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Steve Flink: Agassi Open for All to See

11/10/2009 12:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink
Enter to win a signed copy of "Open"

No sports autobiography in recent years has fired the imagination of the public more or created as much of a buzz in the press as the brand new book released yesterday called “Open”, written by the one and only Andre Agassi with his gifted collaborator J.R. Moehringer. Agassi draws the reader in swiftly and irreversibly, telling the story of his childhood and career provocatively, moving freely through the central stations of his life, trying to make everyone else understand the depth and scope of his struggle to comprehend himself. On some levels he succeeds; in other respects he fails; and yet there is never a stage in the book when Agassi loses our interest or allows our eyes to glaze over.

To me, he has always been the most confounding of athletes, wasting talent and opportunities liberally in his younger years, capturing five of his eight major titles improbably after turning 29, taking an almost sadistic pleasure in defying conventional wisdom and winning or losing almost entirely on his own terms. Agassi was always Agassi, predictably unpredictable, an anti-hero and hero at different times, a restless soul in the universe of tennis. I always found it difficult to figure him or his motives out, to separate fact from fiction as it pertained to his view of himself and his actions.

After reading “ Open” across this past weekend, I remain perplexed by who Agassi is and what he wants to convey. About some people and certain things, he comes across with absolute sincerity and admirable decency. His reverence and unbridled admiration for his trainer, close friend and father figure Gil Reyes is deeply touching. His love and boundless belief in his wife Steffi Graf is completely heartfelt and authentic. Most of the positive things he says about his former coach and good friend Brad Gilbert rings true and are presented with much generosity of spirit and humanity. His noble reasons for starting the Andre Agassi Academy College Preparatory Academy--- a charter school in Las Vegas--- are a reflection of the best side of his character.

But there is also pettiness spread throughout these pages by Agassi, an unkindness bordering on vindictiveness, a small-mindedness that is thoroughly at odds with how he perceives himself. Agassi’s anecdotes and observations about the likes of Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang are decidedly negative and sometimes spiteful and begrudging.  Even his more justifiable scrutiny of Boris Becker and Jimmy Connors is put forth with excessive venom, and his treatment of longtime coach Nick Bollettieri is unbalanced, over the top, and surprisingly harsh in light of the instrumental role Bollettieri played in his career.

The recurring theme of the book is his constant need to tell the reader how much he hates tennis, from his earliest days under the guidance of a burdensome father. He wants to pound that point home every chance he has, and he seems to feel it from his core. But was it simply hatred, and nothing more? I watched him play a ton of matches from 1988-2006, saw him move through all phases of his career, observed him during golden stretches and when he was clearly distressed. My view is that this must have been a “love-hate relationship” with the game. What else could it have been than that?

Here was a man who knew he possessed unique gifts. He took the baseline game to another level with his court positioning and incomparable hand-eye coordination. No one could orchestrate and utterly control a point like Agassi. His return of serve was devastatingly potent. When he was playing well, the joy he took in performing mightily was unmistakable. He took immense pride in his craftsmanship. Moreover, when Agassi talked tennis, his eyes always lit up and his enthusiasm brimmed over. And yet, he essentially ignores that side of himself in “Open”.

Let’s get to the specifics of the book. Agassi writes poignantly about his father, a former Olympic boxer (1948 and 1952) for Iran who never lost that mentality. Mike Agassi made up his mind that Andre must be groomed for supremacy as a tennis player, shaped to be the finest player in the world. As Andre writes, “No one ever asked me if I wanted to play tennis, left alone make it my life. In fact, my mother thought I was born to be a preacher. She tells me, however, that my father decided long before I was born that I would be a professional tennis player. When I was one year old, she adds, I proved my father right. Watching a ping-pong game, I moved only my eyes, not my head. My father called to my mother. Look, he said. See how he moves only his eyes? A natural.”

That was clearly the case. As Agassi would write later in the book about his father, “My father is shrill and stern and filled with rage…… He turns me into a boxer with a tennis racket.” Young Andre had to endure some traumatic moments while growing up under his father’s tutelage on the courts. Once, he writes, he was with his Dad in the car when Mike Agassi pointed a handgun at another driver, who drove away speedily.” He’s busting his gut,” writes Andre Agassi of his father, “I tell myself that I will remember this moment--- my father’s laughter, holding a gun under my nose--- if I live to be a hundred.” On another occasion, his father gets in a verbal skirmish with a trucker. They get out of the car and start a fight. Mike Agassi sends the trucker to the pavement with an uppercut, and the trucker is lying down in the middle of the road when Mike Agassi gets back in his car and drives away, making Andre think, “If he’s not dead, he soon will be, because he’s in the middle of the road and someone will run him over…… Such moments, and many more, come to mind whenever I think about telling my father I don’t want to play tennis.”

And yet, he plays on, winning his first seven tournaments in the 10-and-under division. Agassi is a ball boy at the Alan King tournament in Las Vegas at the age of nine. He has already hit with Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, and Ilie Nastase. His father--- who teaches tennis but also works at MGM seating people at the shows, also gets his other three kids to play tennis, but, as Andre Agassi writes, “Rita [the eventual wife of Pancho Gonzalez] rebelled. Tami stopped getting better. Philly didn’t have the killer instinct.”

We learn that Mike Agassi calls Phil Agassi a “born loser”, but he has a winning way about him as portrayed by Andre in the book. Phil warns Andre at one stage in the juniors not to take pills from Mike Agassi. Andre explains that Mike has made him take Excedrin before matches to get the benefits of caffeine.  Phil tells his younger brothers to look out for a different kind of pill, which are small, white and round. Phil informs Andre that Mike Agassi had given him Speed before matches, and would try the same with him.

They agree that if Andre is ordered by his father to take the pill, he should tank the match. That is precisely what happens. Agassi comes off the court and tells his father he doesn’t feel well and might pass out. Mike Agassi agrees to not do that again, so the strategy worked. But as the years progressed, the pressure grew on Andre, and Mike Agassi elected to send his son to the Bollettieri Academy when Andre was approaching 14.

In the book, Agassi refers to the academy as “a glorified prison camp.” Once Bollettieri sees Agassi hit, he calls his father, offers Andre a scholarship, and asserts that “Your boy has more talent than anyone I’ve ever seen come through this academy. That’s right. Ever. And I’m going to take him to the top.”

Bollettieri and Agassi would need time to establish guidelines that worked both ways, including Agassi being allowed to drop out of school in the ninth grade, giving him more time to concentrate on tennis. Eventually, when Agassi goes out on the pro tour, Bollettieri travels with him to many events and serves as his coach. In the book, Agassi recounts his agonizing 1991 French Open final round loss to Jim Courier, lamenting that when he was ahead of Courier by a set and 3-1 and rain intruded, Bollettieri had nothing to say to him in the locker room during the delay, no cogent advice. Perhaps it never occurred to Agassi that his coach had already given him the good advice up front, enabling him to build a lead. When Agassi wins his first major at Wimbledon in 1992, Bollettieri is by his side, and it is a great triumph for both of them.

The parting of the ways for Bollettieri and Agassi occurred in 1993, when Agassi found out through a media report that his coach was not going to work with him any longer. As the years passed and he mellowed, Bollettieri expressed genuine regrets about how he had handled the situation, but Agassi never seemed to forgive him for that regrettable decision, and largely took for granted all of the ways Bollettieri contributed to his development as a player. Agassi was, after all, ranked No. 3 in the world when he was 18, which was no mean feat. But hardly anywhere in the book does Agassi have a kind word to say about an individual who had done so much to shape his life and his game.

That is not the case with his next coach, the inimitable Brad Gilbert. The book is filled with terrific stories surrounding Gilbert, who comes through as an astute analyst of the game who spoke just the right language to his pupil, playing an instrumental role in allowing a great player to more fully realize his vast potential. He even predicted to Agassi after the French Open in 1999 that he would marry Steffi Graf by 2001, and have children by the following year, and that was before Agassi and Graf had even started dating.

In the March of 1994, Gilbert and Agassi meet for dinner with Agassi’s oldest friend and onetime manager Perry Rogers.  Gilbert proceeds to dissect Agassi’s game, and he tells Andre that he is too much of a perfectionist. “You try to hit a winner on every ball, when just being steady, consistent, meat and potatoes, would be enough to win ninety-five percent of the time. Quit going for a knockout. Stop swinging for the fences.. Stop thinking about yourself, and your own game, and remember that the guy on the other side of the net has weaknesses. You don’t have to be the best in the world every time you go out there. You just have to be better than one guy. Instead of you succeeding, make him fail. Better yet, let him fail…… It’s all about your head, man. With your talent, if you’re fifty percent game-wise, but nine ety-five percent head-wise, you’re going to win. But if you’re ninety-five percent game-wise and fifty percent head-wise, you’re going to lose, lose, lose.”

As Agassi writes of that initial meeting with Gilbert, “He talks a mile a minute, a constant drone, not unlike a mosquito. He builds his arguments with sports metaphors, from all sports, indiscriminately. He’s an avid sports fan, and an equally avid metaphor fan.”  After Gilbert had carried on convincingly for 15 minutes, he got up to go to the bathroom, and Agassi turned to Rogers and said, “That’s our guy.” Their player-coach union lasted all the way until 2002, and--- despite a long slump in the middle-- it was the most productive period of Agassi’s career. In that stretch, Agassi won two U.S. Opens, three Australian Opens and the French Open crown, capturing six of his eight majors in that span.

All the way through, Gilbert had that capacity to simplify the game for Agassi and get him to operate at peak efficiency, with an uncluttered mind. Agassi acknowledges that in the book. In 1999, for instance, he was on the edge of realizing his dream of a career Grand Slam, but started abysmally against Andrei Medvedev in the final. He is crushed 6-1 in the first set when it rains. In the locker room, he sees Gilbert and his trusted friend/trainer Reyes. Agassi lets off steam on Gilbert for not having anything to say for the first time in his life.

Gilbert responds accordingly and puts Agassi firmly in his place after Agassi has said that Medvedev is too good. “If you’re going to lose,” Gilberts says to Agassi, “at least lose on your own terms. Hit the blanking ball. … The last thirteen days, I’ve seen you rip it under pressure, main guys. So please stop feeling sorry for yourself, and stop telling me he’s too good, and for the love of God stop trying to be perfect!  Just hit the ball… If you’re going down, O.K, go down, but go down with guns blazing. Always, always, always, go down with guns blaaazing.”

Agassi digested it all, went out and lost the second set, but rallied for a five set win over Medvedev. Gilbert’s inspirational words surely made a difference, as was often the case. And those words were enormously important on other occasions. In the fall of 1997, when Agassi was drifting to a low point of No. 141 in the world, Gilbert sat down with him after a first round loss in Stuttgart to Todd Martin. Both men knew Agassi was at a critical crossroads, but Gilbert convinced Agassi it was time to start over, to play Challenger events, to, in essence, reinvent himself and recapture his old game. He tells Agassi, “You need to go back to the beginning. You need to pull out of everything and regroup. I’m talking square one.”

The only section on Gilbert that has a distinct air of inaccuracy is the way Agassi describes the end of their working relationship. Gilbert is frustrated when Agassi pulls out of the 2002 Australian Open with a wrist injury. Not long after that, according to Agassi in the book, Gilbert came to him and said, “We’ve had a great run, Andre, but we’ve gone as far as we can go. We’re growing stagnant. Creatively. I’ve burned through my bag of tricks, buddy. We’ve had eight years,. We could go on for a few more, but you’re thirty-two. You have a new family, new interests. It might not be such a bad idea to find a new voice for your home stretch. Someone to re-motivate you.”

Gilbert has always found a way to revitalize himself, to create new ideas. The widespread feeling at the time was that Agassi decided to end it, not Gilbert. No one thought that the end was bitter or divisive, but Brad Gilbert running out of ideas is as likely as Bill Clinton losing his knack for giving brilliant speeches.

Speaking of Bill Clinton, he makes a brief appearance in the Agassi book. When Agassi took on the fleet-footed Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean at the French Open in the quarterfinals of the 2001 event, Clinton was present.

The former President arrived in the stands after Agassi had obliterated Grosjean 6-1 in the opening set. He sat down behind the court in the dignitaries section, waved to the crowd, and an immense roar engulfed the arena. His arrival was dramatic and exhilarating for the fans. But the match took a sudden turn in another direction. Agassi completely lost his edge, no longer controlled the tempo, and was wiped away 1-6, 6-1,6-1, 6-3. When he was asked in the press conference at the time if Clinton’s late entrance had thrown him off course, he insisted he had no idea Clinton had shown up at the match.

In the book, Agassi writes, “Reporters asked if my concentration was broken by the arrival of President Bill Clinton. Of all the reasons I’ve ever heard, and offered, for losing a match, even I couldn’t come up with one so lame. I didn’t even know Clinton was there, I tell them. I had other things on my mind. Other invisible spectators [Graf was four months pregnant].”

And yet, he never gave a good explanation for why he has veered so far away from his best tennis after an easy opening set with Grosjean, never told us why he had lost the second and third sets so badly. I was there that afternoon in Paris and to this day I am convinced he must have known Clinton was there, and was distracted and preoccupied long enough to lose his grasp on the contest. There was no other viable explanation.

In any case, a crucial turning point for Agassi came in 1997, when he missed the first three Grand Slam events, bowed out in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, and essentially wasted that year away before he reemerged with vigor in the fall and played two Challenger events. It was the year he married Brooke Shields despite nagging doubts about their relationship, and the year he took crystal meth, which is the major revelation in his book. Before he marries Shields, Agassi takes the drug for the first time when it is offered by his assistant Slim.

Later, over the summer and after the marriage, he is back in Las Vegas. He writes, “Slim is there and we get high a lot…. Apart from the buzz of getting high, I get an undeniable satisfaction from harming myself and shortening my career. After decades of dabbling in masochism, I’m making it my mission.”

In the book, that is the last we read about his drug use. But in interviews since, he has been oddly vague about how long he went on taking crystal meth, which authorities say is a very addictive drug. With Katie Couric on “60 Minutes”, he said that was a “foggy period” in his life and he estimated that he took the drug for most of 1997. In other outlets, he seemed to suggest he took it for a year or slightly longer.

But he was entirely fortunate to avoid a three month suspension from the ATP after a failed drug test. He wrote a letter that was filled with lies, got away with some lame excuses, and never was suspended. There has been a substantial outcry of disapproval from the tennis community. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Boris Becker, Marat Safin and Martina Navratilova have all criticized him sharply. Agassi told Couric it was a “performance inhibitor” and not a performance enhancer, a view shared by many in the know.

The ATP and WTA would do well to reexamine their policies because the penalties now appear to be much stiffer than they were when Agassi tested positive. Martina Hingis was driven out of the game when she got a two year punishment for taking cocaine in 2007. And that is where Agassi has a big problem now when he asks for compassion. He was given a second chance while others have not been so fortunate. Moreover, he should have been asked if he ever went to rehab, which would be likely considering the drug he was taking and its addictive nature. Meanwhile, if he took it for a year, he was lucky not to be caught more than once on drug tests.

Be that as it may, my feeling is that there was no reason to disclose that chapter in his life. He has said in interviews that he needed to come forward with essential matters in his life since his book is entitled “Open”. But surely he has other secrets hidden away in the recesses of his mind, secrets he had every right to keep under wraps. Could he possibly have been “open” about every aspect of his life? I seriously doubt it. Why did his two children--- a son and a daughter of icons--- need to be exposed to this? Furthermore, why should the kids at his school be subjected to all of the talk swirling around Agassi’s experimentation with drugs? I don’t get it. I really don’t. Was he really trying to clear his conscience after 12 years? Was he trying to help other athletes avoid the predicament he found himself locked in? Possibly, but in the end I can only conclude he was rationalizing everything and primarily trying to sell more books.

I also am baffled by Agassi’s treatment of his fellow players. He describes a 1988 meeting with Chang at the WCT Tournament of Champions in New York. “Once more, “he writes, “I square off against Chang, who’s developed a bad habit since we last met. Every time he beats someone, he points to the sky. He thanks God- credits God—for the win, which offends me. That God should take sides in a tennis match, that God should side against me, that God should be in Chang’s box, feels ludicrous and insulting. I beat Chang and savor every blasphemous stroke.”

I understand to a degree why he was so offended, but Chang did that to all of the players, not solely to Agassi. David Wheaton--- another leading American from that era--- confronted Chang directly about the God issue in that period. Chang made an honest attempt to tone that part of his routine down. But Agassi never comes back later in the book to give him credit for changing.

Commenting on Jim Courier, he writes, “I go to the 1989 French Open and in the third round I face Jim Courier, my schoolmate from the Bollettieri Academy. I’m the chalk, the heavy favorite, but Courier scores the upset, then rubs my nose in it. He pumps his fist, glares at me and Nick [Bollettieri]. Moreover, in the locker room, he makes sure everyone sees him lacing up his running shoes and going for a jog. Message: Beating Andre just doesn’t provide enough cardio.”

Was that fair? Courier was known as a workaholic in his training, and going for a run after a match was not uncommon for him. Agassi knew that. But some of his most stinging remarks are reserved for Pete Sampras, his most accomplished rival, the man he met in five major finals (Agassi won only one of the five), the man whom he met on 34 occasions between 1989 and 2002 ( Agassi won 14 of those confrontations). Sampras is the player who makes it into the Agassi manuscript most frequently, because Agassi tells his story chronologically and his regular meetings with his revered adversary across the years are there for the record.

Agassi’s respect for Sampras as a player is apparent, although he is begrudging about his many defeats and he never fully owns up to the fact that he was losing to a better tennis player. He always seems to offer excuses. When he lost to Sampras at the 1990 U.S. Open in their first monumental clash, he writes, “I’m helpless. I’m angry. I’m telling myself this is not happening… Instead of thinking how I can win, I begin to think of how I can avoid losing.”

When Agassi loses to Sampras in the 1995 U.S. Open final after winning 26 matches in a row across the summer, he complains of waking up that morning with “torn cartilage between the ribs…. I can barely breathe.” Sampras wins that crucial contest 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5. It is a high quality encounter, and the better man prevails.

They collide in their last career duel, at the 2002 U.S. Open. At that time, Agassi was seeded 6th and Sampras, who had not won a major since 2000 or a tournament of any kind in 33 appearances, was the No. 17 seed. In the book, Agassi writes about climbing into bed the night before that historic final. He remembers eating dinner several years before at an Italian restaurant in Palm Springs.

Agassi was dining with Gilbert while Sampras was eating with friends. Sampras left the restaurant first, and Agassi and Gilbert saw him through the window driving away.

Agassi and Gilbert made a bet about how big a tip Sampras gave the valet. When they finished their meal, they approached the valet and asked him. The valet was reluctant to answer, but finally told them that Sampras had given him $1.00. Moreover, he said that Sampras had told him to give the money to whichever kid brought his car around. After recollecting that story, Agassi writes, “We could not be more different, Pete and I, and as I fall asleep the night before perhaps our final final, I vow that the world will see our differences tomorrow.”

When Agassi finishes his description of the end of Sampras’s four set win in that clash, he writes, “Pete gives me a friendly smile, a pat on the back, but the expression on his face is unmistakable. I’ve seen it before. Here’s a buck, kid. Bring my car around.”

That was a cheap shot of the highest order. Over the years, Sampras and Agassi were never close friends, but always respectful rivals and fittingly complimentary about each other. Why in the world would Agassi feel the need to tell that story about Sampras, and tie it into their last meeting? Because Agassi knew who the larger man was on the court, he felt he had to diminish Sampras away from the arena. But all he did was cheapen himself and expose his own insecurities.

In another anecdote about Sampras, Agassi recalls crossing paths with his rival at an airport. He writes, “I’ve often told Brad [Gilbert] that tennis plays too big a part in Pete’s life, and not a big enough part in mine, but Pete seems to have the proportions about right. Tennis is his job, and he does it with brio and dedication, while all my talk about maintaining a life outside tennis seems just that--- talk. Just a pretty way of rationalizing all my distractions. For the first time since I’ve known him--- including all the times he’s beaten my brains out--- I envy Pete’s dullness. I wish I could emulate his spectacular lack of inspiration, and his peculiar lack of need  for inspiration.”

Agassi admires the work ethic of Sampras, salutes his rival for his professionalism, even uses the word “brio” to describe how his fellow American does his job. But, after offering some well deserved praise, he steps on his compliment by dismissing Sampras as boring. Go figure.

Meanwhile, he writes quite a bit about his tormented relationship with Brooke Shields, their courtship and 1997 marriage, and their 1999 breakup. In those sections, he seems to blame her for all of their difficulties, exonerating himself from most of the problems, resenting how much she cared about her career and how little concern he thinks she has for his professional life. At times, he is brutally honest about his feelings, but he does not seem terribly concerned with her point of view.

The most striking example is when he goes to watch her tape an episode of “Friends”, the popular television show. On the show, she has a scene where she is required to kiss an actor’s hand and lick it. He is irate watching that happen, writing in the book that Shields “takes it one step further, devouring his hand like an ice cream cone… Brooke didn’t mention anything about hand licking. She knew what my reaction would be.”

They shoot the scene again, and Agassi can’t take it. He storms out. Shields runs after him but he refuses to return. He drives away, all the way from California back to Las Vegas. He gets there at 2AM and calls Shields to apologize. She tells him how humiliated she was. They argue. Agassi walks into the living room and breaks all of his cherished tennis trophies, from Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, from Davis Cup. “I pick up the broken trophies and smash them against the walls. When the trophies can’t be smashed anymore, I fling myself on the couch, which is covered with plaster from the gouged walls.”

On the other end of the scale, Agassi brings out his nobler side in his remarks about Gil Reyes and his wife. He writes of Reyes at one juncture, “Our bond is strong. Eighteen years older than I, Gil can tell that he’s a father figure. On some level, I also sense that I’m the son that he never had.”

When Agassi and Graf decide on a name for their first child, they name him Jaden. But when he goes to Reyes to tell him, he adds that they have chosen a middle name. Reyes asks him what it is. Agassi answers, “Jaden Gil Agassi. If he grows up to be half the man you are, he’ll be phenomenally successful, and if I can be half the father you’ve been to me, I’ll have surpassed my own standards.”

In describing his courtship of Graf and their almost inevitable marriage, Agassi displays a generosity and appreciation of her character that is very moving. The public and most of the press viewed the German superstar as a strong and disciplined woman, as a towering champion and a fine sportswoman. But she rarely showed much personality, hardly ever gave much of herself away, seldom smiled with ease. Agassi paints another picture altogether of his wife--- of a woman with soul and depth, of a lady with deep intelligence and even sophistication, of a great wife and extraordinary mother. That picture he gives us of his wife is honest and believable.

She comes across as a saint, with a large heart, and an open mind. But his best story about Graf takes place in 2002 at Key Biscayne. She goes out for a fast workout and some grocery shopping in Miami, while Agassi stays behind with his six-month old son. It was his first solo stint with his kid. He has a hair trimmer in the bathroom and decides to use it for Jaden, but he does a terrible job and leaves a “bright stripe of scalp down the middle, as white as a baseline.” He had used the wrong trimming attachment. He tries to even out his son’s hair, but makes it worse. “My son is balder than I am. He looks like Mini-Me.”

Graf returns and is astonished and furious. She yells at Agassi, “What on earth is the matter with you? I leave you alone for 45 minutes and you shave the baby? Then she lets fly a burst of histrionic German. I tell her it is an accident. The wrong attachment. I beg her forgiveness….. I try to remind her of that old wives’ tale, that if you shave a child’s head the hair will grow back faster and thicker, but she holds up a hand and starts laughing. She’s bent over laughing. Now Jaden is laughing at Mommy laughing. Now we’re all giggling, joking that the only one left is Stefanie, and she’d better sleep with one eye open.”

So there you have it. It is a riveting book. I am normally a slow reader, but I swept through the Agassi book in three or four sittings over an enjoyable weekend. To be sure, it is provocative. I still find myself wondering why he seems to wander back and forth between integrity and disingenuousness. How can he be so commendable on some levels and so inexplicably artificial in other ways?

We may never know the answers. But, in terms of his book, none of that really matters. “ Open” is among the most compelling autobiographies I have ever read. It should be read by all authentic tennis fans, whether they like Andre Agassi or not.

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