Friday, 25 December 2009

Being Open about ‘Open’: Into the Eye of the Storm

[You are reading the sixth in a series on Andre Agassi's 'Open'. Click here to start at the very beginning]

1995 is nothing if not eventful.

It’s also a time where the rather separate but parallel war Agassi’s waging both in search of his true identity, and in spite of his “assumed identity”, comes to a head.

To begin with, he follows up on Flushing in some style by winning the Aussie Open with what many describe as his best Slam performance yet, taking out Sampras in the final – Agassi (encouraged by Brooke to shave his head) prefers to remember it as his “Bald Slam”.


The shedding of his locks no doubt liberating, but not the monumental gear shift you might believe it to be, and still leaving him uncertain of who the guy staring back at him from the mirror really is. "Not me but maybe I'll have an easier time being this guy"

Soon afterwards he acquires the #1 ranking, an achievement that should warm his very soul, but instead leaves him stone cold; having never actively sought it, that’s perhaps not the greatest of surprises, but the sense of vacancy that engulfs him, hints to something more.

Agassi appears to be undergoing what can only be described as a form of Tennis Nihilism. He would win Cincinnati a year later having entered the event expecting nothing and with his head all but in a funk – only adding to his implacable sense of ambivalence, that this tennis racket (pardon the pun) is “all a joke”.

Having seemingly achieved everything he set out to do, and still feeling like he’s come up short, he even sets himself the personal goal of winning the French Open (and thereby a Career Slam) in a desperate effort at bringing about some meaning and order to his increasingly chaotic existence. A torn hip flexor soon puts paid to that.

I couldn’t but help imagining however, what might have been had fate not struck in the way it did. Suppose for the moment that he did win Roland Garros that year and achieve the career Slam only three years after winning his first.

Would such a personal victory really have given him the sense of order and equilibrium he so desperately sought?

Maybe for the short term.

Would a more anchored Andre Agassi have emerged, one with more vision and a sounder understanding of life and it’s artefacts that surrounded him, and of his place within it?

I personally think not; if ‘Open’ tells us anything, it’s that Agassi’s existential issues were not likely to be resolved by anything as trivial as winning a tennis match.

I prefer to view this as pandering to the short term need of wanting to win in order to avoid facing up to his hatred of losing – which somewhat paradoxically is what keeps him trapped in an existence within which he’s unable to truly engage with the sport on his own terms.

Would he still have unravelled and plummeted as violently as he did not two years later?

Would his relationship with Brooke have traversed a less rocky path, or would anchored-Andre have called an end to it sooner instead of clutching on to it in a devoted bid at averting the latest in a spate of ill-fated two-year relationships?

Would he still have taken up Slim’s offer to ‘powder his nose’?

Again, I actually feel that hitting rock bottom as he did in 1997 might paradoxically have better served his longer term interests.

Had he won RG it might have cushioned the fall; but might it also have given rise to a false dawn of security? When in fact the tangled spiritual mess he found himself in 1997 was anything but.


Though there are no fractures evident in the early stages of their relationship, it’s clear that Brooke and Andre are not always on the same page, and that being the case, it’s not difficult to imagine their respective metaphysical visions of life being poles apart.

Such an occasion presents itself when Agassi helps out Frankie, the owner of a restaurant introduced to him by Brooke, by presenting him with a nest egg of Nike stock he can in the years to come, use to help with tuition fees for his young children.


‘Open’ presents this as a profoundly moving experience for Agassi,one that leaves him feeling “more connected and alive than anything else that happens in 1996”. Not exactly the subtlest nod towards the philanthropy that would one day be his calling, but a pivotal moment nonetheless.

Brooke’s indifferent reaction is not the first sign that they’re not communicating well. “Just as I start to enjoy something she casts it aside”.

They buy a house together which Agassi describes as “sterile” - “the ideal house for a couple that plan to spend lots of time in different rooms”

When you’re drowning in such a congealed and messy existential soup it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.

Agassi claims he didn’t want to marry, but reconciles himself to his disordered state by noting that what he wanted was never a “good index” on life, and goes through with a shaky proposal that is as ill thought out as it is uncertain.

All that’s missing from this account of the relationship in it’s early stages is Brooke’s own take on things.

And that’s fine – this is Agassi’s stream of consciousness gushing through our airways after all.

I haven’t yet reached the moments of post-marital discord, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that her own stream of consciousness, ran at cross purposes to Andre’s (much like their careers), like some wormhole into a very different reality.


I know I said I only partially expected it, but ‘Open’ would be glaringly incomplete and open to criticism if Mike Agassi’s image as the ‘Big, Bad Daddy-Wolf’ of tennis wasn’t tempered somewhat.

There’s nothing to ‘put right’ of course, no ‘records to be set straight’ - Mike Agassi is what he is, and as Agassi himself observes, “my father is nothing if not consistent”.


But he’s also a person, one that may be unpalatable to many of us, but probably also one that’s several orders more complex than fits comfortably into the tapestry of Andre Fandom.

Such moments need to be handled delicately, without diminishing the significance of formative life experiences, but also without being weighed down with unnecessarily overt sentimentality.

On the whole, the brisk pace of the book ensures that brushes with melodrama are kept to an absolute minimum.

We hear of the moment when Andre phoned Mike right after winning his first Slam at Wimbledon: Mike’s unable to speak (emotions are not his forte). Then there’s the very vulnerable image of Mike undergoing open heart surgery hooked up via tubes to a machine Andre likens to “the dragon” – yet still stubbornly urging Agassi (via a pad and paper) to pound Sampras’ backhand.

A tad sentimental certainly, but also quintessentially Mike.

There’s even a sense of coming full circle when Agassi wins Gold at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, an achievement Mike describes as Agassi managing “ to reclaim something taken from him [Mike] years ago" (Mike represented Iran as a Boxer in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics)

Again, clearly a moment laden with emotional energy, but also an unquestionably honest one.

Whatever else Agassi might be trying to achieve here with his very ‘Open’ confessions, and tales of smoke-belching dragons, this is at it’s heart still a tale about overcoming the odds.

Instead of boring us with dull platitudes of rags-to-riches, we hear of the rather more richer, complex struggle for survival in the eye of the storm, after being forcibly thrust into it.

I like it that Andre found it appropriate to highlight something about his father that he learned to appreciate. You could argue that Mike risked untold damage to young Andre, and we may continue to raise strong objections about his ambition. But it would have been remiss of Agassi not to have treated this side of Mike with the same brand of emotional honesty we see present throughout the rest of the book.

In one of ‘Open’s’ many candid moments, Agassi (seeing his father in hospital) speaks of “an overpowering urge to forgive”.

“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."

-- ‘Open’ An Autobiography

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