Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Open by Andre Agassi

When was the last time you read a sports biography that wasn't completely narcissistic? When was the last time you read any biography and laughed out loud--repeatedly? And most important, when was the last time you found a book that you simply could not put down?

Open is the best sports biography I've ever read. By light years. It makes "autobiographies" like Charles Barkley's Outrageous! (which Barkley famously claimed he never read) seem puerile, and it makes relatively intelligent books like Kareem Abdul Jabbar's Giant Steps or Vince: A Personal Biography of Vince Lombardi seem pale and pointless by comparison. I was able to put those books down. Not Agassi's.

Why do I read biographies? To learn lessons from other peoples' lives that I can apply to my own. To learn behavior I can model--or avoid. To understand the struggles and challenges of another person's life and use that understanding to help cope with the struggles and challenges of my own. And, admittedly, I read biographies to be entertained.

That's why this book was such a profound pleasure to read. It gives you all of these things. And you don't even need to be a rabid tennis fan (like I am) to enjoy this book. You just need to empathize with a guy who struggles to figure out his life and purpose. It's almost secondary that he happens to be one of the most talented tennis players in history.

A few comments on the controversies in Open. Much has been made about how badly Agassi treats Pete Sampras in the book--how Sampras is boring, how he's a lousy tipper, how he says and does nothing interesting.

The thing is, Agassi says this with a grudging admiration. He wished he could be more like Sampras during his playing days. He just couldn't. He simply hated the game of tennis too much. Also, the allegation about tipping actually came from Agassi's coach at the time, Brad Gilbert--Agassi simply retells an amusing story about how he and Gilbert learned about it.

It's also worth thinking a bit more deeply about many of the other controversies in the book, including Agassi's methamphetamine use and subsequent lies to tennis authorities, his sarcastic (and hilarious) jabs at Michael Chang's self-righteous Christianity, and his squirmingly candid description of the decline and failure of his ill-thought out marriage to Brooke Shields.

Why would Agassi include all of this? Why not just say only good things about his fellow players and girlfriends? Why make himself risk looking like a jerk when he could easily sanitize these passages? There would still be hundreds of hilarious and engrossing anecdotes left for readers to enjoy, and the book would still sell very well.

I think he sincerely wanted to do his best to make an honest and painfully accurate accounting of his life. We should all own up to our lives this way.

Highly, highly recommended.

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