated tennis (or, as he wrote in several places, “hated hated” it), and stuck with it only for fear of his father’s wrath and lack of alternatives. As an eighth-grade dropout, he had few of the latter.

To be sure, no one can succeed at anything without some enthusiasm for the task, and Agassi admits to that, albeit mostly because he found losing intolerable. When he chose to exercise it his work ethic was impressive, as was his record, which includes eight Grand Slam titles. But so too was the degree of silliness to which he confesses; for instance, his multicolored mullet hairdo, long his public signature, was enhanced by a hairpiece that covered his growing baldness, and he lost his first Grand Slam final partly out of fear the rug would slip on-court and reveal his awful secret.

Mostly, the book is a description of Agassi’s journey from brat to mensch that would do credit to an early Tom Cruise movie. The transformation has been impressive: Andre today is an apparently happy, gracious husband and father of two whose charitable work—most notably his sponsorship of an academy for at-risk kids in his hometown—reflects his appreciation of the education he never had. It’s a tale worth writing, and reading.

BUSINESS NOTE: And speaking of books, those in my “For the Love of…” series make an excellent holiday gift. Titles include the Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals, Mets, Tigers, Packers, Ohio State and Georgia football, golf and Hall of Fame baseballers. You’ll love the illustrations. To see them click on the Triumph Books link on this site or go to amazon,com.

2 comments:

Andrew said...

I watched the 60 Minutes piece and found it very interesting. Glad the book is up to snuff. I've always liked Andre, especially the post meth version. And his dad firing serves at him since he was a young child, although brutal, really paid off. He was arguably the best serve returner in the history of the game.

Mike Levy said...

Fred,

'A pearl among pebbles' Wow, can I use that? Loved your revue. It also takes a mensch to read about someone you didn't like to begin with and come up with a thumbs up. Have a great time at the tables...and win!

Mike.