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The Agassi and the Ecstasy
He stole Steffi from me
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According to the revelations in this extraordinarily good autobiography yours truly and Andre Agassi have a lot in common. He hates tennis, Yup! He fell in love with Steffi Graff, a big yup, and he likes cheesy soft rock, red face yes. Thankfully we don't share the same passion for Crystal Meth, the books most shocking revelation. After just two pages of this you already know you are reading the best sports book of the year. By the first chapter it's already the best book of the decade.
The writing style is mesmeric as it is loquacious and intelligent as you are sucked into Agassi's angst and sulky world like matter into a black hole. If you read the wavers the suggestion is he wrote this book without a ghost but in the final thank you's he confesses to dictation. But whoever put the final full-stop in, this is a fabulous read and Agassi is far more intelligent and interesting than we ever knew. I beg sports fans to read this before they go to their grave. Again it is quite extraordinary, the pages becoming a blur as you race through it. Even if you don't like the sport it's a must. This is a very complex guy that opens up his heart and a sport to anyone who wants to listen.
The book begins at the end of Andre's impressive career, his final game drama in the US Open, a 36-year-old, eight time major winner doubled up in pain in his hotel room, a degenerative back condition from birth called spondylolithesis (a back disc displacement) finally getting the better of his courage, body and mind. It's in the first few paragraphs where we really get to grips with just how much Agassi confesses that he did indeed hate the game and what drove him on to this point of agony and what kind of books is to come. His life was very much like the graceful Swann on the surface but the legs going like crazy under the water to stop him drowning in his own self loathing, depression and contradiction.
"Please let this be over. I'm not ready for this to be over."
(Andre Agassi - 2nd Round 2006 US Open v Marcus Baghdatis)
The little bo-legged kid from Vegas...
The early days of Andre's life reveal the hard working immigrant family and predictable pushy parent, dads drive to make something of his family's lives in America through sport and punishing toil the overpowering dynamic of the book. Dad was an Iranian and double Olympian boxing champion and so weighted down by that vicarious need for his kids to live the life he really wanted in America - that of wealth and sporting recognition in the west. He was also an angry man, ready to put up the dukes at the drop of a hat to any stranger that irked him, which there were many, at one time pointing a gun at some poor truck driver who cut him up at the lights.
They moved to Vegas when the kids were young because dad needed to buy a property big enough to build a tennis court in the backgarden, the desert ideal for cheap space and the isolation needed for his kids punishing regime to come, determined to make champions of them, very much in that Richard Williams method. He would build his own tennis ball machines and fire the yellow-green missile at the kids all day in the searing heat, memories that would haunt Agassi's youngest years and emotions, the
Pictures of Open: An Autobiography - Andre Agassi
Open: An Autobiography - Andre Agassi
point where he really began to hate tennis and because of his dad's tortuous regime on the practice court that would make him the wealthy and revered man he is.
The writing in the book is eloquent and emotive when it comes to that father-son dynamic and really personal as we get to grips with the thoughts in Andres head at this time of the conflicting relationship with dad and tennis. He wanted to please dad but that could only be done on the court, which pulled them apart...'the pain of losing and the pain of playing', as Andre quotes. He describes that schizophrenic relationship with tennis like being in love with a beautiful girl: 'You can't let her go even if you don't love her as somebody else will own it and touch it'. Men always want to own things.
Although his brother and sister were also good players it was Andre who showed the most promise, dad soon hustling locals down the park courts with his prodigy son. At one point he allowed his son to pay a rich businessman for ten grand, dads' life savings!
As a brilliant junior his first defeat was to a nine-year-old Jeff Tarango, no less, the loud mouth American that commentates at Wimbledon, who cheated to win that game by calling the ball out, things like that Andre used as motivation and never forgets and so reaps his revenge later. When dad was 5-2 down to his son in the back garden he refused to finish the set in a huff and they never played again. Its also the first time his dad instructed his son to take 'pills' to help his stamina in tournaments. They turned out to be amphetamines and Andre did as he was told, although he claims not for long.
It's hear in the book we learn that there are tennis genes in the family, not quite the rags to riches story we expected. Dad was a floor manager in the casinos and mixed with people from all walks of life, never nay talk of the Agassi family going short in the book. Dad would also string Jimmy Connors rackets when he was in town and the famous player Poncho Gonzales was married to Andre's older sister.
By Andre's teens he was ready and it was time to dispatch him to the infamous Nick Bolletieri Academy in Florida where he received a rare scholarship. It was here where Andre was toughened up mentally, not a place for homesick kids. He describes the academy as a prison and he is even less complimentary about Bolletieri. He quickly rebelled and soon the Mohican wearing bad boy going nose to nose with Nick. Nick had dad's dollar signs in his eyes and was not going to let this kid fail, whatever stunts he pulled, which were many.
In 1986 at just 16 he turned pro and soon winning, beating the then world number 12 Tim Mayotte in just his third tournament to make the quarter-finals. He chose to take his big brother along as coach and support, a relationship that blossoms in the book for you to join in with. Nike took a like to his big hair and attitude and soon offered him a 25k a year deal, by now Andre and his brother flat broke on the road and so welcome funds. But the form didn't last, embarrassingly beaten in the US Open on a wildcard, Britain's Jeremy Bates no less. Defeats by Lendl and a fading Conner's would soon follow, Lendl dismissing him as a "haircut and a forehand".
Andre would win a tournament for the first time the following year in an invitational event in Brazil, the country falling in love with the showman from Vegas with the frosted mullet and devastating forehand. His first Slam final would be the French in 1990, getting the run around from dirt rat Gomez. Jim Courier and fellow Bolletieri graduate would out slug him in a five setter in the following years French Final.
Its here in the book we delve into the great rivalry between Samprass and Agassi, a seamless progression from the legendary one between McEnroe and Conners in the 1980s. But Samprass would crush Andre in the US Open final in 1990 and the nearest he ever got to beating Pistol Pete in a Slam final.
The Vegas kid was not that keen on Wimbledon and famously commenting that "Grass was for cows". But, ironically, it would be his first Slam win, beating big serving Croat Goran Ivanisevic in the 1992 final, threatening not to wear all white to annoy the snotty organisers. It's also here where his infatuation for Steffi Graff grew; disappointed that he would not get to dance with her at the traditional Champions Ball after she won the Woman's crown. That tender side of the book is surprising that famous people also are shy and romantic with each other.
But, being number one in the world and playing rock n roll tennis and adoring Sports Illustrated magazine and the like it was only right he pair off with the world's most beautiful woman, Brooke Shields, again Agassi somewhat ambiguous on his emotions for her in the book. You can really feel the contradictions by the middle of the book on the real Agassi coming out as he begs you for his sympathy on every page, like a true nonracist and depressive. These guys need to be loved of the court or they just can't deal with the emotional demands of their egos.
"I looked at my warped reflection in the trophy. That was the real me"
(Agassi winning the Miami Dade classic in 1994)
After a big loss of form new coach Brad Gilbert turned him around. Agassi had dropped out of the worlds top 100 by 2000, playing challenger events in local parks where player are expected to be their own ball boys, do the scoring and ignore cat call from the fans. It was an extraordinary fall and rise that saw him become the first unseeded player in the modern to win The US Open, beating the precocious Michael Change in the 2004 Final. 2000 was also the year he decided to reveal his new bald head look after fighting the battle of hair loss, actually wearing hair weaves on the top of the contrived mullet in the early 1990s. Incredibly he almost admits that he nearly lost the semi-finals in the Aussie Open on purpose because he didn't want to face humiliation by Boris Becker in the final, a guy he detests even today, which he lost to in that final. But he would later win a record four Australian Opens and the Olympics (1996) to become only two players ever to win all four Slams and the gold medal, the other being his soon to be wife Steffi Graff, a match made in tennis heaven. His pursuit of Steffi is rather sweet through out the book and the first time his narcissistic side is softened. I had a huge crush on both Brooke and Steffi back then and can see why his heart raced every time he saw the statuesque ones.
Perhaps the books most startling revelation is the confession to taking crystal meth in 1997, a homemade powerful social drug that destroys families all across America and heading to the UK to a council estate near you soon. More intriguingly was the US Tennis Association let him off the offence after reading his explanation that it was in his 'friend's bottle of beer, the Vegas kids' entourage a colourful bunch. The question now is how many more failed drug tests are the American tennis authorities keeping stuck on? More shockingly we learn in the book that he played 'commando' (no pants) for the whole of the last six years of his career! There is no mention of performance enhancing drugs in the book though. Maybe that will be in Boris Becker's book.
It's fabulous and you will race through the first few chapters as you marvel at the poetic prose and beautiful and intelligent flow to the book. He talks of each grand slam event and the court services like the different seasons or his tennis bag feeling like a sniper going to war. Whoever wrote those lines has a real sense for sports writing. I want to believe its all Andre's words and he does say that English and short stories were his best school subjects but it seems just too good to come from the guy with the Bon Jovi hair.
The middle of the book drags you down with Andre's depression and apathy, by now you part of his life forever more the way great autobiographies can achieve. His troubles are your troubles but magnified one hundred times in different ways, never a guy to have money worries like you and me but suffering the same insecurities that it will all famous people do that it will all go away and they are somehow not worthy of it. Agassi really lets you get into his head here and lays everything bare but his darkest secrets.
This is so good because normal sports autobiographies are ego listings of achievements and the occasional put down of fellow players and managers and so you don't feel you really know the person. Here its mix of everything, Agassi's sulky style over winning somewhat blaze but shows how fragile sports stars are away from the public image, the winning bit isn't easy and takes everything you have and no surprise it becomes part of your moods and psyche off the court. There is no doubt Andre plays down his achievement s out of guilt the way working-class hero's do but he also brings the reader up to his level in a way you believe he has written this book just for you. It's a truly brilliant read and should be sitting next to your towel and sun cream for the beach next week guys...
- - - Records - - -
He won 17 straight games as a teenager, only recently beaten by Nadal
Fastest to $1 million dollar career earnings after just 44 tournaments.
Has won all four Slams and the Olympics, the so-called 'Golden Slam'.
Oldest World number one at 33 years, 13 days
One of only six male pros to win over 800 matches
Highest US money winner behind Samprass
A record 21 US Opens played
Made 4 straight slam finals
4 Australian Opens (level with Federer)
26 Aussie Open wins
127 hard-court wins
Played the most games ever
Played the most sets ever
13 hard-court titles
46 career title wins
13 ATP Tour titles
Summary: A rare piece of brilliant writing from a dull sport
Excellent review, sorry I've run out of E's already.
BlackSwan 12.08.2011 12:12
Very nice work on this one. Agassi is an interesting individual. I have admit I was rooting against him during his first Wimbledon final and born-again Christians are rarely my bag, but nevertheless credit where it is due. Great write-up.