Sunday, 3 January 2010

Being Open about ‘Open’: Enlightenment vs. Chemically Induced Inspiration

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

I haven’t got very strong opinions on the whole Crystal Meth thing one way or the other - it’s not actually the most interesting section of the book, and his revelation on it’s use was actually one of the reasons I was thinking of giving it a miss.

I certainly don’t want to moralise – I wonder how many of these holier than thou types would have acted any differently having fallen from grace and knowing they had everything to lose with a full disclosure.

Agassi was clearly a troubled soul by this point (or haven’t you been paying any attention), and troubled souls seem to veer towards further trouble, not away from it.

Nothing I read in the book changed my view of him or what he’s achieved in the game; in fact everything about the episode as it’s laid out in the book, from his derailment, to the epiphany that effected his turnaround and his eventual self-redemption through philanthropy, are actually in tune with that opinion.

It is at times however, rather tiring to be required to ‘celebrate’ such honesty (as much of fandom seems to insist upon) – specifically the part about lying to the authorities.

The point about coming clean and facing the music (good or bad) as I understand it, is just that: it’s not ever intended that celebrating anything, will now or should now, form part of the deal.

You may disagree with what Nadal and Navratilova had to say in the immediate aftermath of the revelations, but it’s a little worrying when supposedly impartial mainstream journos begin acting like having a post-Meth opinion on Andre’s life and career is only the provenance of a few very well worn fans; or that Rafa and Martina’s contribution was somehow in poor taste.

And so we come to the precise nature of “Gack” (Slim is quite clear on naming: “Because that's the sound you make when you're high.”).

Andre’s own little “field trips” left him with enough energy to go on an endless cleaning binge (“If I had leather shoes I would polish them”), and still retain the power to go the full 18 holes in a round of golf, should he have so desired.

The subsequent crash he experiences after 48 hours of sleepless euphoria causes him to lose to Scott Draper, a guy he says he can “usually beat with a spatula”.

There can be no question that such forays far from enhancing, actually proved detrimental to Agassi’s tennis, coinciding as they did with that well-documented slump to #141 in the rankings.

But neither is it accurate to characterise Gack as being completely inhibitive to athletic performance, as article after article has been at pains to do so ever since Andre spilled all.

Not unless that is, you habitually spend up to 24 hours at a time spring cleaning.

Somewhat appropriately, when talking Gack, the brisk nature of the book I’ve appreciated so much, undergoes a Gack-induced rush of it’s own. This increased pace is as much a quality of the writing as it is of the events that follow.

The entire episode is given the clarity it deserves without lingering consciously on what might rightly be considered the most explosive (and for Andre the most unpleasant) portions of the book: if Agassi had hit rock bottom in 1997, then this was it’s epicentre.

This breezy treatment translates rather well to the rapid sequence of events, that began with the acceptance of Slim’s invitation to ‘party’ and the fashioning of that now infamous lie about ingesting one of his Gack-laced drinks – and ended with formal clearance from the ATP of any wrongdoing months later in a hotel room in Rome.

So brisk is this treatment in fact, that when formal clearance does arrive, it’s almost been too easy, and none appear more surprised by this than Andre himself, who we find confirming and then reconfirming that there will be nothing further for him to account for, nor any lingering consequences.

Part of this of course, is down to the natural feelings of uneasiness that must arise with getting off scot-free.

Was he also a little surprised I wonder, with the informality and lack of rigour present in the testing process?

WADA must be turning in their grave; except they’re not dead yet.

Though someone really ought to be talked into building a grave for them - expressly for the purposes of turning in.

Like it or not, Andre’s revelations raise some pretty serious questions about the nature of the testing process during this period.

We may choose not to dwell on whether or not any special concessions were made for him, yet that too, is both a fair and relevant question, and one ought not to be throttled for raising it.

But the real point of of the revelation I suspect, is to simply give us another ‘Open’ and honest account of his derailment: a wrong turn he took in a desperate bid at reacquainting himself with happiness itself, “however chemically induced”.

It cost him more dearly than anyone else, which by the sounds of it, was exactly what he had in mind.

…I had undeniable satisfaction from harming myself and shortening my career, after decades of merely dabbling in masochism I’m making it my mission.

-- ‘Open’, An Autobiography

Life is never as tidy as you’d like it to be, and the fallout from the positive drugs test (limited though it was), followed a stout resolution on Agassi’s part to turn things around.

1997 saw things go from bad to worse and it was no different on court. He pulled out of Wimbledon and following a series of early losses was dragged into a hotel room by Brad for a heart-to-heart. “We've got a big decision to make and we ain't leaving this room until we make it”.

Brad makes a simple case, but it is at it’s heart also a plea: “Good things can still happen”, but he can’t go on “embarrassing himself like this”. Agassi’s to train “like he’s not trained in years”, regroup, and start again from the very bottom – we’re talking Challengers here.

This is the first of two jump starts that would lead to an eventual Renaissance.

The gravity of the moment is not lost on Andre who speaks of being at a crossroads, “though it feels as if we've been headed here for years”.

In what has to be the turning point of ALL turning points, Andre finally appears to make his peace with tennis.

I hate tennis more than ever, but I hate myself more.

Maybe doing what you hate, doing it well and cheerfully is the point: hate tennis all you want - you still need to respect it.

-- ‘Open’, An Autobiography

I feel better in my Software Engineering skin already.

Let’s get one thing straight.

Agassi’s not on any grandiose self-proclaimed search for the answer to life, the universe and everything (which by the way is 42); his is a latent, though no less frenetic struggle born of a subconscious awareness that he’s fundamentally dissatisfied with being Andre. Whatever that is.

Also a struggle that’s played out in full view of an unforgiving media and public eye, but one that is no less real, for it’s want of a tangible Holy Grail.

Inspiration, true inspiration (rather than the chemically manufactured variety) comes from an unexpected source.

Gil’s daughter Casey, is in hospital having undergone surgery following an injury she sustained in an accident in the snow. The room she’s in is stifling hot and Gil (understandably distressed), in a stark contrast to the dynamic of their usual working relationship, has developed more of a dependency on Andre in the recent weeks.

In this instance it’s the simple act of getting out there and procuring the biggest AC unit he can find to provide Casey with at least some immediate relief, that leads to his second, and perhaps more fulfilling ephiphany.

An enlightenment Agassi describes as “The philosophers stone that unites all the experiences good and bad of the last few years”.

If you insist, though I much prefer this second more heartfelt description:

Her suffering, her resilient smile in the face of that suffering, my part in easing her suffering, this - this is the reason for everything.

How many times must I be shown?
This is the reason why we're here: to fight through the pain and when possible to relieve the pain of others - so simple - so hard to see.

-- ‘Open’, An Autobiography

So…not 42 then?

While the realisation that came out of being stuck in a hotel room with Brad, made getting up for work every morning a more tolerable experience, this spiritual awakening spoke to those deeper existential conundrums that bothered him every time he looked in the mirror, refilling those great metaphysical fissures that once threatened to tear him apart.

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