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Champion who hated tennis serves a riveting memoir

Andre Agassi dabbled in some illicit substances. He split from Brooke Shields one rainy night in Los Angeles, driving an 1976 Eldorado Cadillac convertible across the desert to escape his failing marriage.

He critiqued opponents in his head endlessly, including his longtime rival, Pete Sampras, and Jimmy Connors, who in Agassi's telling comes off as an arrogant jerk.

And, oh yes -- he hated tennis.

Pretty much always.

All this and more comes to light in "Open: An Autobiography," Agassi's crackling memoir of a childhood and young manhood spent in the glare of athletics' brightest spotlight: the place where professional tennis crosses the line into celebrity.

"Open" is the February selection of the Buffalo News' Book Club.

Agassi wrote the best-selling 2009 memoir with the help of his friend J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer-Prize winning memoirist (and author of "The Tender Bar") who goes uncredited on the book's cover -- by Moehringer's request -- but whom Agassi praises extravagantly in an acknowledgments section at the end of the book.

Together, the team -- tennis champ and his writer/mentor -- pulled off quite the little feat.

For, as we well know, sports memoirs can easily slip into familiar patterns. At their worst, they are trite, shopworn, predictable. They can make us bored with -- or even annoyed by -- the sports stars we have long admired.

"Open," for all its shaggy and structureless framework, does the opposite.

The autobiography, which covers Agassi's childhood through his retirement from pro tennis in 2006 at age 36 and his work with the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation and Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, is a straight-up "Stefanie Slice," as Agassi would term it -- referring to the special stroke of his wife, former women's tennis champ Steffi Graf -- compared to the more pedantic narratives of others in the game.

It's sharply written, using twists and turns of language to mimic the way an athlete runs on the tennis court, or a smart young guy -- Agassi, despite his protestations, is clearly no fool here -- thinks.

And it's full of revelations.

Among them, we learn:

*Agassi grew up with a domineering father who had been frustrated in his desire to become a champion boxer, and who turned his ambition into making little Andre the best tennis player in the world. He moved the Agassi family into a house with enough backyard for a home tennis court, and even built a special machine, "The Dragon," to fire balls at 7-year-old Andre at 110 mph.

"My father says that if I hit 2,500 balls each day, I'll hit 17,500 balls each week, and at the end of one year I'll have hit nearly one million balls," Agassi writes in his memoir. "He believes in math. Numbers, he says, don't lie. A child who hits one million balls each year will be unbeatable."

*Agassi has always felt ambivalent about tennis, and at times has hated it, despite the fact that his native talent combined with his childhood drills made him, by his teenage years, one of the best players in the world. He won eight Grand Slam singles championships, and yet, Agassi perceptively writes, the winning was not nearly as thrilling as the losing was painful and scary.

*He married Brooke Shields even though he and the actress never had any real foundation of connection. Over time, as she pursued roles on TV and the stage and he focused on tennis, they drifted apart. Agassi admits he didn't always behave well during this period. Once, when Shields had a starring role on TV's "Friends," Agassi stormed off the set in a fury when he saw that she would be performing a romantic scene with another man.

For all its honesty, "Open" is also hopeful.

It follows a narrative arc, not of passion to victory, but of denial and avoidance to awareness and acceptance. Agassi makes his peace with tennis, in the end. He describes his pivotal matches, including his final few tournaments, with grace, clarity and detail. He writes about his awakening to an interest in philanthropy and charity, especially where education and underprivileged children are concerned. (His academy, and his foundation, focus on those issues.)

Most movingly, Agassi, now 40, writes about his rebirth to human connection, in the form of his courtship of fellow champion Graf.

Their marriage, and the birth of their two children, Jaden and Jaz, form the real culmination of Agassi's story. A final scene of Graf and Agassi recently swinging rackets at a neighborhood tennis court -- where they've rented the beat-up court for $14 -- is sweet and poignant.

"Let's both come back!" Agassi shouts to his wife, in this final passage. "You and me. We'll announce it this week."

That's Agassi to the core: competitive, funny, beautifully alive.

His book's no different.

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Note to readers

Andre Agassi was happy to hear that The Buffalo News Book Club chose "Open" as the club's February 2011 read. He sent the News two signed copies, first editions, of his book to be given away to News readers.

All you have to do to be considered for a copy of the Agassi book is send an e-mail to the Book Club at bookclub@buffnews.com. Tell us your name and address, and feel free to tell us why you should win one of the signed copies.

cvogel@buffnews.com

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Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

Vintage paperback

386 pages, $16

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