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Updated: March 16, 2010 13:59 IST

To tennis with hate in the heart

KUNAL DIWAN
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Although initial write-ups would have had one believe otherwise, Andre Agassi's autobiography is more than just a conscience-riddled catharsis of a drug-dabbling tennis champion whose celebrity status got him off the hook after he tested positive for a banned substance. For someone even vaguely interested in tennis, it is more than a sensationalised account of a reformed rebel — a media-conferred label the eight-time Grand Slam winner, as he confesses in these pages, hates as much as the game.

From boy to man was not an easy metamorphosis for Agassi. That the process was formalised in the presence of an overtly interested media made it only tougher. In many parts of the book, his distaste for the sport that made him a global icon appears and disappears like an unnerving trope. “I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion...I see that golden-haired boy who hated tennis, and I wonder how he would view this bald man, who still hates tennis, yet still plays,” he writes. The former World No. 1, however, fails to elucidate why, after having found relative success and the consequent freedom from his domineering father, he could not bring himself to quitting a game or a lifestyle he felt no real inclination to be a part of.

Thrilling

At best, ‘Open' is an intuitive purge attempted by a remarkably perceptive and successful young man whose insights into his own self were not blunted by 20 hard years in the “whirl,” which is how he describes life on the Tour. “More than anything else,” he says, “it's a wrenching, thrilling, horrible, astonishing whirl. It even exerts a faint centrifugal force, which I've spent three decades fighting.”

And the fighting started early for Agassi, in the crib no less, when his Iranian-Armenian boxer-father taped a make-shift paddle to his infant enclosure, after three older siblings had failed on the count of ability or perseverance.

The battle continued all through childhood, through searching for the perfect house in the Las Vegas outback with a yard big enough for a tennis court, through hours of contest against a cranked-up ball machine (the ‘dragon') under a harsh desert sun and a harsher mentor, finally hurtling him — a school dropout with nothing but his game to bank on — into the world of the professional. .

Agassi's is also a tale of the amount of man-hours that go into the making of a multiple Grand Slam champion. Almost as much as the career Grand Slam winner was hassled over the state of his head, both inside and out, he was consumed in the process of getting his fragile frame in shape. Customised weight training, meticulous podiatric care, and steroid injections in the spine were all regular fixtures during his playing days. This is how he describes getting a cortisone shot: “It was the kind of pain that precedes relief. But maybe all pain is like that.”

Nuggets

The best parts however are the nuggets, of the kind a tennis lover will trade his serving arm for. Jimmy Connors' callous boorishness and Jeff Tarango's childhood improbity; Bjorn Borg's candid admiration calls and Boris Becker's tongue-directed serving; Pete Sampras' penurious tipping and Michael Chang's infuriating, self-proclaimed link to a Higher Power — all these come across sharply through anecdotes, and Agassi writes about them honestly, sometimes regretfully, always brutally, but never once losing poise.

Passages stand out. Like the time the only thing on his mind was the integrity of his hair piece on court (yes, that dishevelled blond mane was a wig held together by bobby pins), or the discomforting insecurity of watching first wife, Brooke Shields, slobber over a co-actor's hand in a sitcom shoot, or the ugly taunts Jim Courier sent his way early in their career, or his clumsy courting of Steffi Graf.

The book is suffused with the wit and charm of his press conferences, yet succeeds in conveying the stark desolation of a tennis player sitting with his head buried in a towel. A substantial part of the credit should go to Pulitzer prize winner J.R. Moehringer, who collaborated with Agassi in writing the book.

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