Before he steps out into the public glare, Sachin Tendulkar puts himself through a ritual: First, he plugs in his earphones and turns the volume of his IPod way up; he then hides his eyes and half his face under his preferred brand of shades.
The earphones and shades are the bars to a prison Tendulkar voluntarily immures himself in, not out of arrogance but of the desire of an intensely private, extremely shy person to keep the world at bay.
It is, equally, the attempt to find through artificial means the privacy denied, for two decades and counting, to one who ‘belongs’ to the nation.
The prison motif also permeates much of Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open — but in his case it is a prison constructed by circumstance, not out of choice.
Open is a searingly honest book [earliest posts here, and here]; a brilliant coming of age narrative that also serves as the prism through which we witness the entries and exits, on the world stage, of some of the most storied players of the age.
It helps that the narrative arc of Agassi’s life is almost operatic: tormented childhood, troubled teens, conflicted adulthood all marked by an internecine conflict between talent and temperament/inclination; an almost Dickensian plumbing of the depths of degradation followed by a Chicken Soup for the Sporting Soul story of redemption.
Three women power the story: the teeny-bopper crush turned live-in lover of his early twenties; the Princeton-educated supermodel/actress he happily beds and reluctantly weds, and whom he treats in his memory with an indifference bordering on contempt; and the leggy blonde tennis legend who becomes his personal Holy Grail and who, once she enters his life, propels the narrative towards a fairy-tale denouement.
Supporting the lead actors is an ensemble cast of supporting characters who in their respective ways serve as catalyst to the tale: the tyrannous father [‘bad things happen’ when his father is angry, Agassi says in the voice of the scared child, early in the book] and soft-spoken, all-accepting mother who, in the denouement, stands revealed as possessing unsuspected strengths; the older, less talented brother who becomes his pro bono driver and wing man; the physical trainer who is the closest thing mankind has seen to the Incredible Hulk; the Fagin-like director of the tennis academy that becomes Agassi’s teenage prison [he refers to his training there as the tennis equivalent of breaking rocks as part of a prison chain gang]; the pastor who on cue doles out dollops of Deepak Chopra-esque bromides; the best friend of his childhood who becomes his manager; and the two coaches, themselves former players of some repute, who chisel his court craft and convert him from street-fighter to a strategist of the tennis court.
And the players: a constant, dazzling parade on the other side of the net of some of the greatest names of the age. What we often tend to lose sight of is that in a career that spans 1986-2006, Agassi has storied players fade and fresh talent emerge. He has battled McEnroe, Lendl, Edberg, Connors and Becker [the latter two he treats with undisguised contempt]; he has seen the likes of Courier and Wilander emerge, soar and ebb; he has seen the metamorphosis of Pete Sampras from a ‘no talent’ tyro to his arch-nemesis [“I wish I could emulate his spectacular lack of inspiration, and his peculiar lack of need for inspiration,” Agassi says in one of the many cathartic moments in the book]; he has played against and outlasted the greatest names of two decades and, in his twilight years, seen the emergence of Roger Federer, the player who he names, against the backdrop of their first meeting, as the one destined to be the greatest ever.
Those names, and Agassi’s photographic memory for match detail, drive large sections of the book and provide unmatched insight into what goes on in the mind of a player as he battles back from the edge.
But it is his personal journey – from traumatized boy to troubled teen; from precocious talent to chronic under-achiever; from the ‘Image is Everything’ parody to the dignified champion who, in his last hurrah at the 2006 US Open, made fans weep the bitter tears of personal loss – that gives the book its cutting edge. And Agassi’s greatest triumph is perhaps this – he handpicked the perfect collaborator.
JR Moehringer, who is thanked extensively in the afterword, had during his stint at the LA Times netted a feature-writing Pulitzer for his portrait of a river-front town that is home to the descendants of slaves, whose isolation is threatened by a proposed ferry that will link them to the mainland.
He almost netted another Pulitzer [Moehringer was a named finalist] for his searing profile of heavyweight boxer Bob Satterfield, every key stroke of which is, in the light of hindsight, a precursor to what he would do with the many dozens of hours of conversations he had with Agassi.
In an extended section of the afterword, Agassi talks of how he had identified Moehringer as the writer he wanted to work with after reading his memoir, The Tender Bar. Read these excerpts – from the author’s website and from Amazon – and the reason for the choice of
Moehringer becomes clear. The themes in his memoir — parental neglect or/and abuse; a desperate quest for identity that paradoxically triggers self-destructive behavior; the constant search for a father figure, mother, companion, seer and, always shimmering in the distance, the promise of redemption – foreshadow the themes that permeate Open.
What strikes you most forcefully as you read Open is its breathless urgency; a sense of watching events unfold in the living, breathing present, that gives an added urgency to the matches Agassi lives through, to the sense of impending cataclysm that hangs over his relationship with Brooke Shields and to the developing destiny that drives the Agassi-Graf relationship. Moehringer achieves this by writing always in the historic present and, by putting you in the midst of the action as it is taking place, getting you to invest emotionally in the story.
You feel in a physical way the ball come off the racket as he hits the screaming forehand pass that knocks Boris Becker out at the end of a match in which Becker got Agassi’s goat by bowling kisses at his then girlfriend Brooke Shields; you feel the lung-busting, soul-searing effort that went into the quarterfinal of the 2005 US Open [one of the meticulously detailed games in the book], where Agassi
came back from two sets to love to win his match against James Blake in a 5th set tie-breaker; you feel Agassi’s disappointment when he wins finally Wimbledon only to learn that Steffi Graf, the women’s champion, won’t be dancing with him after all; and as he sits in a plane, crafting a crude birthday card for Graf out of an airline menu, you root for romance to triumph.
And it is all down to Moehringer’s brilliance as amanuensis.
Moehringer constructs the story with rare skill; his tools are a pitch-perfect ear for dialog and a deft touch with portraiture, so that every character, central or peripheral, appears on the page vitally alive and fully formed.
‘Voice’ is the hardest thing for the ghost-writer to crack. Write in the voice of the protagonist — who, though skilled in his area of endeavor is likely untutored in the art of telling a story — and the narrative could end up bloodless, lifeless; write someone else’s story in your own voice, and the result rings false in the reader’s ear.
In 2006, Gary Smith [subject of an earlier post] wrote a profile of Agassi for Sports Illustrated that has since been extensively anthologized in ‘Best of…’ collections. It reads, in retrospect, like a Condensed Books version of Open — and the similarities suffice to tell you that the voice we hear, in Smith’s profile and in the autobiography, is Agassi’s own. What Moehringer brings is the skill of the top-notch practitioner of narrative non-fiction: pacing, sentence structure and a driving ‘beat’ to the words that, like a good bass line, you feel in the gut.
Sometimes, though, it all feels too pat. The villains get their comeuppance; no matter how rocky things get in the life of his friends it all comes right in the end, thanks often to the hero’s large-hearted generosity; the hero himself beats all odds, becomes world number one; woos, wins and weds the unattainable maiden…
Pat. Perfect, in a way life rarely is. And it makes you think.
We, all of us, lead two lives. The one is a messy, chaotic affair lived in the hurly-burly present. And the other is the revisionist version that we live relive in our personal rear-view mirror. In this version there are no coincidences; everything that happens ties in neatly with everything else that happened or will happen; actions are dictated not by knee-jerk reactions to the randomly unfolding present but by carefully calibrated reasoning; unsightly loose ends are neatly tied during this process of post hoc revision and the more obdurate ones are snipped away altogether.
Open is clearly revisionist; its silences speak to the unsightly bits that have been cauterized. And nowhere is that silence as eloquent as when Agassi speaks of his drug-taking. We know when it started and how; we have a sense of his short term gains and long-term losses; we live through him the euphoria of the high and the soul-destroying nature of the aftermath. But — and thanks to my personal experience with drugs, it is something I looked forward to reading, and was disappointed not to find — when did the self-destructive nature of what he was doing really dawn on him? How? Why? And how, after clocking up a year or more on a killer like crystal meth, did he kick the habit?
The book is silent on that, just as it is largely silent on his role in the two failed relationships that preceded his link up with Steffi Graf.
That minor quibble aside, few if any sports memoirs manage to rise beyond self-serving hagiography and into the realm of soul-searching bildungsroman. Open makes that leap effortlessly, and wins my vote for best sports book of the year/the decade, and – since tennis is the theme – finds place in a very select list that includes the seminal Rivals by Johnette Howard, the story of the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry [review by Soumya Bhattacharya] and You Cannot Be Serious, the autobiography of my all time favorite tennis player, John Patrick McEnroe.
Agassi’s riffs on the players of his generation provide rare insights. Here, for the Indian in us, are his thoughts on two players. First, Ramesh Krishnan, who handed Agassi his first defeat after the latter turned pro at age 16:
My first tournament as a pro is in Schenectady, New York. I reach the final of the $100,000 tournament, then lose to Ramesh Krishnan 6-2, 6-3. I don’t feel bad, however. Krishnan is great, better than his ranking of 40-something, and I am an unknown teenager playing in the final of a fairly important tournament. It’s that ultimate rarity — a painless loss. I feel nothing but pride. In fact, I feel a trace of hope, because I know I could have played better, and I know Krishnan knows.
Next, Leander Paes, whom Agassi encounters at the Atlanta Olympics:
In the semis I meet Leander Paes, from India. He’s a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour’s quickest hands. Still, he’s never learned to hit a tennis ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips, lobs — he’s the Brad [his then coach, Brad Gilbert] of Bombay. Then, behind all this junk, he flies to the net and covers so well that it all seems to work. After an hour you feel as if he hasn’t hit one ball cleanly — and yet he’s beating you soundly. Because I am prepared, I stay patient, stay calm, and beat Paes 7-6, 6-3.
Right. Moving on:
Remember this image? From my archival collection, a link to the Louis Vuitton ad series, Journeys. Scroll down on the right nav bar to check out the eight clips in the ‘New York’ series.
And finally — one of the most moving personal introductions I’ve ever heard: Agassi introduces Steffi Graf at her induction, in 2004, into the Hall of Fame [transcript here, if you need one]: