As I finished the final pages of Tiger Woods biography, many of my friends simply stated that I had to read Andre Agassi’s autobiography. A podcast review from the brilliant Books of Titans also convinced me to invest in a copy. By all accounts, once I started this I wouldn’t be able to put it down and it is one of the best sporting biographies ever written. It didn’t disappoint.
From the very beginning, Andre Agassi’s father makes Earl Woods look like a saint. He literally builds a tennis court in the Las Vegas desert and concocts a dragon-like modified tennis ball machine to ensure Andre hits well over a thousand balls a day. Andre’s two siblings went through similar experiences growing up but ultimately were broken by these brutal sessions. Andre meanwhile has an inherent madness that will not allow him to give up and walk away from the game that he hates so much. This becomes a recurring them throughout the book.
The book takes on an almost Oliver Twist demeanour when Andre is sent across the country to join a renowned tennis academy. A comparison is made to a Roman gladiatorial training camp and this is not as far fetched as it sounds. The ‘centre of excellence’ sounds every bit like a prison camp of bunk beds, bad food, general lawlessness and menial labour in the form of constant tennis drills.
Andre somehow makes it through this childhood to turn pro and live decades on the worldwide circuit trying to figure out who he truly is. The only relief comes in the form of father-like coach figures, close companions and girlfriends who accept Andre for who he really is while encouraging him to use his hard-earned talent.
The book is titled Open and it does not disappoint. It is searingly honest in all aspects as Andre walks us through each decade of his existence. There are no private thoughts or insights left behind and this is what makes the book such a captivating read.
While Andre constantly refers to his hatred of tennis, it is clear to see that deep within him he has a competitive drive and warrior spirit that rages to come out. The descriptions of his good days are exhilarating but there are also many bad days where his frustrations and self-doubt ruin his performance. I loved how he described winning some major tournaments in a couple of paragraphs while he devoted whole chapters to the personal dramas behind these public moments.
This book is far from a victory lap, it is a very frank and honest confession. It is a book that will make you look at many elite sportspeople differently.
A Personal Reflection:
- Many of the best sporting biographies that I have read have followed a similar pattern. To reach the very pinnacle of their field, many sportspeople seem to have an obsessional trait that consumes them for most of their lives. Unfortunately many also seem to have pushy parents who sentence their darling to a life sentence of practise and competition. My problem with these biographies is that I feel the athletes in question miss out on so much in life by becoming so one-dimensional. For years, I was consumed by a hunger to reach the very top of sport and it wasn’t until I learned how far you had to go and sacrifice that I began to count the cost. Is any pursuit worth losing family, friends and positive life experiences over? I would love to read a book about a genuine world class athlete who achieved this balance but I am yet to do so.
- For the record, my favourite biographies in no particular order are: Brian Corcoran: Every Single Ball, Jonny Wilkinson: Jonny, Michael Phelps: No Limits, Tiger Woods and Andre Agassi.