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Agassi finally understanding Agassi

12/9/2009 - Tennis
Andre Agassi admits he felt tortured and confused throughout much of his career. Steven Lawton/FilmMagic

Ironic. Intriguing. But most of all, it's fitting that the bar for sports autobiographies would be raised by an emissary from that remote corner of the athletic galaxy known as tennis. Tennis might be distant from the center of the American sports universe, but as Andre Agassi's book "Open" shows, in a fundamental sense, it's closer to our nation's spirit than we dare admit.

To say sports autobiographies typically lack an inner life is an understatement. The genre has long been a mild joke. Gleefully accepted by sports fans, commissioned by publishers, generating incremental dollars for moderately salaried sportswriters and most of all, letting the athletes perpetuate a myth, in the vast majority of cases, these forms of white-washed propaganda dollop out drops of life with the boys (and girls), sprinkled with mild titillation about sex, drugs, booze and money. But so what? As in many fields, in the world of sports, books are hardly taken seriously. To athletes, the term "book smart" is a synonym for "less smart," the playing field's emphasis on action pummeling reflection into submission.

Agassi has turned that notion on its head. A poster child for our Oprah-dominated culture of confession, Agassi has attempted -- not for the first time -- to peel off layers of deceit and replace artifice with authenticity. When I told Agassi that his book's open admission of prior lies made 20 years of articles I'd written about him bogus, he conceded, "You couldn't get me because I didn't get me. So now I find myself in a place where I had to reconcile a lot of contradictions. Some were obvious, and some were under the surface."

It was fitting that Agassi spoke at an event sponsored by the Commonwealth Club of Silicon Valley inside the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center. The merger of technology and religion represented a profound synthesis of Agassi's journey. Created in his father's laboratory, Agassi was manufactured to be the perfect tennis ball-hitting machine. At the same time, however meekly it was expressed amid the father's fervor, Agassi's mother insisted he had a spiritual message to bring to the world.

Now comes his best time to deliver it. Said Agassi, "I've spent my life not knowing who I am. … I didn't know how fraudulent I was." It's a far cry from the title of a classic old-school sports book, Charles Barkley's "I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It." Agassi's book has rapidly gone supernova, landing less than two weeks after publication at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Agassi's belief is that "people can learn from my life, from what it means to be in a life you didn't choose. My life has been a story of forgiveness, of my father, of myself. I'm not looking back and saying this is who I am. I'm looking back saying this is what I've been through."

Why tennis for this kind of shift in athletic self-revelation? When it comes to popularity and understanding, tennis is light-years removed from America's athletic conversation. While millions of children and adults can wax like tenured professors about curveballs, point guards and possession receivers, tennis in America is an arcane language, once confined to country clubs, now more the province of money-hungry parents (Exhibit A: Mike Agassi) and the occasional prodigy such as Andre Agassi, who emerges from the yellow-balled thickets into the realm of popular culture.

True to the spirit of a celebrity confessional -- no human is capable of authoring a "tell-all" -- Agassi's revelations about drug use have generated more headlines than his hatred for tennis, a relationship he's refined on this book tour as "not so much love-hate as hate-love." After all, to the likes of Katie Couric, whose interview with Agassi on "60 Minutes" ran the night before his book launched, the sport itself is incidental. She may not hate it, but does she know it? Or care to know it beyond the occasional hit-and-giggle doubles match? On talk-show couches, in the studios of radio hosts and in the pages of sports sections, the craft that made Agassi famous has taken a back seat to the bright lights of fame. It's fitting that in "Open," the media person Agassi is most remorseful about deceiving is that avatar of middlebrow dilettantism, Charlie Rose. A celebrity, wrote historian Daniel Boorstin in the 1961 book "The Image," is someone known for being well known.

But what about tennis? Maybe another way to look at the sport is that it all-too-powerfully and -painfully captures the American sensibility of individualism in its rawest form. Tennis' champions and informed aficionados have long known how fervently democratic the sport really is. As Agassi said, "Tennis is two guys, locked in combat, trying to figure it out. Tennis is incredibly lonely. You can't pass, you can't run out the clock, there's no one else but yourself to talk to -- even boxers occasionally lean on each other and feel the other guy's sweat." And unlike boxing, in tennis you don't even have to worry about corrupt officials counting up your points. To Agassi's father -- a former boxer -- tennis was the way his children would attain the American Dream.

The tragedy, as Agassi sees it, is that attaining that dream came with a heavy price tag: isolation. In his case, not just from others but also from a self he is still only barely beginning to understand. Even though Agassi had made enough millions to quit the game while still in his teens, freewill didn't surface. Said Agassi, "I took over my dad's rant and just figured this was my life. What else was I fit to do? It didn't cross my mind that I had to like it. I felt like I was in a hamster wheel. I was tortured. I lived in fear, in confusion."

Tennis players need no one, and are taught that everyone is an opponent. To Agassi, more lover than fighter, a sweet lad emotionally abandoned by his mother, being thrown to the crude values of his father and the self-reliant nature of the tennis world was a staggering task.

For once you peel away the elegance of the venues and the lure of celebrity, tennis at its core is a sport for self-assured loners. "You have your destiny in your hands," Jimmy Connors once said. Many of our great American champions -- Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales, Connors, John McEnroe -- wear their hombre badges with a surly mix of distance, paranoia and contempt for anyone who comes too close. Tennis is so pure and democratic that it hurts. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in "Democracy in America": "Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart."

This might well explain tennis' odd disconnect with the American sporting psyche: As a form of brutal, self-reliant competition, it's too much what our country already is. Team sports provide the desired counterbalance to the reality of isolation and lack of community. Far better to console ourselves with Magic high-fiving Kareem, Joe Montana and Dwight Clark collaborating on "The Catch," the Yankees all piling onto one another after winning the World Series. Even Michael Jordan needed Scottie Pippen. However, isolated as any athlete might be from civilians, at least relationships are built into the game. In tennis, said Agassi, "there's an inability to get close to somebody because you don't want them to know your vulnerable spots."

Agassi's exploration of his relationships in "Open" is revealing. There are rich portraits of Agassi support team. Brother Phil endured father Mike's demands and traveled with Andre in his early years as a pro. Later came two wise men -- trainer Gil Reyes and coach Brad Gilbert -- followed by the princess of Agassi's fairy tale, Steffi Graf. Running through all this was his childhood friend and eventual manager, Perry Rogers (Agassi points out that since he decided to end his book with his 2006 retirement, his subsequent parting with Rogers is not germane).

Yet while Agassi treats each of these people with exceptional depth and nuance, his rivals come off as fake, fellows who were only hazily part of his journey except when they irked Agassi by dint of mean-spirited comments (Boris Becker) and false piety (Michael Chang). "I never felt I was really part of that world," said Agassi. "I thought when I heard guys talking about how they loved the arena and loved the competition that they were lying."

But there is one notable exception, an exception that lies at the core of Agassi's book and even now continues to shape his journey. Pete Sampras is Agassi's counterpart, as Agassi explains in depth, not just because his big serve and restrained persona posed a great contrast to Agassi's return and expressive manner. In "Open," Agassi cites Sampras' "lack of need for inspiration." The immediate implication is that Sampras is uninspired, that Agassi is denigrating an opponent who won all six of their matches at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, treating him more like a robotic creature than a driven human being. According to Agassi: not quite.

"I envied the way he could go about his work with that sort of resolve," said Agassi. "Pete held a mirror to me in an odd way. Without him, my career would have been better, but I would have been less. He didn't need inspiration the way I did to play inspired tennis, at least as I saw it through my lens. He had his own inspirations."

The key word here is "resolve." The deal-changer in Agassi's story is the concept of choice, commitment and personal responsibility. As a player, Sampras possessed those qualities in abundance. Sampras loved the arena Agassi for so long treated with ambivalence. To some degree, Agassi's greatest rival has shaped Agassi's ability to transcend the short-term, heady winds of inspiration and pursue the long-term notion of sustained engagement.

As a player, Agassi revolutionized tennis. No one before or since has been so lethal off both the forehand and the backhand. Now, as an author, he has attempted to articulate the lonely life of an athlete with a new level of depth and pain, candor and passion, all the while doing so less through memories of past glory and more through the process of creating page after page. "I was late in discovering the magic of books," writes Agassi in the last two sentences of "Open." "Of all my many mistakes that I want my children to avoid, I put that one near the top of my list." Tennis, Agassi has often said, is a sport in which you can't hide. Having heard this man wax aloud about his craft and life for so many years, one hopes this is one story that won't be rendered counterfeit.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.