Tennis: Legend to open book on tourSave
By Michael Burgess
"Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players - and yet boxers have their corner men and managers. In tennis, you're on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement." - Andre Agassi, Open
Andre Agassi sounds tired. Even though he hung up his racket more than 10 years ago, in the past month, he has crossed the globe twice, given numerous speeches and shaken hundreds of hands.
If you are looking for someone who has achieved fame well beyond the borders of his sport, there are not many better examples than the tennis legend.
Agassi, who visits Auckland and Christchurch next month on speaking engagements, seems as big now as he was in his halcyon days, when he became the first man to win all four grand slams on all three surfaces (grass, hardcourt and clay).
Much of it is due to that book, the one guys bought but their girlfriends couldn't put down.
Rewind to October 2009. Three years after his retirement, Agassi's autobiography, Open, hits the shelves amid a flurry of publicity. He admitted he hated tennis, took crystal meth and gave brutally candid descriptions of his marital breakdown with Brooke Shields and subsequent pursuit of Steffi Graf. Rivals like Michael Chang, Boris Becker and Jim Courier are subjected to strokes of the poison pen while former coach Nick Bollettieri is cast as a gruff, unloveable figure.
Maybe the worst treatment is reserved for great rival Pete Sampras. Agassi says he envies Sampras' "dullness" and "spectacular lack of inspiration" and labels him a lousy tipper, recounting an episode where the multi-millionaire tipped a bellboy one dollar.
So, three years on, are there any regrets, Andre?
"No, not at all. What's in the book needs to be there. The regretful part is that no man's life fits inside 400 pages - it's what's not in there and what you can't go into that you regret. I'm not talking about hidden secrets - just I can't go into detail about certain people and do them justice. I'm regretful of some things but not what's in there, no."
Agassi was hurt by the intense reaction to Open, especially in the first weeks. Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Marat Safin slammed his drug use and others were stung by his criticism of them.
"The original reaction did surprise me," says Agassi. "It disappointed (and) saddened me that peers and others felt the need to comment on something they hadn't quite absorbed yet."
More than anything, the book seemed to carve a further chasm between Sampras and Agassi. Before Nadal and Federer, Agassi and Sampras had been the rivalry that transcended the sport. It was like Borg and McEnroe, Ali and Frazier, Prost and Senna.
The pair were ranked No1 for over 400 weeks between them and met 34 times, including five grand slam finals. One of their seminal clashes was the 2001 US Open quarter-final, where Sampras prevailed 6-7 7-6 7-6 7-6 and neither broke the other's serve.
Off court, there was little affection, which has played out publicly since Open. In a charity event in 2010, Sampras and Agassi teamed up with Federer and Nadal but the televised match at one point descended into a slanging match.
After Sampras had mocked Agassi's pigeon-toed walk, Agassi brought up the tipping episode, demonstrating empty pockets. Sampras then rocketed a serve straight at Agassi, causing Federer to say "This rivalry is intense, man."
"Pete and I don't talk very much - we don't spend much time together," says Agassi somewhat hesitantly. "Occasionally we have overlap in the things we are doing where we play the same places but we weren't close then and we are not close now. As you get older, you grow more respect for people in certain departments but you also value your time more. Time has a way of reducing the amount of people in your life because it gets more precious."
For a sportsman with his profile, his willingness to traverse any subject is refreshing - whether it is his break-up with Shields ("it's impossible to love someone when you don't even know yourself") or his father Mike ("he was doing what he thought best for me") who built a ball machine so the young Agassi could train for hours. When the subject crosses to drug-taking, he struggles to find the words - and is more careful - but doesn't dodge.
"Drugs are usually a symptom of something else," says Agassi, "Obviously I was looking to escape from reality though they were far from performance-enhancing. Since that incident - maybe because of that - we now have testing done by a third party (WADA). It's a lot stricter and that is obviously a good thing."
One of the most powerful - and revealing - passages of his autobiography talks about the moments after his first grand slam win in 1992, when he won Wimbledon after three losses at major finals.
"I'm supposed to be a different person now that I've won a slam," wrote Agassi, "but I don't feel that Wimbledon has changed me. Now that I've won a slam, I know something that very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn't feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn't last as long as the bad. Not even close."
Asked to elaborate, Agassi says at that time he felt "disengaged" from matches he played.
"I wasn't born to be a tennis player, I was made to be a tennis player. The only answer I had was just to do what it is I was made to do - which was to win. It never made sense to me. I felt like I was pretending, like I was lying.
"When I finally won, after being told for years I didn't have what it took, I thought I would be able to reconcile many of these emotions. But I was hit with the reality it didn't change anything."
At times, the 42-year-old sounds more like a life coach - "it's one of the great illusions in life; whenever you look at a goal, an objective, a destination as the answer you will always be disappointed" - and he says one of his emptiest feelings came when he reached No1 in the world for the first time, in April 1995.
"It was the last great illusion for me at the time," says Agassi. "It was what my father said I was born to do - he used to introduce me to people as a young lad 'this is the next No1 tennis player in the world'. I did naively think there would be some satisfaction and personal reward with that accomplishment but I remember that feeling being just as empty.
"It didn't change my life, it didn't change my own disconnect with what I did every day. It changed nothing, to be honest, and that was the start of a steep downward spiral."
By 1997, Agassi had plummeted to 141 in the world rankings and was reduced to playing Challenger tournaments before clawing his way back to the summit of the sport.
"That journey back to No1 is what I am most proud of," says Agassi. "When you have been there once, the second time, you know how far it is and you know where you are not on a daily basis. It requires a different level of inspiration and connection; it requires all of you."
Thanks largely to Open, Agassi has become much more than a former tennis star. Though he still plays regularly, mainly in 'legends' events, people on the street often want to talk as much about parenting as about his famed return of serve. Not surprisingly, neither of his children will be seen on the tour. His daughter Jaz (9) plays but "just for fun", while son Jaden (11) is a baseballer.
Since his retirement, Agassi has focused on philanthropic work, with the foundation he runs with Graf. He has raised an estimated US$175 million for various charitable organisations and his Las Vegas school recently celebrated their first graduates.
In New Zealand, he will speak in Christchurch (January 23) and Auckland (January 24), as well as at a lunch with sponsors. His only visit here was three years ago for a week of heli-boarding with Graf and the children.
"I was really taken by the beauty of the country and also the warmth of the people. I am looking forward to spending time with the people, hearing how they feel about that journey with my book and discussing it with them.
"It's not easy for me to break away for a week any more with all the things that are going on and the balance of family, business and the foundation but when it worked out this way - where I could do a number of things - I had to take advantage of the opportunity."
The Mad Butcher Presents An Evening with Andre Agassi, in association with Paper Plus on January 24 at the Langham Hotel. Single tickets and tables of 10 are available from ducoevents.co.nz.