Friday, 11 December 2009

Being Open about ‘Open’: Hate, Consciousness and ‘Film Noir’

[You are reading the first in a series on Andre Agassi's 'Open']

I’ve just begun reading ‘Open’. Agassi’s retelling of the strange mix of pain, anguish, emotion and euphoria he calls life.

A life largely shaped (if we are to believe the account) by his now infamous hatred of tennis.


Hate is a strong word. At this point, only two chapters into the book, I find it difficult to understand how he could comprehensively hate something he does so well, and that has brought him the fame and success that undoubtedly changed his life forever. The rewards of which have enabled him to channel so much into his school for underprivileged children.

It’s not that I have trouble believing him, and I have encountered friends and colleagues before, who loathe the prospect of giving themselves over to a life in pursuit of something that to me, they seem cut out for.

It’s almost as if Agassi’s recollection of his fragile and inherently polarised relationship with the sport has become skewed. The greater picture lost in between the seams of subjectivity inherent to that stream of consciousness he draws upon – a literary device not without it’s flaws.

I decide I’m willing to suspend my doubt until after finishing the book.

I also decide not to unwittingly lapse into the stream of my own consciousness.

*Snaps out of it*

Having not historically been a huge fan of Sports Bios, I was reluctant to change anything on this occasion, not least because the reports of his use of Crystal Meth probably fuelled sales.

At this point I’m not sure what I’m going to do.

This is not a book review.

I don’t even promise the rigour of a Book Club.

But I will share the sections of the book I found most interesting, and make no apologies for the lack of attentiveness to structure and chronology.

And besides, I’m not much into the idea of doing an end of year wrap-up like in 2008. Maybe I’ll get back to that. Don’t hold your breath.

The book opens with a vivid account of Agassi awakening amidst a haze of pain in the foetal position on the floor of his hotel room. Gingerly finding his way to his feet and thence to the breakfast table – a process he describes as “negotiation”. A game he’s been playing with his body for some years now, bartering not with blue chips but with cortisone shots, slowly cajoling a body that’s already retired to emerge from it, if only for a moment.

Jaden and Jazz are reassured that if Daddy loses tonight, he retires (or present-tense “retire” as they like to put it), and they’ll get a doggy. “We might even name it Cortisone”.

I get the feeling that the book will be full of dry humour like this. Not necessarily a bad thing.

I’m naturally suspicious of works claiming to employ a “stream of consciousness”, mostly because it takes a particularly astute writer to pull it off.

The approach itself is also not without it’s critics, as it involves drawing upon an experience some would argue is both inherently flawed and somewhat misrepresented as a “stream” - using it for a sports bio then, might seem a uniquely risky proposition.

The amazing thing is, it translates rather well to what you might reasonably think of as being the sections it’s least suited to: actual tennis.

‘Open’ is refreshingly brave in it’s approach of not shying away from talking tennis, sometimes in painstaking ball-by-ball recounts. The Agassi-Baghdatis US Open encounter of 2006 is one such example early on in the book – one of his most gruelling matches when he was all but ready to hang his racquet up.

But it’s in the lead up to and in the aftermath of that match, that JR [Moehringer]really shines.

Marcos was number 8 in the world, "a kid just entering his prime”, who had made the finals of Oz and the semis at Wimbledon that same year.

Agassi recounts his motivational soliloquy in his second shower of the day (the one he uses for self coaching), reminding himself how amazing it is that a “quasi-cripple can compete at the US Open”.

The journey to Flushing and the various pre-match rituals of massages, racquet-restringing, and practice hits are all described at length.

Gil Reyes dresses like he’s going on “a blind date or for a mob hit”.

We’re not even spared the taping of Agassi’s feet just one hour before the match, a sticky ink like substance used to secure much of it that leaves his foot awash with colour: “My instep hasn’t been ink-free since Reagan was President”.

You do sometimes get the feeling that such curt one-liners aren’t always necessary to convey the intensity of the semi-permanent anguish that goes with both hating tennis and hating to lose; it won’t appeal to everyone and you might sometimes feel you’ve inadvertently strayed into a Raymond Chandler novel.

Stick with it though, and you’ll soon realise that for every “Film Noir” moment there’s one that conveys the unique vulnerability of a former big guy no longer in his prime, such as Agassi’s realisation that the “hot water bravery” (experienced during and after the self-pep-talks of his second shower) is not real bravery at all.

He still has to go out there and down Baghdatis.

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