Agassi’s 50 years had it all, on and off the tennis court
Will there ever be a more scrutinised tennis player than Andre Agassi? His 50th birthday on April 29 was a moment to take stock of a life and legacy that have been epic as it gets, filled with rollercoasters and rivalries, coaches and corporations, controversy and achievement.
History will note Agassi’s career Grand Slam, eight majors, sparkling 30-6 Davis Cup record, Olympic gold, 101 weeks ranked No. 1 in the world. In the spirit of many of tennis’ all-time greats, Agassi took the game to new levels of skill, propelled with laser-like proficiency by what remains arguably the greatest forehand-backhand combo in the sport's history.
So brilliantly did Agassi wield his racquet, and wear his clothes, that he captivated the casual tennis fan in ways few ever had or will. For most of his career, Agassi was the sport’s most popular player, adding considerable crossover wattage to any event he entered. In many other cases, for smaller tournaments, his presence single-handedly made the difference between profit and loss.
But data and box office appeal only take you so far. That Agassi’s tennis life played out so publicly might explain why he now largely favors privacy. In 1988, the year he turned 18, he rocketed up the ranks to No. 3 in the world. In the flash of an eye, a promising teen had become tennis’ next big star, the heir to Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. And Agassi, far more lover than fighter, struggled mightily to master both the craft of professional tennis and the weight of expectation.
“He’s really kind of puppyish,” his lifelong rival Jim Courier said in a 1995 Sports Illustrated article. “Be gentle.”
In today’s social-media era, athletes largely control their narrative, dispensing dollops of the tale, one post at a time. Agassi, though, made his mark in the era of the lavish probe, of writers and producers feasting at the chance to tell yet another tale of this sweet, thoughtful and often confused young man, constantly on a public path towards reinvention. No tennis player will ever likely more occupy the fishbowl of exposure and analysis Agassi was thrown into while still a teenager.
There he was, swimming in a sea of waves, counter-waves and even counter-counter waves of armchair psychology and sociology, laden also with dialogue around marketing, advertising and public relations. As such, and as his peers Courier, Michael Chang and Pete Sampras will also tell you, with the American tennis boom having crested by the early ’80s, it wasn’t easy trying to be an American tennis champion in the post-boom ‘90s. But no one captured more of the spotlight—for better or worse—than Agassi.
To tennis aficionados who watched him closely for his 20-year-career, Agassi was appreciated for being as great a ball-striker as tennis had ever seen. Tactical genius Brad Gilbert, who drastically turned Agassi’s career around when they began their eight-year partnership in 1994, grasped what his charge needed to do inside the lines with razor-like precision.
Still, for the first decade or so of his career, Agassi so often grappled with potential and accomplishment, a constant teeter-totter between revelation and apocalypse.
The anguished American appealed to the dabblers who parachuted into the arcane tennis world. To those armed with magazine feature assignments from fashion and lifestyle magazines, to camera crews bearing network logos, to the great many who barely knew Lendl from lentils, Agassi's Yoda-like ability to channel Oprah Winfrey and motivational speaker Tony Robbins was rather mesmerizing.
“I don’t think the public has ever had any concept of who I am,” he said in “The New Andre Agassi,” a 1995 Sports Illustrated cover story that appeared just as he reached the world No. 1 ranking. “They see the cars and the plane, and if they don’t try, they stop there.”
Alas, from that pinnacle came a descent, dropping out of the Top 100 two years later, and also abusing substances in a way he would eventually chronicle quite vividly.
There at last came the era I’ll informally call the Harmonic Agassi Convergence. From 1998 until the end of his career in 2006, he demonstrated a singular commitment to the game. He racked up five more Grand Slam singles titles, including the redemptive 1999 Roland Garros run that earned him a career Slam and, soon enough that magical summer, the love of his life in the form of Stefanie Graf. Over this last phase of his years on the tour, it was interesting to note how much like Graf he conducted himself on the court—focused, business-like, the once-electric and intermittently erratic shot-maker shed in favor of a grinding warrior.
The farewell speech Agassi gave at the 2006 US Open, immediately after the last match of his career, were indeed the words of a boy who had struggled to become a man not by himself but in front of millions.
“You have given me your shoulders to stand on,” he said that tearful afternoon, “to reach for my dreams, dreams I could have never reached without you.”
Then, three years after retirement, Agassi published a spectacular but jarring autobiography that most of all revealed his longstanding disdain for tennis—even if he’d also admit it was more of a hate-love relationship. To read through this compelling book is to encounter one confession after another from a man who admitted he’d frequently deceived all those curious fans and inquiring minds.
“I’ve knocked Pete off the mountaintop,” he wrote about becoming No. 1 in the spring of ’95. “The next person who phones is a reporter. I tell him that I’m happy about the ranking, that it feels good to be the best that I can be.”
“It’s a lie,” Agassi acknowledged to his credit. “This isn’t at all what I feel. It’s what I want to feel. It’s what I expected to feel, what I tell myself to feel. But in fact I feel nothing.”
It was hard to blame him for becoming so disaffected. For all its financial rewards, the Agassi tennis journey had been painful, one first fueled by his over-the-top father, and, as his career continued, a persistently bubbling sense of frustration, discontent and—perhaps, most deep to the core—the distrustful solitude of a child scarcely loved. For make no mistake: Mike Agassi was a terror, dubbed a “sober drunk” by Agassi’s sister Rita. Try as she could, mother Betty was pushed aside, the four Agassi children captive to their patriarch’s rage and demonic management of their lives via tennis. Even Mike would admit that, “The real sacrifice was Andre’s childhood.”
Such fundamental loneliness gave Agassi a profound awareness of what it took to succeed in tennis.
“Tennis is so simple,” he told me once. “Two guys, in the arena, trying to figure it out.”
Even more, he knew what it took to supplement that, always surrounding himself with a kind, thoughtful team. None of its members mattered more to Agassi than his trainer and bodyguard, Gil Reyes. Starting in 1989, Reyes, 18 years older, served not just as a physical sage to Agassi, but as a source of paternal support. Naturally, Agassi’s son, Jaden, bears the middle name Gil.
In the wake of such a painful formative tennis experience, it figures that Agassi has opted for a minimal presence around the sport. There was a short stint in the Novak Djokovic camp. More recently, what could be described as a senior counsel relationship with Grigor Dimitrov continues. In those cases, though, Agassi has shied away from the spotlight.
What matters to the former world No. 1 most are those truly most close to him.
“No question, greatness was one thing in Andre’s world,” Reyes told me earlier this month. “But so often, Andre was also concerned with goodness—with how good he could be as a person, how he could treat and effect other people. All that he went through magnified his compassion for others.”
Hence, the continuing work of The Agassi Foundation for Education, armed with grant money and support for a variety of community initiatives and causes. This began nearly 20 years ago with the opening of the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, opened in West Las Vegas. It has continued with a wide range of activities with schools, the Stem Program, Green our Planet, food banks, universities, first responders and many others.
Most of all, Agassi is committed to using education as a vehicle for giving children precisely what he was denied: choice. –tennis.com