Open: An Autobiography
by Andre Agassi
Vintage, August 10, 2010
Tucker’s Rating: 9/ 10
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What’s it about?: The autobiography of Andre Agassi’s, the famous tennis player.
Tucker’s Opinion: I care so little about tennis, and I had a negative impression of Agassi prior to reading this book, but now I’m a fan. Not even because of anything he did or because I now respect tennis. No, I am a fan because he does the one thing that virtually no one in an autobiography does: He is brutally honest with himself. He doesn’t do a pain-by-numbers celebrity memoir, he actually gets deep into his personal demons, he tells the truth about his emotions and his feelings and his pain. I have read many, many memoirs and autobiographies, and this is one of the best I’ve ever read.
Notable Quotes (as marked by Tucker):
One cannot always tell what it is that keeps us shut in, confines us, seems to bury us, but still one feels certain barriers, certain gates, certain walls. Is all this imagination, fantasy? I do not think so. And then one asks: My God! Is it for long, is it for ever, is it for eternity? Do you know what frees one from this captivity? It is very deep serious affection. Being friends, being brothers, love, that is what opens the prison by supreme power, by some magic force.
-Vincent van Gogh, letter to his brother, July 1880
Perry and I agree that life would be a million times better if our fathers were like other kids’ fathers. But I hear an added note of pain in Perry’s voice, because he says his father doesn’t love him. I’ve never questioned my father’s love. I just wish it were softer, with more listening and less rage. In fact, I sometimes wish my father loved me less. Maybe then he’d back off, let me make my own choices. I tell Perry that having no choice, having no say about what I do or who I am, makes me crazy. That’s why I put more thought, obsessive thought, into the few choices I do have–what I wear, what I eat, who I call my friends.
He nods. He gets it.
I notice something on the faces of the fans too. The way they watch me and ask for my autograph, the way they scream as I enter an arena, makes me uncomfortable, but also satisfies something deep inside me, some hidden craving I didn’t know was there. I’m shy–but I like the attention. I cringe when fans start dressing like me–but I also dig it.
Dressing like me in 1988 means denim shorts. They’re my signature. They’re synonymous with me, mentioned in every article and profile. Oddly, I didn’t choose to wear them; they chose me. It was 1987, in Portland, Oregon. I was playing the Nike International Challenge and Nike reps invited me up to a hotel suite to show me the latest demo and clothing samples. McEnroe was there, and of course he was given first choice. He held up a pair of denim shorts and said, What the fuck are these?
My eyes got big. I licked my lips and thought, Whoa. Those are cool. If you don’t want those, Mac, I’ve got dibs.
The moment Mac set them aside, I scooped them up. Now I wear them at all my matches, as do countless fans. Sportswriters murder me for it. They say I’m trying to stand out. In fact — as with my mohawk — I’m trying to hide. They say I’m trying to change the game. In fact I’m trying to prevent the game from changing me. They call me a rebel, but I have no interest in being a rebel. I’m only conducting an everyday, run-of-the-mill teenage rebellion. Subtle distinctions, but important. At heart, I’m doing nothing more than being myself, and since I don’t know who that is, my attempts to figure it out are scattershot and awkward — and, of course, contradictory. I’m doing nothing more than I did at the Bollettieri Academy. Bucking authority, experimenting with identity, sending a message to my father, thrashing against the lack of choice in my life. But I’m doing it on a grander scale.
Whatever I’m doing, for whatever reasons, it strikes a chord. I’m routinely called the savior of American tennis, whatever that means. I think it has to do with the atmosphere at my matches. Besides wearing my outfit, fans come sporting my hairdo. I see my mullet on men and women. (It looks better on women.) I’m flattered by the imitators, embarrassed, thoroughly confused. I can’t imagine all these people trying to be like Andrew Agassi, since I don’t want to be Andre Agassi.
Now and then I start to explain this in an interview, but it never comes out right. I try to be funny, and it falls flat or offends someone. I try to be profound, and I hear myself making no sense. So I stop, fall back on pat answers and platitudes, tell journalists what they seem to want to hear. It’s the best I can do. If I can’t understand my motivations and demons, how can I hope to explain them to journalists on deadline?
To make matters worse, journalists write down exactly what I say, while I’m saying it, word for word, as if this represented the literal truth. I want to tell them, Hold it, don’t write that down, I’m only thinking out loud here. You’re asking about the subject I understand least — me. Let me edit myself, contradict myself. But there isn’t time. They need black-and-white answers, good and evil, simple plot lines in seven hundred words, and then they’re on to the next thing.
If I had time, if I were more self-aware, I would tell journalists that I’m trying to figure out who I am, but in the meantime I have a pretty good idea of who I’m not. I’m not my clothes. I’m certainly not my game. I’m not anything the public thinks I am. I’m not a showman simply because I come from Vegas and wear loud clothes. I’m not an enfant terrible, a phrase that appears in every article about me. (I think you can’t be something you can’t pronounce.) And, for heaven’s sake, I’m not a punk rocker. I listen to soft, cheesy pot, like Barry Manilow and Richard Marx.
But no one can make me ready for battle with the media, because it’s not really a battle, it’s a massacre. Each day brings another anti-Agassi screen in another magazine or newspaper. A dig from a fellow player. A diatribe from a sportswriter. A fresh piece of libel, served up as analysis. I’m a punk, I’m a clown, I’m a fraud, I’m a fluke. I have high ranking because of a conspiracy, a cabal of networks and teenagers. I don’t rate the attention I get because I haven’t won a slam.
Millions of fans like me, apparently. I get potato sacks full of fan mail, including naked pictures of women with their phone numbers scrawled along the margin. And yet each day I’m vilified because of my look, because of my behavior, because of no reason at all. I absorb the role of villain-rebel, accept it, grow into it. The role seems like part of my job, so I play it. Before long, however, I’m typecast. I’m to be the villain-rebel forever, in every match and every tournament.
If I must play tennis, the loneliest sport, then I’m sure as hell going to surround myself with as many people as I can off the court. And each person will have his specific role. Perry will help with my disordered thoughts. J.P. will help with my troubled soul. Nick will help with the basics of my game. Philly will help with details, arrangements, and always have my back.
Sportswriters rip me about my entourage. They say I travel with all these people because it feeds my ego. They say I need this many people around me because I can’t be alone. They’re half right. I don’t like to be alone. But these people around me aren’t an entourage, they’re a team. I need them for company, for counsel, and for a kind of rolling education. They’re my crew, but also my gurus, my blue-ribbon panel. I study them and steal from them. I take an expression from Perry, a story from J.P., an attitude or gesture from Nick. I learn about myself, create myself, through imitation. How else could I do it? I spent my childhood i an isolation chamber, my teen years in a torture chamber.
Andre, I won’t ever try to change you, because I’ve never tried to change anybody. If I could change somebody, I’d change myself. But I know I can give you structure and a blueprint to achieve what you want. There’s a difference between a plow horse and a racehorse. You don’t treat them the same. You hear all this talk about treating people equally, and I’m not sure equal means the same. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a racehorse, and I’ll always treat you accordingly. I’ll be firm, but fair. I’ll lead, never push. I’m not one of those people who expresses or articulates feelings very well, but form now on, just know this: It’s on, man. It is on. You know what I’m saying? We’re in a fight, and you can count on me until the last man is standing. Somewhere up there is a star with your name on it. I might not be able to help you find it, but I’ve got pretty strong shoulders, and you can stand on my shoulders while you’re looking for that star. You hear? For as long as you want. Stand on my shoulders and reach, man. Reach.
I’m supposed to be a different person now that I’ve won a slam. Everyone says so. No more Image is Everything. Now, sportswriters assert, for Andre Agassi, winning is everything. After two years of calling me a fraud, a choke artist, a rebel without a cause, they lionize me. They declare that I’m a winner, a player of substance, the real deal. They say my victory at Wimbledon forces them to reassess me, to reconsider who I really am.
But I don’t feel that Wimbledon has changed me. I feel, in fact, as if I’ve been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing. Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something that very few people on this earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last as long as the bad. Not even close.
In 1992, however, spending time together suddenly becomes more complicated. Sitting in a movie theater, eating in a restaurant, we’re never truly alone. People appear from nowhere, requesting my picture, demanding my autograph, seeking my attention or opinion. Wimbledon has made me famous. I thought I was famous a long time ago — I signed my first autograph when I was six — but now I discover that I was actually infamous. Wimbledon has legitimatized me, broadened and deepened my appeal, at least according to the agents and managers and marketing experts with whom I now regularly meet. People want to get closer to me; they feel they have that right. I understand that there’s a tax on everything in America. Now I discover that this is the tax on success in sports — fifteen seconds of time for every fan. I can accept this, intellectually. I just wish it didn’t mean the loss of privacy with my girl.
Wendi shrugs it off. She’s a god sport about every intrusion. She keeps me from taking anything too seriously, including myself. With her help I decide that the best approach to being famous is to forget you’re famous. I work hard at putting fame out of my mind.
But fame is a force. It’s unstoppable. You shut your windows to fame and it slides under the door. I turn around one day and discover that I have dozens of famous friends and i don’t know how I met half of them. I’m invited to parties and VIP rooms, events and galas where famous gather, and ask for my phone number, or press their numbers on me. In the same way that my win at Wimbledon automatically made me a lifetime member of the All England Club, it also admitted me to this nebulous Famous People’s Club. My circle of acquaintances now include Kenny G, Kevin Costner, and Barbra Streisand. I’m invited to spend the nigh at the White House, to eat dinner with President George Bush before his summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. I sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom.
I find it surreal, then perfectly normal. I’m struck by how fast the surreal becomes the norm. I marvel at how unexciting it is to be famous, how mundane famous people are. They’re confused, uncertain, insecure, and often hate what they do. It’s something we always hear — like that old adage that money can’t buy happiness — but we never believe it until we see it for ourselves. Seeing it in 1992 brings me a new measure of confidence.
I sit down for an hour-long interview with Charlie Rose, the genial TV host, during which I lie through my teeth.
I don’t mean to lie, but each question Rose asks me seems to come with an implied answer, an answer he’s ready and eager to hear.
Did you love tennis at an early age?
You loved the game.
I would sleep with a racket.
You look back on what your father did for you, do you say now: I’m glad that he gave me those early things that made me tough?
I’m definitely glad that I play tennis. I’m glad he started me in tennis.
I sound as though I’ve been hypnotized, or brainwashed, which isn’t new. I say the same things I’ve said before, the same things I’ve mouthed during countless news conferences and interviews and cocktail-party conversations. Are they lies if I’ve come to partially believe them? Are they lies if, through sheer repetition, they’ve taken on a veneer of truth?
This time, however, the lies sound and feel different. They hand in the air, they have a bitter aftertaste. When the interview is over I feel a vague queasiness. Not guilty so much, but regret. A sense of missed opportunity. I wonder what would have happened, what Rose might have done or said, how much more we might have enjoyed the hour, if I’ve leveled with him, and with myself. Actually, Charlie, I hate tennis.
The queasiness stays with me for days. It gets worse when the interview airs. I promise myself one day I’ll look an interview of Roses’s stature right in the eye and tell him the unvarnished truth.
Also, several sportswriters muse about my transformation, and that word rankles. I think it misses the mark. Transformation is change from one thing to another, but I started as nothing. I didn’t transform, I formed. When I broke into tennis, I was like most kids: I didn’t know who I was, and I rebelled at being told by older people. i think older people make this mistake all the time with younger people, treating them as finished products when in fact they’re in process. It’s like judging a match before it’s over, and I’ve come from behind too often, and had too many opponents come roaring back against me, to think that’s a good idea.