In his new book, Agassi on journey to find himself
by Matt Cronin
At first glance, Andre Agassi's new autobiography, Open, is a fascinating account of a boy morphing from a psychologically beaten-down prodigy of an emotionally disturbed ex-boxer of a father into an intelligent, big-hearted sporting guru, until one gets into the meat of what the eight-time major champion is attempting to portray about his life.
Agassi's most stunning revelation to his fans is that he was using crystal meth in 1997, tested positive for it and then lied to the ATP Tour about how it got into his system (he claimed in a letter to officials that he drank it out of his mysterious assistant Slim's soda can, even though the use was actually more widespread) but was somehow exonerated by a tribunal.
But for those who know him and who covered him over his 17-year career, the most shocking revelation is he consistently lied about his love of the sport, about his true opinions on other players' personalities, about his love for his ex-wife, actress Brooke Shields, about how truthful he was to the press and about how truthful he was even to himself.
Time and time again in the book, Agassi recounts episodes where he was saying one thing and thinking another and, in a sense, mocks those who believed what he was saying.
Why he thought much of the world should have known so many of his answers to simple questions were tongue-in-cheek responses or bewildered statements by a devastated man in search of his true identity is beyond comprehension, especially given that, for at least the last nine years of his career, he consistently harped on the importance of being forthright, humble and insightful. In many ways, he wanted to be seen as a pull-no-punches, no-bull kind of man — the very opposite of the ad campaign he participated in and came to despise, "Image is everything."
And now, just because he decided to lay a lot on the table in his book, he's expecting his readers to take his pleas for understanding hook, line and sinker, just as he admittedly did in an interview with the respected Charlie Rose, when he said he fibbed his way through the entire segment.
As engaging and likeable as Agassi is, I'm certainly not buying all of it.
The book is certainly a must-read for any tennis fan. Most of his great rivals get thorough treatment (Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Boris Becker among them). Like Agassi's dad, Mike, who once terrified him by punching out a truck driver and who nearly came to blows with his father-in-law, Peter Graf (Steffi's father), Andre takes some roundhouse punches at the likes of the "egomaniacal" Jimmy Connors and his former coach, "the warden" Nick Bollettieri. Agassi is very respectful of Sampras' game, but steps on his dominant rival's more straightforward personality. And when it comes to Shields, he is less than kind, essentially calling her phony, vacuous, too concerned with her own world and not enough with his.
Though Agassi pleads for understanding of his own case — his militaristic father forced him to play tennis against his will, and he was sent to the tennis "prison" of the Bollettieri Academy (he calls it "Lord of the Flies with forehands") — he's not very sympathetic to others.
He wants Shields to understand he's more of a stay-at-home guy, but doesn't quite get why she wants to go out a lot. He wants her to take more of an interest in his career, but he's bored by hers. He feels like a third wheel when being around the Hollywood types who are discussing acting, but doesn't get why she might feel left out when his crew of sports lovers are discussing their trade.
And the one-time Davis Cup hero wants the reader to believe everything he's writing is the truth, even though he spends a couple of hundred pages talking about how he lied about his commitment to the sport (upset with Shields, he says he purposefully tanked his 1996 Australian Open semifinal to Chang to avoid another war with Becker) and about what tennis can teach a person.
Of course, Agassi is trying to sell books, so he was no doubt encouraged to spice up the copy. He has always had opinions, so he had little trouble letting them fly. Painting himself as an abandoned child who became a fugitive from a sport he hated, he wants the world to understand that, a lot of the time, he was struggling to place his feelings, so if he just happened to say the opposite of what he meant, then so be it.
What most folks are discussing now is his crystal meth revelation and whether it was gutsy for Agassi to come out and reveal he took a banned substance. It might have been before the eight-year statute of limitations was exhausted sometime in 2005, but it isn't now, as neither the ATP nor ITF can go back and take away any of his titles or prize money. Moreover, he conveniently admits to doing crystal meth during a period when he didn't win a single title and eventually fell to No. 141 in the world.
Some folks don't think crystal meth is a performance enhancer, but it is an upper, so Agassi cannot possibly claim it absolutely had no positive effect on any match he played (he did reach the fourth round of the U.S. Open during the summer that he said he was indulging). Nor can he claim his revelation doesn't affect anyone but himself, as any ATP officials who thought he was their friend at the time and believed he was playing straight with them has been burned by his statement in the book.
Doping officials are so upset that David Howman, the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, told the London Telegraph that he would be writing to the tennis authorities to ask them to investigate "the possibility of perjury" or "a breach of the law" following Agassi's admission that he lied about the crystal meth got in his system.
Agassi has an incredible memory for matches, but flubs some history in his book. He recalls, to take one example, when he was disqualified from the San Jose tournament in 1999 (he and Shields had just separated) and appears to come clean, saying in the book that he called a linesman an obscenity for turning him in after he cursed at himself, but that's not really what occurred. He also swore at a lineswoman under his breath (twice in my memory) and also at his opponent, Cecil Mamiit, before being tossed for calling the linesman the same name again.
"I'm shocked," Agassi said at the time. "I didn't swear at him, and I can't believe it happened."
Ten years later, he's telling a different tale when he could have apologized and come clean, just as he could have for his meth use and received a three-month sentence.
Perhaps because Agassi was in a painful search for his identity, was still struggling with his relationship with his father and with Shields, he should be forgiven his transgressions.
Perhaps he has become a more fulfilled person now that he is married to his intelligent and down-to-earth soul mate, Graf, and has two children to whom he is very devoted.
Perhaps this cathartic book will help in his lifelong search for who he is.
Without question, he's one of the most interesting people ever to set foot on court, is one of the sport's great on-court analysts and has done amazing work creating and funding his Las Vegas charter school.
And perhaps now that he realizes he chose to play tennis rather than being forced into it he can come to terms with his love/hate relationship with the sport.
Toward the end of his book, Agassi quotes the poet Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself."
Agassi says: "I never knew this is an acceptable point of view. Now I steer by it. Now it's my North Star."
It appears that it always has been and maybe always will be.