By Michael Mewshaw
Sunday, November 8, 2009
By Andre Agassi
Knopf. 400 pp. $28.95
Pro tennis could teach the mafia about omertà. Although dozens of champions have chattered away to ghostwriters, their memoirs have generally remained silent about the game's seamy realities. Presented to the public as clean family fun, an upscale entertainment for the country-club set, top-level tennis is actually played by the physical and emotional mutants of a misery machine that leaves them too ill-educated or psychically damaged to understand what has happened to their lives. Like most victims of abuse, they'd rather not talk about it.
So it's both astonishing and a pleasure to report that Andre Agassi, who was castigated for an ad campaign saying "Image is everything," has produced an honest, substantive, insightful autobiography. True to the genre of jock hagiography, it has its share of stock footage -- total recall of famous matches, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and an upbeat ending. But the bulk of this extraordinary book vividly recounts a lost childhood, a Dickensian adolescence and a chaotic struggle in adulthood to establish an identity that doesn't depend on alcohol, drugs or the machinations of PR.
Agassi was born in Las Vegas to a brutal Iranian immigrant, a former Olympic boxer, who forced his four children to play tennis. As a pre-schooler, Andre began hitting balls on the backyard court for hours every day. School, friends, social life and especially thinking were considered distractions by his father, who terrified the entire family. But while his sisters rebelled and his older brother, Philly, finally lacked the killer instinct, Andre became his father's obsession and whipping boy -- one who was expected to whip other boys and unsuspecting men on court. His father pitted him at age 8 against suckers, including football great Jim Brown, who foolishly bet $500 that he could beat the kid. Before junior tournaments, Mr. Agassi fed his son caffeine-laced pills. Later, he tried to turn Andre on to speed.
At the age of 12, Andre traveled to Australia with a team of elite young players. For each tournament he won, he got a beer as a reward. Then in the seventh grade he was shipped off to the Bollettieri Academy in Florida, where his tennis flourished, but his life turned feral. Drinking hard liquor and smoking dope, he wore an earring, eyeliner and a Mohawk. Nobody objected as long as he won matches. The academy, in Agassi's words, was "Lord of the Flies with forehands." Since the press and the tennis community still regard Nick Bollettieri as a seer and an innovator whose academy spawned dozens of similar training facilities, Agassi's critical opinion of him may shock the ill-informed. But in fact, Bollettieri is the paradigmatic tennis coach: that is, a man of no particular aptitude or experience and no training at all to deal with children.
With no time and certainly no encouragement to get an education, Andre stopped school in the ninth grade, which is about average on the circuit. With the possible exception of boxers, tennis players have less formal schooling than any other pro athletes. In addition to blighting their lives and leaving them vulnerable to agents and hangers-on, this severely limits their options. Again and again, Agassi laments that he hated tennis from the start -- he claims he hates it still -- but felt he had no alternative and no talent to do anything else except turn pro at 16.
Judging by the record books and his tax returns, this decision seemed to make sense; Agassi went on to win eight Grand Slam titles and tens of millions of dollars. But the personal cost, as he makes clear, was catastrophic. With no idea who he was, he found himself defined by publicity campaigns and articles by sportswriters who couldn't have guessed what he was actually up to and probably wouldn't have reported it even if they had. Lonely and depressed, he drank a lot, just as he'd been doing since adolescence. In a stranger effort to relax, he lit fires in hotel rooms. Nothing apocalyptic, just a bit of pyromania between matches. Petrified that his hair was falling out, he took to wearing a hairpiece, which gave him yet another thing to worry about during big points. What if his rug fell off? He drifted into a relationship with Brooke Shields but knew the marriage was doomed when she made him wear lifts in his shoes so she could wear high heels on their wedding day.
Not surprisingly, he began to lose focus, lose the capacity to care and finally lose tennis matches. He played the game like a man with a plane to catch, and spectators and even the Davis Cup coach publicly accused him of tanking. Now that drinking and lighting fires no longer dulled the pain, he turned to snorting crystal meth. Of all the admissions Agassi makes, this may be the one that causes the most controversy. People will debate whether the drug ruined his game or was in fact what allowed him to come back when his ranking fell out of the top 100. But whatever the doping reveals about Agassi, it says far more about the Association of Tennis Professionals and its drug program. When Agassi tested positive at a tournament, the result was never made public; he was never suspended; and the ATP ultimately accepted his bogus claim, sent by letter and supported by no evidence, that he accidentally drank a spiked soda.
While not without excitement, Agassi's comeback to No. 1 is less uplifting than his sheer survival, his emotional resilience and his good humor in the face of the luckless cards he was often dealt. In the end he made some inspired choices, not simply by marrying Steffi Graf, starting a charitable foundation for the education of poor children and finding a terrific ghostwriter in J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize winner, but also by refusing to put pressure on his kids to play tennis.
Michael Mewshaw's 11th novel, "Lying With the Dead," has just been published. He has covered pro tennis for the past 30 years.