Decoding the uniquely lonely and complicated life of Tennis through Andre Agassi’s Open

I laid my hands on this book a couple of years back at an Airbnb. While Arvind was attending a work call, I browsed through the books on display and sat down with this one before heading out to explore the place . While I could read no more than 2–3 pages on that trip, it stayed with me in my mind. Recently as I was browsing the library shelves- I saw this again, after years- Agassi staring right at me.

Very rarely you come across an autobiography which is so honest- where the author dares to bare it all- reveals the monster within, embraces his arrogant and disrespectful self - knowing all too well that this might invoke hate rather than polish his image- a definite bridge-burner with his peers. He openly dissects his peers and picks on them- tells us about the miser which Sampras is, the spat with Boris Becker, the narcissistic Jimmy Connors- although all these could be just his perspective if not the truth, yet these are the insider details which the world never gets to know. Although a nobody, how many of us can ever openly confess what we truly feel about our peers- let alone famous World no. 1 celebs, not to mention his crystal meth and fake-hair confessions.

But more than the juicy details and the raw acceptance of ones true self it is how Agassi and his ghost writer (the Pulitzer-Prize-winning J. R. Moehringer) delicately deconstruct the rebellious image created by media and reveal the depths and complexities of his life without trying to beg for the sympathies of the readers.

Today as the most unusual Australian Open begins, here are a few lines from an equally unusual and intriguing personality-

Agassi, after winning Wimbledon- his first Slam-

Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last long as the bad. Not even close.”

I can’t help but compare this to the Prospect Theory- which in simple terms says- individuals dislike losses more than they like equal gains. For eg- If you lose $5 you feel more terrible than how good you would feel if you gained $5. Human beings have an innate quality of loss-aversion and this is what helps us excel. More importantly this statement really puts things into perspective and definitely made me think.

He makes tennis stars seem human by showing how uninspired he had been at times when nothing could get him to give a good game, how much he despised tennis just like a regular human being hating his job, and how, despite having a great team- he kept losing his focus, games, temper and precious years. Sometimes the only thing that keeps you going in life is being of use to others and your biggest battles are always played in your mind.

“Remember this. Hold on to this. This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting value or meaning. This is why we’re here. To fight through the pain and, when possible, to relieve the pain of others. To make each other feel safe. So simple. So hard to see.”

Life is not about winning against other people; it’s about winning against yourself”

The most disturbing is his agonising relationship with his father and a childhood lost to a person with rage issues. But you cannot help but admire how he finally makes peace with it-

“I stand and feel an overpowering urge to forgive, because I realize that my father can’t help himself, that he never could help himself, any more than he could understand himself. My father is what he is, and always will be, and though he can’t help himself, though he can’t tell the difference between loving me and loving tennis, it’s love all the same. Few of us are granted the grace to know ourselves, and until we do, maybe the best we can do is be consistent. My father is nothing if not consistent.”

About tennis and life, he says-

“The same court on which you suffer your bloodiest defeat can become the scene of your sweetest triumph.”

“All the good stuff is on the other side of tired. Get yourself tired.”

“Life will throw everything but the kitchen sink in your path, and then it will throw the kitchen sink. It’s your job to avoid the obstacles. If you let them stop you or distract you, you’re not doing your job, and failing to do your job will cause regrets that paralyze you more than a bad back.”

Leaving with one of the last quotes in the book, after his retirement, when a commentator tried to summarise his entire career in one sentence, this is what he says..Ah the know-it-all media and literati!-

“Bud Collins, the venerable tennis commentator and historian, the co-author of Laver’s autobiography, sums up my career by saying I’ve gone from punk to paragon. I cringe. To my thinking, Bud sacrificed the truth on the alter of alliteration. I was never a punk, any more than I’m now a paragon”

With the brutal media and perceptions, and the way he has been translated as a rebel - I always wonder what would it have been like if he was a player in this generation of social media. Would it have ruined him more than the traditional media or would he have found a following with a section of society swearing that they get him while they couldn’t have been farther from truth. Or may be in all this craziness we would have seen him- more than anything- just as a human being.

Tennis fan or not, you will enjoy this book as the book’s true appeal lies off the court. Happy Australian Open season to all!

Notes-

Few more amazing lines from the book which would stay with me-

Agassi on Federer- Andre was on his way to retirement. All his peers had retired, and then a new wunderkid from Switzerland joins the game-

“Walking to the net, I’m certain that I’ve lost to the better man, the Everest of the next generation. I pity the young players who will have to contend with him. I feel for the man who is fated to play Agassi to his Sampras. Though I don’t mention Pete by name, I have him uppermost in my mind when I tell reporters: It’s real simple. Most people have weaknesses. Federer has none.”

On Pete Sampras

“Losing to Pete has caused me enormous pain, but in the long run it’s also made me more resilient. If I’d beaten Pete more often, or if he’d come along in a different generation, I’d have a better record, and I might go down as a better player, but I’d be less.”

Agassi pursued Steffi Graf for 9 years, on and off, before they started dating. Talk about commitment! He also mentions that John McEnroe called Steffi Graf a b*tch for dropping out of doubles with him due to her injuries. Classic misogynist McEnroe. He had no knowledge of Agassi dating Steffi Graf at that point.

On the similarity between tennis and life-

“It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it’s all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It’s our choice.”

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