Agassi Autobiography Bares Ordeals of Pro Athlete Life

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By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

From the outside, what could be more glamorous than the life of a top, professional tennis player? Dressed, usually, in gleaming whites, cheered by crowds, they enjoy a life of travel and hob-nobbing with other celebrities and adoring fans.

The inside or back story can be very different and it was for André Agassi, who was often ranked as the number-one player in the world, retiring at the age of 36. He played competitively for 20 years, from 1986 to 2006.

Trained and browbeaten unmercifully by his ambitious, enraged father, Mike, Agassi began hitting tennis balls at the age of 7. Born in Tehran, his father was possessed of a manic drive to make his children, not only André, into star tennis players. He built a court in a deserted area outside of Las Vegas where the family lived and Agassi was confined to that court for most of his childhood, hitting balls spit out by a machine his father invented which the young André called “the dragon.”

He was the youngest of four and the most talented as an athlete. Mike Agassi, a former boxer, had tried to develop his three older children as tennis players, but none had the natural capabilities of André. His father cared very little whether his son got an education and pulled him out of school at a moment’s notice for matches and practice. Agassi dropped out of school permanently in the ninth grade.

Sent to Nick Bolletieri’s tennis camp at age 12, he began a regime that was equally punishing. Hours of drills, indifferent food and little time for himself left the young André ill equipped to deal with the normal process of growing up.

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While tennis provided Agassi with a living, fame and even, eventually his wife, German tennis star Steffi Graf, throughout the book, he proclaims his hatred of the sport. Describing his feelings as a young boy, he says, “I hate tennis, I hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing, keep hitting all morning and all afternoon because I have no choice. No matter how much I want to stop, I don’t. I keep begging myself to stop, and I keep playing, and this gap, this contradiction between what I want to do and what I actually do, feels like the core of my life.”

Eventually, he achieves some separation from his obsessed father and develops a group of trainers and associates who would help him cope with the challenge of being a top athlete. They included his older brother, Philly, his friend, Perry, his dedicated trainer, Brad Gilbert and others.

Agassi is remarkably “open” about his personal difficulties. Tennis fans will recall his often outlandish dress and the bandanas he wore around his head. The bandanas were necessary because, as he admits, he was losing his hair and did not want what he considered a physical humiliation to be revealed. It was his first wife, Brooke Shields, who persuaded him to shave his head.

Agassi describes vividly the physical and mental efforts that are necessary to endure to achieve top status in a relentlessly competitive arena. Especially as he ages, the tapings of his blistered feet, the cortisone shots he needs to ease his aching back play more and more a part of his maintaining his ranking as a top player. At a low point, he takes drugs both to bolster his flagging commitment to the game and to keep his demons at bay.

The description of his marriage to Brooke Shields is the description of what was pretty much a non-marriage. Separated for most of the time by their different professional commitments, his to the tennis tour, and hers to her acting career, the two spend little time together and their attempts at achieving any true intimacy were largely thwarted, both by circumstance and lack of real communication.

Often ranked number one, Agassi’s nemesis was Pete Sampras, whom he met in many finals at major tournaments. Agassi, so conflicted about his involvement with professional tennis, is both baffled by and envious of Sampras’ steady, almost boring and emotionless commitment to the game.

Thanks, no doubt to his collaborator, J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, (whose name appears only in the acknowledgments), the book is written with verve and style. The story does have a happy ending, for while Agassi was defeated at the US Open in 2006, he had by this time met and married Graf and together now they have two children. The book closes with a charming description of the two pros hitting balls to each other on a rented court near their home in Las Vegas.

Agassi now gets satisfaction from his foundation and the school it supports, the André Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a charter school for underprivileged children.

Many athletes have written memoirs and autobiographies, but few have achieved the blatant honesty of this volume. The book could have lasting value for young athletes contemplating a professional career.

Agassi mentions his Armenian background only once. It would be interesting to know more about Agassi’s feelings about his Armenian-Iranian roots.
The book will interest tennis fans, but its appeal surpasses that of the conventional sports autobiography. It is a story of intense struggle, triumph and the ultimate acceptance of defeat on the court, which frees its narrator for the next chapter in his life. It is a rewarding read.

Open By André Agassi. Alfred A.Knopf.,
388 pp. 2009 $28.95. ISBN 978-0-307-26819-8