I’m yet to get hold of a copy of Open, Andre Agassi’s autobiography – but last night, I read the extended extract published in Sports Illustrated.
At one point I stopped reading, unable to resist the memories that bubbled up unbidden from the subterranean wellsprings of the soul. This is the graf where I stopped reading:
Such moments come to mind whenever I think about telling my father that I don’t want to play tennis. Besides loving my father and wanting to please him, I don’t want to upset him. I don’t dare. Bad stuff happens when my father is upset. If he says I’m going to play tennis, if he says I’m going to be No. 1 in the world, that it’s my destiny, all I can do is nod and obey.
It is now 12 years and counting since my own father died in 1997 – and yet I remain conflicted about so much of the love-hate relationship we shared. Okay, ‘hate’ is the wrong word. For a period of 11 years, from the day I delivered the coup de grace to parental ambition by dropping out of college to the day I left my home in Chennai and arrived in Mumbai to take up a job as a journalist, we were two people forced by circumstance to share a finite space while speaking totally different languages that rendered us each incomprehensible to the other.
Dad was — and I cannot emphasize this enough — not even remotely close to Mike Agassi in temperament. But there were parallels – in his case, the dragon was the vision he had of my future, a vision that constantly blasted ambition at me like so many tennis balls I was expected to hit over the net: research scientist; doctor; army surgeon; IFS officer…
Dreams he had for himself. Dreams he sought to live vicariously through me. Dreams I never shared.
In retrospect, there are many things I could have done better; many ways I could have reconciled the dreams he dreamt for me with my own vision of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do with my life. But that’s the thing about going through hell – that journey comes without a GPS, a roadmap. It is not about days lived so much as it is about minutes endured – a succession of impossible minutes that, like Chinese water torture, drip away at your mind, your strength, till without warning you snap, you break in vital ways beyond possibility of repair.
In that time I’ve done alcohol and drugs or more accurately, alcohol and drugs have done me; in that time I’ve left my home thrice, each time with nothing in my pocket and no idea where I was going or how I would survive; in that time I’ve more than once contemplated ending my life because to continue it seemed more effort than it was worth.
I’ve never been able to speak of the specifics of that period to anyone; even my wife, who knows pretty much all there is to know about me, only has a broad picture but no idea of the real colors of despair. When dad died, I wrote this – my valediction, my attempt to paint the complexity of our relationship in the colors of love, and of grief.
I found then that it was easy to write of the good – but when I got to the point where I had to write of the underside of our relationship, I chickened out. In that piece, I also spoke of why, of how difficult candor is, when it potentially cuts close to the bone:
It is a very difficult thing to do, that: to lower your defenses, express yourself not just from the head but also the heart.
Because, each time you do that, you reveal a bit more about yourself. And the more you reveal, the more vulnerable you make yourself, the more you expose yourself to hurt, to ridicule.
It strikes me that this is yet another reason to admire Andre Agassi – what I’ve read thus far is an example of the sort of searing honesty that is so rare in the self-serving hagiographies that take up so much space on the shelves.
Read, again, the passages headlined 1977 and ask yourselves this: Could you have gone through that experience and not been broken by it? Could you have survived, let alone triumphed? And then, when there really is no need for you to do it – could you have viewed your past life with such blinding clarity and painful honesty?
Those who suggest that Agassi wrote as he did so he could sell a few more books miss a point: he didn’t need to. He – and wife Steffi – are rich. In their case, ‘rich’ is an absolute, beyond need of qualifiers; beyond need, also, of the chump change to be made by selling a few copies of a book.
Incidentally, proponents of the theory that ‘honesty’ is a sales gimmick also need to consider that by writing as he did, Agassi has effectively ruled himself out of future endorsements, sponsored appearances, and other avenues that even the stars of a previous generation continue to exploit.
Rohit Brijnath, one of my favorite sportswriters and a long-time friend, was discussing this with me in email; apropos, he sent me the text of his latest column – one that resonates with my own reaction to the Agassi controversy. It appeared in the Straits Times in Singapore; since there is no online link, I’ll reproduce it here in its entirety, with Rohit’s consent:
The Sporting Life
Andre Agassi is an attention-craving, poor me-crying, book-hyping, drug-cheating millionaire.
Guy marries Steffi, can buy a Las Vegas casino and still have money to lose in it, and his life is hard? In his autobiography, he writes that he took crystal meth, he hated tennis, his back hurt. Boo hoo.
This is one view of Agassi. I don’t subscribe to it. It is too convenient. It’s too cynical, as if we’re programmed to be suspicious of any honesty as a way to sell books, especially in the Oprah-fied American landscape. It’s too simplistic in its view that if you’re rich, and successful, what’s there to cry about?
Agassi’s soul baring isn’t a clever ploy. His tale is simply alarming, an athlete’s grim walk through the disturbed terrain of his youth. The extracts available so far are compelling. Like Lance Armstrong found the perfect teller of his tales in the writer Sally Jenkins, Agassi’s collaboration with JR Moehringer, who won a Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing in 2000, has paid off.
The writing is taut; the stories full of the darkness of sport that we don’t see every day, or choose not to. We see the champion, but Agassi is telling us, we don’t always know his story. So he has peeled off the skin of his public persona and shown us a rawer version of himself.
A page of this book is worth entire tomes that sleep on bookshop shelves, inane diaries of athletic lives and autobiographies so dull they can induce a coma. Just for that we should thank Agassi.
His book is a mea culpa, yes, an admission of guilt about recreational drug-taking in 1997 and lies to the tennis authorities. His game then was disintegrating — at one point he played eight events and won a single match. Was the drug an indulgence, an escape? Make your choice, but his honesty deserves respect. We cannot understand sport unless its heroes reveal its insides to us.
The drugs have become the book’s primary controversy, but it is the young Agassi’s labour on court, how he was made, that appals. He is a boy shouted at and berated and pushed into greatness by a father who perhaps saw him not as a kid but a business plan. His book is revealing; it is also a warning.
Turn on the television set and you see the oversized cheque, the grinning winner, the manicured field, the excited fan, the blonde wife. It seems the perfect life. But the sporting world, and we need reminding of this, is not merely about fantasy and fairy tale.
It is a grimmer universe.
Some sports have a culture of abuse towards women. A study early in this decade apparently revealed that English cricketers are twice as likely to commit suicide as the average male. Steroid use to gain advantage is still pushed hard, even at high-school level. American football is having to take a closer look at the links between the game and later dementia.
Sport is not absent of madness and Agassi’s early life is proof. Not that his is the first story involving a pushy parent. Tennis player Mary Pierce’s father shouted “Kill the bitch, Mary” about an opponent. Golfer Anthony Kim’s father would pretend to trash trophies if he won with an over-par score. Golfer Sean O’Hair’s dad made him run a mile for every stroke he finished over par. Once he reportedly said: “When he was too old to spank, Sean was sometime lightly slapped across the face… A few times the light slap would catch the nose and it would bleed. There was never any abuse.”
The stories are endless, but with Agassi we’re surprised, perhaps because he did not look haunted, merely silly, in those denim shorts. It seems he had only disguised his pain. As a boy, he hit 2,500 balls a day, not for himself but for his father, and he couldn’t argue, couldn’t say no, couldn’t say enough.
His father pointed a gun at a stranger in traffic, he carried salt and pepper in his pockets in case he ever needed them in a fight. Of course Agassi couldn’t say no, as he writes: “Besides loving my father and wanting to please him, I don’t want to upset him. I don’t dare. Bad stuff happens when my father is upset.”
Agassi’s book is a journey through an imperfect life, and a strange livelihood, and let’s be grateful. There is enough inspiration out there about sport – sometimes, the darker side needs an airing. Because this is him, Agassi, the great player, we pay more attention and we remember, again, that sport should never be like this.
Sport should be about fathers who challenge their kids, not those who hand them amphetamines before matches. It should be a life born of fun, not fear.
I don’t mean to suggest that post facto honesty absolves Agassi of a ‘crime’ we would have known nothing about had he not chosen to speak to the record. He confessed, and now he can take whatever knocks come to him, and welcome.
I do, however, intend to point out that in our obsession with the ‘scandalous’ coda to the story of a life lived on the edge [from which we single out for notice not the important bits, but such inanities], we are perhaps in danger of overlooking the intrinsic worth of this book. And that, as Rohit points out, would be a tragedy, because such openness is rare enough to be treasured.