On Reading Sports: Andre Agassi’s Open and Other Literary Works

What do they know of tennis — or, for that matter, any other sport — who only tennis know?  In Beyond a Boundary, his autobiography, the late Trinidadan critic, playwrite, historian, novelist, teacher and activist C. L. R. James asked “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” James somehow manages to tell, simultaneously (and terrifically absorbingly), the story of his life, the story of cricket in the West Indies, and the story of West Indian decolonization. The Guardian justly rated the book one of the top sports books ever (# 3).

Andre Agassi’s Open is not at a level with Beyond a Boundary but it does share with James’s work – and with all excellent sports writing – a deep awareness that the game contains, not only itself and its own laws and practices, but in some mysterious fashion, all of life. The title itself announces this awareness by punning the name of a kind of tennis tournament (U.S. Open, for example, where Agassi begins his story) with the quality of being to which Agassi aspires, from which he often suffers, and which he certainly brings successfully to his writing. From the scoring vocabulary of the game to the dynamics of service, return, and volley, from the solitude of the player on his or her side of the court to the tension between what is ideal (perfectionism) and what is possible (fatigue, injury), Agassi maintains an awareness of the deep meanings immanent in the game he lived with for so many years. At the same time, he knows when to let up on that awareness and let the narration of a match just be the narration of a match. The opening chapter, in which he recounts his penultimate match, a five-set marathon at the 2006 U.S. Open against Marcos Baghdatis is some of the very best sports writing I have ever read.

A Serious Man

From that beginning, which is, of course, also the end of his career. Agassi returns us to another kind of beginning: his childhood in Las Vegas, son of an Iranian immigrant casino worker and ex-Olympic boxer and a mid-western American mother. Having tried and, in his eyes, failed to produce tennis prodigies out of his first three children, Agassi’s father, Mike, trains his sights on young Andre. From the age of 7, Agassi is made to spend hours each day on the home-made tennis court in the family’s backyard, swatting at balls hurled at over 100 miles per hour from “the Dragon,” a terrifying contraption engineered by his father to simulate impossible angles (and no doubt responsible for Agassi’s reputation as one of the finest service returns in tennis history). 2500 balls a day, at a net that his father had raised six inches higher than regulation. The balls were allowed to accumulate on the court to make the whole enterprise more perilous. There is great drama and tension, father son wars, and Agassi movingly conveys the point of view and feelings of a small child in the situation: loving his father, craving his love, but despising what he is made to do. His mother, though a more marginal figure, plays a role simultaneously comforting Andre with her calm passivity, and enraging him with her calmly passive refusal to stand-up for him.

Over the course of the rest of the book we learn about some of the already superficially familiar events of Agassi’s life, which is to say his career (for a major part of the story is just how inseparable those were for him): his emergence as a prodigiously talented, but somewhat underachieving, professional at the age of 16, his colorful, if not ostentatiously rebellious, clothing and hairstyles, his marriage to and divorce from Brooke Shields, his rise to the top, fall, and rise again. Open skillfully weaves these known quantities into the fabric of a bildungsroman, or novel of formation, so that the behind the scenes views we get do not appear sensational or opportunistic but rather just, well, open. Seeking to understand himself through this narrative, Agassi seems to go pretty far in trying to face up to the reality of his life and choices, even the ones that weren’t, until the publication of this book, public knowledge, such as his addiction to crystal meth or his wearing a hairpiece throughout the height of the “image is everything” phase of his career.

Ultimately, the story has a happy ending, for which I was glad because I identified strongly with Agassi throughout the work — from his life-long struggle between obligation and desire to his love-hate relationship with his father, from his loveless first marriage to the spasmodic alternation between self-contorting conformity and self-distorting rebellion to the sharp paradox of perfectionist self-loathing: “the piece of shit the universe revolves around.” But in the end, Agassi finds — as I have — the love of his life in Stefanie Graff (a/k/a women’s tennis great Steffi Graf), a romance which the book nicely constructs as a kind of fairy-tale destiny, complete with portents. Moreover, Agassi, the high school dropout, devotes considerable resources of money, time, and energy to founding and running a school for at-risk kids in Las Vegas and, of course, writes this book. I should note that he doesn’t write the book alone as his acknowledgements duly point out. He sought the help of Jay Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar, and the two of them collaborated in marathon sessions over the course of a couple of years in a process that sounds more like therapy than anything else.

I used to read a lot of sports biography and, especially, autobiography when I was younger. I remember in particular the utter fascination that a trio of such works – by Wilt Chamberlain (Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door, 1973), Kareem Abdul Jabbar (Giant Steps, 1987), and Bill Russell (Second Wind, 1979) – held for me. The three centers dominated the NBA and faced-off in titanic clashes for a decade and a half. First Russell’s Celtics vs. Chamberlain’s Warriors and later Lakers, then Jabbar’s Bucks against Chamberlains’ Lakers (I was lucky enough to see a Jabbar-Chamberlain battle when I was about seven). In my memory, I read all three of these books at around same time, when I was about eight, though the publication dates show that this would have been impossible. I almost certainly read Wilt’s at that time. But I probably read Bill Russell’s around the time I started high school, and Jabbar’s around the time I finished college.

But I think I collapse those times because the books themselves so powerfully evoked for me the memory of the games themselves, in which all three giants coexisted more or less in the same place and time. I don’t think I ever saw Bill Russell play live (he retired in 1969, when I was just four), but I saw enough of him and certainly studied and knew enough basketball history to feel as though I had witnessed his epic battles with Wilt. And I definitely saw Wilt vs. Jabbar, both on television and, on one lucky occasion, in person at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin, where my father took me to see one of the three exhibition games that the Milwaukee Bucks would play there each season. The numbers alone were impressive to me from the height and size of the players to the team and individual statistics that chronicled their unsurpassed domination (Kieran Egan would have a field day with Romantic fascination with the mega ergon of hoops).

They Certainly Were Giants

But what the books evoked, in particular, was the part of those games and battles that was about more than those games and battles; more than Russell’s impeccable timing and defensive play against Chamberlain’s size, strength, and offensive skills. There were moralistic overtones that fed my youthful hunger for meaning in black and white, good and evil. Russell, self-sacrificing team player against Chamberlain, transcendent individual talent. In the ethos of the basketball world in which I grew up this made Russell the Good Guy and Chamberlain the Bad Guy. There were all kinds of subtleties and not-so-subtleties that I didn’t pick up on at the time, the main one being the role that race and racism played in superimposing these dramas on a sporting event. And Jabbar, for that matter, would complicate matters, especially after his conversion to Islam – he was against Chamberlain so he must be a good guy, but he was surly with the press and angry about something so he was probably a bad guy: it was confusing.

But the important thing is not that I did or didn’t fully understand what was at stake. It is that even at that young age I knew that much more was at stake than just who won a basketball game. I knew, even if I couldn’t have articulated it in all its complexity, that Important things were at stake with every loose ball, every basket scored, every blocked shot, every outlet pass: things that had everything to do with life itself, with what it means, with the impossible to answer questions about how to live it, about what makes it good and bad.

Agassi’s book provided me with an enjoyable stroll through some of the most exciting moments in tennis history, a stirring narrative of a boy becoming a man, trying to make a decent ordinary life out of extraordinary circumstances that he both does not and does choose, and with a surprisingly revealing mirror of my own life and many of the issues that continue to vex me. But he also illuminated for me a path — like a set of stones set out across a stream — that I’d forgotten about in my life, or relegated as a marginal, unimportant B-grade fact in my own life in literature: my love of sports writing and, particular, sports autobiography. From the gargantuan memoirs of Wilt Chamberlain to the sophisticated social commentary of C. L. R. James to the deeply affecting story of Andre Agassi, the passion of my reading life has come as much from these tales of sports, which are also tales of life in the world, as from anything else.

What do they know of reading who only reading know?

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