Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best of 2010: Sports (Auto)Biography--
Andre Agassi's "Open"

I interviewed one of my favorite people in the world today, my friend Mike Caponigro, the co-creator of the “Catholics vs. Convicts” t-shirt. I wanted to get the official history of how the shirt, banned by the university was made and sold before the October 15, 1988 Miami vs. Notre Dame game. In a posting that will follow before the Irish play the Hurricanes in the Sun Bowl, Mike concluded his remarks with a question to himself: Would I rather have the money or the story? I guess the money…no wait a minute, at the end of the day; I would rather have the story.

He raised what I believe is an interesting point and an intriguing idea, a good card in life's game of “would you rather.” The victory? the money? the girl/guy? the glory? or the story? Perhaps it’s because I’m Irish (Mike’s Jersey Italian….close enough) but I agree, I'll take the story too.

And for the first of my 2010 “Best of” postings, the best sports auto/biography goes to Andre Agassi for his controversial autobiography “Open.” Why? the guy has the girl(s), the glory, the money, and a whole lot of victories. But this isn't what makes his book so memorable; he knows how to tell a good story.

Ironically “Open” begins with a chapter entitled “The End.” He writes
I open my eyes and don’t know where I am or who I am. Not that unusual—I’ve spent half my life not knowing. Still, this feels different. This confusion is more frightening. More total.I look up. I'm lying on the floor beside the bed. I remember now. I moved from the bed to the floor in the middle of the night. I do that most nights. Better for my back. Too many hours on a soft mattress causes agony.
The bad back, three decades of sprinting, stopping on a dime, jumping high and landing hard led Andre to retire at the age of thirty-six (young by most standard except for profession tennis). But he isn’t only speaking about retirement, or pain or self-knowledge, he is setting the stage for what this book reveals.

People would ask Agassi why he thought the end of his career was the appropriate time to write his autobiography. Why not wait until many years later—with time and distance from the game? Agassi conceded that it was therapeutic for him to undertake this endeavor. He reviewed hundreds of hours of game tape; he spoke with his coaches and trainers, reviewed interviews and more. Writing “Open” allowed him to make sense of the madness that is life on the ATP Tour. Tennis is played on six continents; it can be tremendously lonely and physically exhausting. But, it can also be pure entertainment. With Agassi’s active role as a US Davis Cup player, he came to appreciate a team dimension as well as the ultimate team—his wife—one of the greatest female players of all time, Steffi Graf. It doesn't have to be so lonely. Incredible victories, upsetting losses, his unconventional childhood, even the era he played all make for an autobiography that reads as a story.

It’s fitting, Agassi does not begin “Open” with the story of the last match he played, rather, he weaves in details of his life with his family on the tour, the cortisone shots he must take (whoa) all while leading up to what is final professional victory, against Marcos Baghdatis.

Ranked number eight in the world in the September 2006, I remember what a big and strong guy he was…and that he was Greek from Cyprus. I will never forget the school year was just underway and one of my students, a gentle giant was very proud of his Greek heritage. I happened to ask Matt Kosmas if he had family in Cyprus. He did. When I mentioned Baghdatis, he nearly went ape shit (I’m sorry, I typically don’t swear, but that’s the truth. Honestly, tell me how many Cyprian Greeks you know?!)Like the rest of the book, Andre doesn’t just recall details of the match, he colors the pages with his emotions, insights, how his supporting cast—coaches, personal trainer and family played their parts. His recall is phenomenal and so are his experiences and adventures.

After he defeats Bagdahtis in five grueling sets he writes:
By the time I reach the locker room I’m unable to walk. I’m unable to stand. I'm sinking to the floor. I’m on the ground. Darren and Gil arrive, slip my bag off my shoulder and lift me onto a table. Baghdatis’s people deposit him on the table next to me. ... He curls up into a ball and begs (his people) to leave him be. Moments later something makes me turn back to Baghdatis. He’s smiling at me. Happy or nervous? Maybe both. I smile back. In my peripheral vision I detect slight movement. I turn to see Baghdatis extending his hand. His face says, We DID that. I reach out, take his hand, and we remain this way, holding hands, as the TV flickers with scenes of our savage battle. It was a fun way to start the book; I was hooked.
I hate how the press that surrounded "Open" focused on his usage of Crystal Meth, not to mention his hair loss, and hollow marriage to Brooke Shields. I hate how he hates tennis—I don’t. Even when I went to hear him speak at a book signing/release, I thought he is still a bit of a punk. Not a lot of Andre and his life resonate with me. Yet what totally fascinated about his memoir were the places he traveled, the people he met, his genius of a mind for the game and his significant comeback in his 30s.

And by way of compare and contrast, I read Pete Sampras’ autobiography "A Champions' Mind." Poor Pete…truly one of the greatest players of all time and he made me yawn. Case in point, after he captured his seventh title at Wimbledon, he wrote “we went out and had a blast.” I’m sure you did Pete. My God, you’re the winning-est male in the history of the tournament and that’s all you want to share? Vitas Gerulaitis is rolling in his grave (good, bad or otherwise).

If you like tennis, if you find strong personalities like his former coach Brad Gilbert highly entertaining, if are envious, like me, of people who continue to be in the right place at the right time—he played in the French Open when Springsteen and the E Street Band just happened to be on tour (he was spotted in the crowd and everyone yelled out “Allez Andre!”) this is the book for you.

Andre is not a religious person. He intimates at his spirituality, but in the most abstract way possible. Yet, Andre and I share a common humanity; despite the challenges he has faced, the contradiction he is and the abuse he has endured from family, the media and self, I am certain he would say, ultimately, “Open” is a story of one man’s humanity. I want nothing to do with "Eat, Pray, Love" or "Girl with the Dragon Tatoo;" this is one story worth reading.

NB: "Open" was released in 2009...I may be cheating here! I didn't get to read it until January 2010.

Photo Credits
"Open"
Steffi & Andre
Andre & Bagdahtis
Brad Gilbert

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