The moodiness of a long-suffering tennis player

In spite of the headline-seeking, drug-taking confessions, Andre Agassi’s autobiography offers a fascinating insight into the inner life of a sporting great.

Dan Travis

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When I think of Andre Agassi, three things come to mind. First, there was his brash, outlandish and ‘inappropriate’ fashion sense. Second, there was his ability to ‘counter-punch’ and to return and neutralise the 135mph-plus serves that were threatening to dominate tennis in the 1990s. And third, there was his incredible revival from 141 in the world rankings in 1997 to world number one just two years later.

His recent autobiography Open caused something of a stir when it was published in the autumn. The reasons for the media storm were not hard to fathom, given Agassi’s admission that he not only took drugs, in particular crystal meth, but that he also hated tennis. However, there has been too much focus on the sensational aspects of the book. What Open really provides is an insight into the peculiar demands placed upon the tennis player and the qualities required to succeed. In this sense, Agassi’s autobiography is similar to fellow tennis players’ books such as John McEnroe’s Serious and Bjorn Borg’s My Game, despite Open’s more confessional tone.

From the start, Agassi is keen to show how he is trapped into a relationship with tennis, principally by his father, Mike. Mike even decides on his son’s tennis career prior to his birth. So, from the age of six, the young Agassi is relentlessly drilled on a homemade tennis court using a ball machine. Agassi despises the machine and refers to it as the ‘The Dragon’. As a teenager he is literally traded by his father with world-renowned tennis coach and tennis impresario Nick Bollettieri. Agassi continually refers to the Bollettieri Tennis Academy and Bradenton Academy (the school he attends) as ‘prisons’. For a career in professional tennis, Agassi has to pay with his freedom and education – both will be sacrificed in the pursuit of tennis greatness.

As far as Agassi is concerned, he is imprisoned by tennis. With no formally recognised high school education, he feels dependent on tennis and the stakes are raised higher and higher with each step he takes on the path to tennis stardom. As a child and a teenager, Agassi experiences this situation as one that was not of his own choosing. It’s not that he hates sport; he just hated the lack of choice. Indeed, one sport that he does love is soccer and he recalls how his father forcibly removed him from a school game of footie because he thought it was distracting Agassi from tennis practice. The young Agassi predicts, after this event, that he will never play soccer again.

The absence of choice is the starting point for his inner rebellion against tennis. Agassi says his ‘rebellious’ phase – the strange hairstyles, earrings and outlandish clothes – was a response to having his life mapped out for him.

The nature of the trap changes as Agassi enters adulthood. He begins to realise that without an education he will not be able to earn a living and will be forever dependent on tennis. He has a deeper existential crisis, too, fearing that all his relationships will be superficial and temporary; he can never be where he wants to be; even how he spends his time outside of tournaments is dictated by his need to recover and recuperate from an increasingly punishing schedule. Agassi’s relationships are indeed continually fraught but, in a perverse way, they prove to be a major fuel for his success. Aside from girlfriends, four relationships prove pivotal for Agassi: those with his father, with Bollettieri, with long-time trainer Gil Reyes, and with coach Brad Gilbert.

The book ensures that Agassi’s father, Mike, will become cannon fodder for a society uncomfortable with ‘pushy parents’. Mike Agassi is portrayed as being completely unreconstructed emotionally, battling with an inner rage that is never far from the surface and which often manifests itself in arbitrary violence. Despite this, Agassi is ambiguous in his attitude towards his father. One senses that he simultaneously desires reconciliation with him (without ever saying so in the book) while wanting to punish his father by distancing him from the success Agassi later acquires, particularly after his 1992 Wimbledon victory.

Tennis is renowned for producing the ‘tennis father’ (or mother), the individual that will sacrifice almost everything in order to see their offspring succeed. It has a large hall of fame with luminaries such as Richard Williams (father of Serena and Venus), Peter Graff (father of Steffi), Damir Jokic (father of Jelena), and Judy Murray (mother of Andy).

Agassi is 14 when Bollettieri and his father agree that Bollettieri should take over Agassi’s professional career. Agassi grudgingly admits that Bollettieri does deliver and is instrumental in taking him into the top 10 and to his first win at Wimbledon. But from 1992 onwards, he comes to increasingly resent Bollettieri. He feels Bollettieri is only interested in promoting his academy at the expense of assisting Agassi’s career. In 1993 Bollettieri confronts Agassi and, according to Agassi, accuses him of being an ‘unsound investment’ before demanding further payments he thinks he is owed. Days later, the split is announced in USA Today and Agassi receives a letter from Bollettieri terminating their relationship.

He has more positive relationships with Reyes and Gilbert. Reyes is a supreme motivator and physical conditioner. He builds Agassi’s strengths, works on his weaknesses and provides constancy throughout those precarious years when Agassi’s love life and self-doubt are a barrier to his achievement. For his part, Gilbert completely restructures Agassi’s approach to the game. He highlights that it is Agassi’s ‘perfectionism’ that is the cause of his losses and that he needs to focus on making his opponents lose rather than continually trying to force his own winning shots. Such an approach was unsurprising coming from Gilbert. As a player he was renowned for being a hustler, winning not on talent but on an ability to read his opponent and then break him by forcing him into errors. It is precisely that kind of approach that helped Agassi win Grand Slam titles and the number one spot in the years from 1993 to 1996.

Whenever he is asked about tennis, Agassi says he hates it. Yet no one quite believes him. The following is an extract from a conversation with Kevin Costner:

‘Costner seems like the classic man’s man. Easygoing, funny, cool. He loves sports, follows them avidly, and assumes I do too. I tell him shyly that I don’t do sports, that I don’t like them.
How do you mean?
I mean, I don’t like sports.
He laughs. You mean besides tennis?
I hate tennis most of all.
Right, right. I guess it’s a grind. But you don’t actually hate tennis.
I do.’

Agassi’s admission sheds light on the often complex and ambivalent relationship athletes have towards their sport. Contemporary Western culture seems to demand that athletes are driven to success by a simple love of the game. I would argue that the drive to succeed and maintain pole position is more complex. While anger, jealousy and the desire for revenge are not emotions that are considered ‘appropriate’ in society at large, they can, and do, play their part in an athlete’s motivation. Yet it seems that the therapeutic trend in society, with its emphasis on emotional wellbeing and the continual drive to raise and maintain self-esteem, calls upon the individual to avoid negative emotional experience altogether. So instead of engaging with, and tackling, negativity, which consequently builds an individual’s resilience, the athlete can become vulnerable and prone to withdrawal. The necessity of dealing with all the emotions that competition brings is all the more important when it comes to participating in top-flight tournament tennis which will continually produce negativity because of one simple fact: you will lose and you will lose often.

I was expecting Agassi to claim that his return to the No.1 spot in 1997 further contributed to his existential unease. Instead there is a sea change in this part of the book, as success builds upon success and Agassi starts to gain real momentum. In a sense Agassi moves from being externally motivated to being internally motivated. This is the difference between being motivated by obsession (external) and inspiration (internal). The effect is dramatic. He eventually ends up with eight Grand Slams and 17 ATP masters series tournaments – more than any other player. It couldn’t last though, as Agassi’s perpetual, career-long battle with pain combines with his age to make it impossible to continue playing. With two children, a marriage to Steffi Graff, his own successful charitable foundation and $31million in career earnings, Agassi seems finally to accept that he is a success.

Open is a treat for tennis players, not least because of Agassi’s descriptions of the battles he has with other players. From a tennis player’s point of view, his rivalry with Sampras and his hatred of Becker are both amusing and intriguing. Although respecting Sampras, Agassi appears to resent Sampras’ certainty and his absence of doubt and indecision.

Sampras is initially described as being ‘hopeless’ when he first appears on the professional circuit. This changes 18 months later when he defeats Agassi at the US Open. Having played both Sampras and Federer, Agassi describes the difference between the two. Federer is consistent and ‘puma-like’ whereas Sampras often dips and appears to be out of the match. And then suddenly, Sampras releases an onslaught, usually starting from the serve in the form of a string of aces, and the match is over. As for Becker – after he defeated Agassi at Wimbledon in 1995 and made some less than complimentary post-match comments about him, Agassi, urged on by Gilbert, dedicates himself to ‘tak[ing] that fucker out’. And take him out he did, in the semi-finals of the US Open later that year. This passage of Agassi’s career is dubbed aptly ‘The Summer of Revenge’. The personal animosity between the two tennis greats provides fuel and motivation for an uncharacteristically implacable Agassi. Vengeance gives Agassi the focus he needs.

While Agassi’s descriptions of the key matches in his career are written in an interesting and unique way, Open can often be too open. The confessional approach, typified by the crystal meth incident, frequently had me wondering ‘Why did you have to include that?’. Strangely, despite the warts-and-all approach, the ‘happy ending’ of the founding of his academy, his marriage to Steffi Graff and the birth of his children, seems to add a particularly neat closure to the ongoing existential crisis that was Agassi’s tennis-playing life.

Dan Travis is a tennis coach and writer.

Open: An Autobiography, by Andre Agassi, is published by Harper Collins. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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