Open and On the Line

Within days, I read Serena Williams’ On the Line and Andre Agassi’s Open: An Autobiography. Can you guess which one kept me up nights, feeling unsettled ‘til I finally took paper to pen and did a little childhood excavation of my own? While On the Line provides a glimpse of the world behind the towering façade of an elite athlete, Open kicked the doors down, blew the roof off, and dismantled some furniture! Agassi left us with very little doubt that while athletes may do extraordinary and seemingly inhuman things on their fields of play, their efforts come at a price and they are infinitely human.

Williams’ book covers her childhood; relationships with her family, most importantly her competitor and idol, sister Venus; key matches; and some controversial moments, namely the Indian Wells incident, her fashion choices, and her parents’ bucking of the tennis establishment. Her appraisals of these events are neither enlightening nor transformative; if you have been following women’s tennis, your impressions of Serena will not shift as a result of this reading. Although this book did make me more curious about Venus who appears positively sphinx-like in comparison. I look forward to the day when Venus will write her own story, hopefully not in the midst of her career, which I suspect makes it harder to forget about image and self-preservation.

As an avid journal writer, I did find Serena’s match book entry excerpts at the start of each chapter intriguing as they gave us hints of her vulnerable mindset and competitive nature. Her pick-me-ups read like notes I could easily imagine any of us writing as we trudge to our respective 9 to 5s, not the battle cries of a gifted athlete. Here’s the excerpt Serena writes at the start of chapter two:

“…Good thoughts are powerful. Negative thoughts are weak. Decide what U want to be, have, do and think the thoughts of it. Your vision will become your life. Hold on to the thought of what U want. Make it absolutely clear in your mind. U become what U think about most. U attract what you think about most. Think.Do. Be”

Sadly, aside from her chapters, Tunde, on her deceased sister, Tunde, and The So-and-So Slam, chronicling her revenged fueled winning spree to heal a broken heart, I never felt emotionally connected to the memoir. I wanted to learn more about Serena’s internal life instead of the glimpses I got throughout. Perhaps, I am being unfair.  Maybe Serena is in fact a “what you see is what you get” kind of girl. I am sure time will tell.

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Agassi’s Open is simply one of best written and conceived autobiographies I’ve read in a long time. I think an autobiography succeeds when I leave its reading not caring so much about the truth or falsehood of the details of the person’s life (who can really know that unless you have the magic of time travel?) but feeling as if you have gained some measure of the individual. Are Agassi’s recollections of his parents, matches, particular opponents, and circumstances dead accurate? Who knows! What you do learn is what he thought or believed about them and how those impressions impacted his choices and his sense of possibilities. Open reminds us that it is not always the circumstances of our lives that matter but how we perceive them.

Take for example, the advertising slogan that became synonymous with Agassi, Image is everything! According to Agassi, that was just a line written by some Madison type that he recited; he did not fully understand how it would become synonymous with him, a kind of signifier of his supposed internal state.  We know that athletes are paid to say lines to shill products to us all the time. Yet, we feel as if these products represent the athletes or reflect some essential qualities they possess. Why else are they paid the big bucks if not to make sure the products are aligned not just with their image but their true self? Was Agassi naïve  in failing to understand our expectations of him or were we guilty for readily believing an ad could tell us about another person? Am I still under his spell, buying his new portrayal in this memoir?  Whatever the answers are to these questions, that Open manages to challenge our assumptions about what it is possible to know about another person makes it a damn fine read.

Open provides a keen look at some of Agassi’s pivotal matches detailing his preparation, his strategies, and his emotions before, during, and after. It highlights his relationships with his father, his brother, Philly, his physical trainer, Gil Reyes (I will admit that many of his moments with Gil made me tear up!), and his coaches, Nick Bolletierri, Brad Gilbert, and Darren Cahill. We also gain some access to his marriage to Brooke Shields and his romance (slight stalking!) of his 2nd wife, Stefanie Graf. The controversial drug addiction and wig wearing, which garnered so much media attention evoked my compassion rather than contempt, particularly within the context of the emotional desolation that Agassi paints for the reader.

I know it is an obvious truth but it still surprises me whenever people whom I’ve envied or believed were living the good life reveal their inner demons. It is so easy to think everyone else has it made when you are mired in your own problems; autobiographies of note unmasks larger than life personalities and reflect our common humanity, reminding us that we too are on a journey, albeit on a smaller stage.

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