Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi and J. R. Moehringer

Some books I read are entertaining. Some books give me a new perspective on certain facets of the world. Some books give me the ability to brag to others that I read them. Open did all of this. (Except that bragging bit. By the way, did I mention I am reading Thomas Khun too?) In any case, I expected an entertaining read, but I was surprised to find some bigger questions than the stated subject matter: tennis and its most (im)famous protagonist. A book that entertained and taught me a bit about tennis would’ve still been great. Tennis has played a huge role in my life: it taught me self-confidence; taught me how to win. It is also the means of some of the blessings I hold most dear: a loving father who taught me the sport, close friendship, and opportunity to work hard at something and get better at it. When I remember having fun as a kid, I remember tennis.

So naturally, my experience was very different than Agassi’s. He was forced into tennis — without the loving father, the friends, the fun. The chorus of the book was “I hate tennis”. It is like he woke up surrounded by a tennis matrix. Fear held him in a like a prisoner who is kept in the middle of the desert with the knowledge that his escape would only lead to certain death. So while he was given much, and developed into a super athlete, his mental state was left underdeveloped, indeed very fragile, by his pathological father.

It is difficult for me to consider big questions from books off of the New York Times bestseller list because I’m aware of the motivations of publishers, the role of the ghostwriter, and the economic gains that everyone can enjoy from a bestseller. This forced me to ask myself throughout the book: how authentic really is this guy? While writing a sports autobiography like this is certainly fresh and inviting, it is also a great potential marketing strategy. Not only that, but as someone who desperately wanted the opportunities that Andre was given: the chance this practice tennis full time at the Bollettieri Academy, all the equipment, travel and advantages that a young aspiring tennis player could wish for, I found myself both jealous and disdainful of his lack of thankfulness for his once in a billion opportunity to become the best tennis player in the world.

However, despite its potential flaws, I have to say that I like the book for three reasons. The first two are pretty simple: it brought back and augmented memories foundational to my childhood, and the book is very well written. Beyond this, the book was something more than entertaining. Andre was not just cataloging how he became a great tennis player or what the life as a great tennis player was like, he continually asked and tried to answer the question: what is success and what is life’s overarching purpose?

While he never asked these questions overtly, they were made unavoidable by the narrative: how could someone who just finished second in a tournament like the French Open be launched into a deep and abiding depression by his “devastating loss”? He was the number two tennis player in the world! Few in history have had that honor. Simply losing one match was enough to crush him. Was this because of the fragile emotional state by his one-sided upbringing, or does this speak to something deeper that afflicts us all?

My initial reaction to this was that Andre was a first-class whiner. Why couldn’t he be happy with taking home a $50,000 check instead of taking home $100,000 check or whatever tennis players get from these big tournaments? However, as the book went on I was forced to think through and try to understand how similar this struggle is for all of us.

I was reminded of discussions with senior leaders in the US military who mentioned colleagues of theirs who retired bitter and weary, crippled from their lack of ability to get that fourth star. Or how about political campaigns? The scale of loss and massive defeat that surrounds the losing nominee (and their millions of dollars spent) is staggering. And, no matter what our endeavor, no one always wins (excepting, perhaps, John Maynard Keynes). Perhaps the first of Buddha’s four Noble truths is unavoidable:

bq. To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too.

Without forgiveness and the love it enables, I think this does describe the surrounding tissue of a life in this world: as surely as gravity pulls a stone to earth our activities will encounter suffering, but there is hope! And here I found this book most wanting — a great description of the problem, with a sorry excuse for an answer. While I was glad to be faced with the question of what will I center my life around? What do I consider success? I was not satisfied with: “give”. He was three letters short of the answer — forgive and be forgiven. While giving to others certainly is a source of the deepest joy I have known, can it be done without experiencing forgiveness personally? And without this forgiveness, is happiness truly attainable even if one finds the Steffi Graf of their dreams?

As the parent of young children, it is interesting to follow what pulls them through each day, each week, each month. They are always excited about something. Sometimes it’s their birthday, or school the next day, their smile always has a very visible reason behind it. Throughout the book I found myself wanting Andre to smile. Not laugh for joy from the elation of finally winning a grand slam or defeating Boris Becker after the summer of revenge, but to smile because he deeply enjoyed something in and of itself. A quote from Screwtape letters is foremost in my mind here:

bq. On your own showing you first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends. In the second place, you allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there—a walk through country he really likes, and taken alone. In other words you allowed him two real positive Pleasures. Were you so ignorant as not to see the danger of this? The characteristic of Pains and Pleasures is that they are unmistakably real, and therefore, as far as they go, give the man who feels them a touchstone of reality. (Letter XIII)

All this forced me to ask myself why I smile and when I smile. I smile when I think about finishing various projects at work or about having a good workout. I joyfully look forward to moment when I can sit down and read a book, or write this a review like this. But on reflection reasons why I smile are much less important than reasons why I cry. I have cried while holding my daughter in my arms while I think about her future. I’m overcome with feeling of being blessed — so excited to have someone to give to, to love. Excited to do so from a position of being forgiven and therefore from a position that is able to forgive all others. As tears carefully creep down my cheeks I feel, in a moment, at total peace, and in that moment I worship my creator.

But Andre, he never let us into those things that made him smile (except for his trip to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela) and, of course, Steffi Graf. In Open, two criteria were necessary for an event to be included in the book: it was either something that brought him great disappointment or something that created national news, which most often had something unknown and disappointing behind it — often a bit of his angst that he was hiding from the cameras. True, the end is uplifting and perhaps there was a smile on his face as he traded volleys with Stephanie. The story just felt incomplete without forgiveness. We were left with the fear of the Dragon but not the forgiveness to his father. We were left with the legacy of angry sportswriters without a cathartic sense that he understood their need to play to the crowd just like he did. We have his broken relationship with Brooke Shields, not forgiven, just replaced by what he claims is his ultimate fulfilling relationship with Steffi Graf, a final upgrade perhaps.

The other major theme that Open highlighted was the messy nature of reality. I seem to have a Panglossian notion of how two elite tennis players come together on a court — imagining a degree of precision and perfect preparation commiserate with the high-stakes game they’re playing. It’s funny how events in my life which seems so clean-cut and simple were messy in their execution. Just like Pete Sampras crippled by cramps before a stunning victory over Andre I often find myself needing to overcome insurmountable odds to make an event happen. Why isn’t anything easy? Is this a case for everyone? Shakespeare certainly thought so.

Enough of the big picture questions, Open still contained a great deal of information on how the world works, and for that alone it’s a highly recommended read. So many events that capture the world’s attention were explained from a fascinating inner perspective — good reminders to us all that all is not as it seems. It was fascinating to watch Andre catalog his rise to fame and its accompanying transformation on what his life was like. Though they had so much in common, clearly, his rise was about as different as possible from that of Brooke Shields, who essentially grew up being famous. It seemed to be his Wimbledon victory which took him from famous in tennis circles to to a household name and the story started to take place in places like Kevin Costner’s yacht instead of on a tennis court in Florida.

So highly recommend: whether you’re looking for a chance to peek in the lives of the rich and famous, a reinterpretation of one of Tennis’ most memorable stars, a chance to understand what the American dream really is, or even looking to ponder some of life’s biggest questions. Whatever their decision, Agassi and J. R. Moehringer decided to make this a different kind of sports autobiography, one that opened a life and provides us ample opportunities to see ourselves in the mirror and ask whatever questions we see when that happens.

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