One of my old neighbors was a contemporary of Agassi’s in the 80’s and was one of his training partners at the Bolitterri Academy when they were kids. He washed out of the tour before he was 24 and when I met him he was engaged to a beautiful ad executive and worked as a tennis pro giving lessons to spoiled children in Rowayton and Greenwich, CT. At the time, he was getting ready to move to Florida to open his own tennis school. I asked him once if he was jealous of Agassi or if he wished he had what he did. He said he never did and without mentioning the rigors of the tour or the physical grind, he immediately described Agassi’s father. Unprompted he said he was a mix between Attila the Hun and the Ayatollah and described Andre as self-loathing and insecure. He said, “I wouldn’t trade what I have for that and $100 million if you put a gun to my head.” Even though he seems happy now? He said, “You didn’t know Andre back then.”
That was in 2002 towards the end of Agassi’s epic late-career dominance. By then, he had had been Number One (the oldest in history) in the world for umpteen weeks, was one of the favorites in every tournament he entered, and was considered one of the best clutch players on the tour. For a while at least, armed with maybe the best service return and baseline game in the history of tennis, Agassi was arguably the best who ever lived. Disciplined, focused, in better shape than men 10-years younger than him, and married to Stefi Graf – one of the few women in the world who could understand the pressure and strain he was under – Agassi dominated. This was an incredible transformation for him because only a few years before he was one of the worst players on the planet even though he possessed more raw talent than just about anyone save for Pete Sampras.
By the time he retired, he was not only a crowd favorite, but also someone who genuinely loved the attention and had become incredibly sensitive and empathetic towards his fans and respectful towards his place in the world of tennis. He not only won Grand Slam titles, but won an Olympic Gold Medal, competed in the Davis Cup, and became a gracious interview subject, a dramatic development considering that five or six years before, many in the press thought of him as a raging idiot with an inferiority complex. With the revelations of his book Open, all of the assumptions we had about him and the speculation that surrounded him seem foolish. What’s more, the revelations go a long way towards humanizing Agassi.
It seems so long ago that Andre had a frosted mullet and wore electric pink neon compression shorts. He listened to Richard Marx and Yanni, but sports writers insisted on calling him punk rock. He was 16, 17, 18-years-old with a white Corvette and sportswriters seemed shocked that a relative child from Las Vegas would be spending money on cars and clothes and a bachelor pad. It was absurd. Even after his win at Wimbledon in 1992, his reputation was that he was incredibly talented, but incredibly lazy and gutless. He cracked during break points; melted during tiebreakers, practically shit his pants in Grand Slam finals, and was recognized more for the Canon “Image is Everything” commercial than he was for his service-return. According to the popular press of the time he was an enfant terrible, a jackass wasting his talent, and a punk who spit on the conventions and strictures of tennis.
However, in Open, he admits in candid and stark terms that he considered himself a fraud and that he not only hated tennis, but also had no concept of who he was or what he was really doing. The clothes, attitude and hair were all a cover. He was incredibly self-conscious and naturally shy to begin with, but psychologically he could not shake the voice of his father Mike screaming “Hit harder!” at him in the backyard nor the memories of a machine he called the dragon spitting 120 mph serves at his six-year-old self. He was also going prematurely bald. His gloriously tacky mullet was a weave with a hairpiece stuck in place like an animal pelt. On 60 Minutes he admitted that during the 1991 French Open Final he was more worried about his hairpiece staying in place than winning the match. That means he won Wimbledon with the greatest hairpiece in sports since Joe Pepitone’s.
Throughout the early 90’s, Agassi had played second fiddle to the likes of Boris Becker, Jim Courier, and the cute-and-cuddly-but-annoying-and-arrogant Jesus-freak Michael Chang, all of whom dismissed Agassi as a wunderkind moron. In 1994, Agassi was unseeded going into the U.S. Open. When he began winning in the early rounds, Mike Lupica wrote that the tournament was his to lose and that he would find a way to lose because he’s not a champion. Agassi won the Open going away beating Michael Stich in straight sets. By the end of the year, he was Number One in the world and in 1996, even though he was beginning to slide, he won a gold medal at the Olympics in Atlanta.
He had dated Brooke Shields by fax and eventually married her in the quintessential match made in hell, and he shaved his head. But by 1997, everything had come apart. He was depressed and despondent, barely saw his wife, was injured, dropping out of tournaments, tanking matches, smoking meth with some cat named “Slim,” and falling to 141 in the rankings, the equivalent of being the Detroit Lions of tennis. He later failed a drug test, sent a cloying, apologetic letter and luckily faked out the folks at the ATP and got off without a suspension.
After coming so close to personal and professional disaster, Agassi pulled himself together and started over with the help of his trainer and father figure, Gil Reyes, and his coach, Brad Gilbret, reconstructing his game from the ground up. He rededicated himself to conditioning and started all over again by playing in challengers, low level professional tournaments and qualifiers where players eat rubber chicken, operate their own scoreboards manually, shag their own balls, and first place pays $3,500. For the next year he tortured himself with grueling workouts and by the 1998 French Open, he was number eight in the world, and oddly, the further he and Shields grew apart, the better his game got. By the beginning of 1999, they were divorced.
Almost immediately, his comeback seemed to rocket him off the tabloids and back into the upper ranks of tennis culminating with his win at Roland Garros in ’99 making him only the third man to win a career Grand Slam and the only one to have a Golden Slam (Olympic Gold Medal). He also did two things very quietly: he opened a new charter school in the middle of the worst neighborhood of Las Vegas (donating the proceeds earned from selling his old wedding ring in Shields’ name) and began courting Stefanie Graf. Then, almost as if out of nowhere, Agassi was Number One in the world again, and the oldest to ever do it, and was winning big. In a nanosecond he became an elder statesmen, top-notch champion, and all-around good guy. And when he still couldn’t get past Pete Sampras in a Grand Slam final, no one called him a loser; they just wrote that the better player won.
Agassi’s roller coaster of an autobiography is dramatic and fascinating, not just because he persevered through it all while growing up in an incredibly unorthodox home, maturing in a fishbowl, and developing into a functioning adult while being hounded by the press and partying very hard, but because he never once advocates the life of a professional athlete nor spends any time bragging about his sexual conquests. Instead, all he wants for as long as he can remember is a normal life. Remember, Agassi, unlike say, Madonna, Derek Jeter, or Alex Rodriguez, did not choose his life in the arena. It was chosen for him by his father making all the barbs, criticism, and judgments about his character especially bizarre and most certainly difficult to take considering that he was raised to do only one thing: Hit a tennis ball really hard and make a lot of money doing it.
All things being equal, Agassi’s life is a triumph not because he won eight Grand Slams or developed into one of the finest tennis players this country has ever produced, but because he spends 386 pages carefully deconstructing the myth surrounding his carefully crafted and cultivated public image. Tremendous comeback by a player bound and determined to reclaim his rightful place among the all-time greats? Nope, he really just had nothing else he could do for a living and by that time he had a charter school to support and his family relying on him. He was an eighth-grade dropout. There was nothing else. Coupling that with the way he expanded himself beyond the lines on the court, Agassi has become a giant in the sporting world for being the one thing athletes are never expected to be: honest.