I remember seeing Andre Agassi on TV as a kid. I used to watch Wimbledon regularly during the summers. Since Wimbledon takes place in the UK, it was on in the mornings in the US, and during our long summer vacations, I always seemed to have time to watch. I’ve never followed tennis closely, but because I like sports, Agassi and his rival Sampras always felt essential. For this reason alone, Agassi’s much-heralded autobiography “Open” was on my radar for a long time.
I finally got a copy through our local library and was surprised at how well it lived up to my expectations.
You can read all about the book in the usual places, so I’ll just skip to what surprised me about Agassi’s tale:
- It’s a story told very traditionally. With the exception of a short chapter at the beginning giving you a glimpse of “The End,” the story is told linearly, starting from childhood through the progression of Andre’s career, ending in his retirement. Rather than jumping around, the reader gets to experience the rollercoaster of ups and downs as one continuous stream. This gives the book a strong propulsion, and it never feels like a slog despite being nearly 400 pages long.
How much easier it is to be brave under a stream of piping hot water. I remind myself, however, that hot-water bravery isn’t true bravery. What you feel doesn’t matter in the end; it’s what you do that makes you brave.
- It’s a story told from a first-person perspective, and the writing style is unique in that the thoughts, actions, and dialogue are all woven together. There’s no “she said ‘blah blah’ and I said ‘so and so’.” There isn’t any quotation at all, actually. You really feel like you are in the mind of Andre.
I don’t know anything about tennis, but it seems to me that, by the third step, you’d better be thinking about stopping. Otherwise you’re going to hit the ball and keep running, which means you’ll be out of position for your next shot. The trick is to throttle down, then hit, then slam on the brakes, then hustle back. The way I see it, your sport isn’t about running, it’s about starting and stopping. You need to focus on building the muscles necessary for starting and stopping.
I laugh and tell him that might be the smartest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about tennis.
- It’s a story about people other than Agassi. The importance of mentors and coaches, being careful about who you have in your inner circle, having someone to lean on in times of weakness or confusion, these lessons seem to underlie most of the key moments in the book.
After I got to the end, I had a sense that it was a bit of a miracle that Agassi became one of the all-time greats. He is a great talent and put in a lot of work, surely, but there was plenty of luck and privilege involved in all the titles and grand slam wins too.
The great thing is that Agassi himself seems just as surprised as anyone that he was able to win a critical match, or come back from a tough loss, or find love again after a bitter divorce.
Just when you feel like he is going to quit, he keeps going.
In the fourth round I’m down two sets and a break to a wild card, a Frenchman named PaulHenri Mathieu. He’s twenty, but he’s not in the shape I’m in. There’s no clock in tennis, son. I can be out here all day.
The magic of Open is that it taps into a universal story. You know the one. It’s about the journey and not the destination.
We all have critical matches, great wins, and terrible losses. We would never be able to do it alone.
Whether we’re a tennis legend or not, it’s a miracle that any of us are here.
We just have to keep going.
And, as Andre says in the closing pages, we have to keep reading:
I was late in discovering the magic of books. Of all my many mistakes that I want my children to avoid, I put that one near the top of the list.”