OPEN - the autobiography of Andre Agassi
- Created on Monday, 13 February 2012 20:05
This is a fabulous book to read, and I say that not only because Andre has had such a fascinating and highly improbable life, but also because the book is extremely well written. I was shocked with the superb quality of the writing, considering that Andre is a high school dropout. But then at the end, I discovered that Andre got help from a Pulitzer Prize winning author: J.R. Moehringer. And Andre said that he had wished to list Moehringer as a co-author, but the latter wouldn’t hear of it. So, I don’t know how much of the actual writing to attribute to Andre and how much to attribute to Moehringer, but what I can tell you is that the book is superbly written and a delight to read. And I don’t doubt that the fundamental essence of the book is Andre, all Andre, and he makes quite an impression.
The first thing that jumps out at you is that Andre’s path was chosen not by him but by his father, an Iranian immigrant who in his youth had been an Olympic boxer for Iran but who became enamored with tennis. He pushed all of his children into tennis, but it quickly became apparent that the one with the most talent was the youngest, Andre. And from an early age, he made Andre eat, drink, and sleep tennis. Andre had no normal child. Andre said he didn’t even like tennis. He even said he hated tennis. He said he would have rather played soccer. But he was forced to play tennis, hours and hours every day. Then, at the age of 13, he was sent away from his home in Las Vegas to Florida to attend the Nick Bollittieri tennis academy, and Nick quickly figured out that he had a prodigy on his hands. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I am not going to go through his whole life and career, although it’s fascinating. If you said that his life course was a one in a million shot , that would be a gross understatement. It was more like a one in a billion shot. But, my purpose, as always, is to focus on the health aspects of his life. So, that’s what we’ll do here, but again, his personal story, his climb to the top, is most inspiring to read about, and I highly recommend this book.
The first health lesson that you get from the book is that tennis is hard on the human body. Andre was plagued with numerous injuries. And towards the end of his career, he was in constant, excruciating pain. The only thing that kept him on the court was cortisone shots and anti-inflammatory drugs. And towards the end, even his father, who had pushed him so hard, pleaded with him to quit. But, he kept going, and it was partly because he had already started his charitable educational foundation which he needed to fund and promote. So, he wanted to stay active in tennis for that reason. But, the brutality of the sport on him, the toll on his body, was severe. He was racked with pain like an old man with arthritis. The plain truth is that the human body is not a rubber band. It wasn’t meant to stretch and lunge and reach and twist and pull and do all the things you do in tennis- and in a jolting, bolting, erratic manner. Tissues tear from that. And then they swell. And that hurts. A lot.
So, the lesson is: if you enjoy playing tennis, go ahead and play- some. But don’t play every day. Don’t play too long. And don’t play too hard. And don’t try to do everything that a professional player does. Play within your limits, and I mean your bodily limits. Let the ball go sometimes. Don’t always try to get to it. Nobody is paying you. It doesn’t make sense for you to hurt yourself over this like Andre did.
Andre Agassi was one of the all-time greats of tennis; there is no doubt about that. In raw numbers, his accomplishments were legion. But, what he was not was: very consistent. Many times he unexpectedly lost when he should have won handily. Of course, it went the other way sometimes too, but still, as he pointed out: the letdowns and disappointments always seemed to register more profoundly.
So why, when he had so much natural talent and was so amazingly gifted- was his career so erratic and inconsistent?
Well, I can’t assume to be able to answer that, but some things did jump out at me.
He mentioned quite a few times in the memoir taking sleeping pills. He would take them before a match if he was nervous. He would take them on long flights just to knock himself out during the long plane ride. And sometimes, he would take a double dose if a single dose wasn’t enough. He didn’t say which drug he took, but I’ll guess it was either a benzodiazepine tranquilizer or one of the newer sleep drugs, such as Ambien. Either way, the effects of doing that can’t be good for physical and mental performance. And, he also mentioned becoming heavily dependent on coffee, and that’s not surprising because clearly, he had a chronic sleep deficit, and taking sleeping pills does not rectify a sleep deficit.
I know we are hearing a lot of good things about coffee lately, for instance, that it’s full of antioxidants and that it deters diabetes. I don’t doubt that some of it is true because coffee is a bean, a legume, and legumes are very high in antioxidants, polyphenols, and other protective compounds. However, caffeine is a stimulant drug, and it is never healthy to use a stimulant drug to counteract fatigue. That’s what Andre did during his career, and it had to take a toll.
And like everybody, Andre had his share of personal stress-and I mean besides the stress of a top-flight tennis career. He had his family problems, his mother’s and his sister’s cancers, and there were tragedies that affected his closest friends and their children, and he took all these things very hard. Then, there was his doomed first marriage to actress Brooke Shields. And like many others, Andre resorted to regular alcohol use in order to cope with his despair, and occasionally, he resorted to hard drugs. There is no balance or stability to the body that comes from doing that. And, it could not have lent stability to his tennis game either. Am I suggesting that his playing may have been more consistent without those bad influences? Yes, that is what I’m saying.
He addressed the subject of diet quite a bit. Growing up, he was raised on the typical, standard American diet, nothing special, and plenty of junk food. At that stage, there was no thought whatsoever given to the role of diet. And then as a teenager when he went off to the tennis academy in Florida, again, it was the typical, standard American diet: meats, dairy products, processed carbs, desserts, etc. But later, UNLV conditioning coach Gil Reyes became his trainer, and Reyes started to take charge of Andre’s diet, cutting back on the junk food. That was good, but Reyes, though nutritionall- minded, did not have an appreciation for the vast importance of unrefined plant foods. The diet was still mostly animal-based.
I am not suggesting that a strict vegetarian diet would have best served Andre’s needs as an elite tennis player. It would be very presumptuous for me to suggest that, and I’m not suggesting it. But, what I am suggesting is that making his diet “plant-strong” would have been very useful and supportive to his career. Relying heavily on unrefined plant foods would have been very advantageous to Andre, and it’s a shame that nobody urged him in that direction.
One interesting thing is that Gil Reyes developed his own electrolyte replacement drink which he called Gil Water. Andre never revealed what the exact composition of it was, but it sounds like it was a proprietary, homemade Gatorade. And Gil really pushed it on him hard, pouring it into him, before, during, and after matches.
You get the impression from reading the book that Andre was mostly miserable during his life and career- that his crushing defeats and disappointments caused more pain and agony than his victories brought joy- and it wasn’t until he met and fell in love with tennis great Steffi Graf (and for him, but not her, it was love at first sight) that he truly found happiness. And reading of it, you truly feel happy for him because throughout, he comes across as very likeable and decent and honorable and deserving. I was always an Andre Agassi fan, but now , from reading the book, I’m even more so.
But, from the health standpoint, it strikes me that spurious ideas about diet worked against him, and spurious notions about the effect of pharmaceuticals harmed him more than he realized then and perhaps now. Unfortunately, even elite athletes fall for the lure of pharmaceutical drugs- and it hurts them, just as it does everybody.