Book Review: Open

I've never made any secret of the fact I'm a Liverpool fan, and am developing a growing interest in cricket, but if you asked me to pick a favourite sport I'd have to say tennis. My sisters have always loved it - my mum likes to tell the story of when they were teenagers on study leave they'd study all morning and watch Wimbledon all afternoon, littering the house with tea mugs and toast plates - and I can remember watching them make their banners before they trekked off to SW19. Eventually I joined them, and right from the off the players I liked weren't the cool, calm and collected types, but the ones who wore their hearts on their sleeves and fought for every point like they genuinely cared. I wasn't born when McEnroe and Borg were at the height of their powers, but when I first got into tennis I remember watching matches between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, and I always cheered for Andre. So at some point along the line it was inevitable I'd read his autobiography, Open (which seemed to be the book du jour on London's public transport system after the Wimbledon championships) and I must say I didn't so much read it as devour it.

Like most of us, I knew Agassi mainly for his crazy hairstyles, his 'interesting' dress sense, his marriage to Steffi Graf, his awesome returns and the sheer emotional investment he had in the sport. What I didn't know, and which forms a key thread running through the book, is that he always hated tennis and played it due to huge pressure from his father that it was the key to the American Dream. As the youngest of four children, and with three elder siblings who'd all given up the game, all that focus - good and bad - fell on Andre. Consequently, some of the early scenes in the book are heartbreaking; the fear as a nine-year-old Agassi plays a man at the tennis club for his family's savings, the aching loneliness of life at the Bolletieri Tennis Academy where he was sent at just twelve to hone his game. Several times when reading the book I felt tears coming to my eyes as I went through the pain with him (a testament to the excellent writing skills of , who wrote the book with Agassi).

When the book was first published, its big controversy was the apparent relevation that Agassi had dabbled in crystal meth and had lied to the ATP when he failed a drug test for it. Personally, that's not the big drug controversy to me; that's the scene, early on and glossed over, where a young Andre is warned by his elder brother not to take the speed his father will offer him at the next tournament. In fact, the early part of his life is so shocking that by that point you feel like you can't be shocked any more; even his flamboyant on-court style and bad behaviour just seem sad rather than anything to be appalled by.

But it isn't all doom and gloom. The book's other thread is Steffi (or, as we learn she likes to be called, Stefanie) Graf, who Andre silently adores for years, even through his tumultuous relationship with Brooke Shields, and eventually marries. In contrast to the hatred of tennis, Stefanie acts like a glimpse of hope for Andre, the one person who seems to truly understand him. The relationship, although it comes late in the book, seems to be the point at which Agassi feels truly able to be himself, and it utterly transforms his game at a time when many of his contemporaries were retiring as well as making him a much more playful, laid-back person within the relationship and growing to found his school. It almost makes me wish Steffi would write a book, I'd love to hear her side of their story (but then I am obsessed with tennis books). The other constant is Gil, Andre's coach who sticks by him through everything and becomes almost a surrogate father, no matter what else is going on in his life. His constant presence is a reassuring touchstone throughout the book, providing guidance and support but also structured tough love - something you feel Agassi needed more than he let on, although he never comes across as a brat.

Ultimately, this is a coming of age story; Agassi goes from the sixteen-year-old boy forced into a role that his family chose for him, battling his demons on the way to number one, rising and falling and, eventually, rising again as the person he always wanted to be. You'll feel like you've been through the wringer when you read it, but come out the other side feeling uplifted and positive. A great book for anyone who's interested in tennis - although it doesn't touch an awful lot on the various rivalries, the fact it's mapped out in matches lends a sense of urgency and constant uncertain movement to the book - and in human relationships. I highly recommend it. If you want to grab a copy, you can pick one up in all good bookshops or via Amazon.

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