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Andre Agassi: ‘One day your entire way of life ends. It’s a kind of death’

The Guardian logo The Guardian 20/03/2017 Donald McRae
Andre Agassi responded to his tough tennis education early in life by establishing foundation schools for underprivileged children. © AP Andre Agassi responded to his tough tennis education early in life by establishing foundation schools for underprivileged children.

Eight years ago, in his raw and poignant autobiography, Open, Andre Agassi wrote: “My father yells everything twice, sometimes three times, sometimes 10. Harder, he says, harder. Hit earlier. Damn it Andre, hit earlier, Crowd the ball, crowd the ball. Now he’s crowding me. He’s yelling. It’s not enough to hit everything the dragon fires at me: my father wants me to hit harder and faster than the dragon. He wants me to beat the dragon.”

Andre was seven years old, in 1977, and the dragon was a ball machine his dad, Mike – a former Olympic boxer from Iran – turned into a beast. “Nothing sends my father into a rage like hitting a ball into the net. He foams at the mouth … My arm feels like it’s going to fall off. I want to ask: How much longer, Pops? But I don’t ask. I hit as hard as I can, then slightly harder.”

Forty years on an hour of conversation with Agassi is like little else in sport. The lost boy from Las Vegas is now a venerable educationalist whose eight grand slam titles and happy marriage to Steffi Graf dwarf his previous hatred of tennis and brief brush with crystal meth. But how did his dad, now 86 and described as “loyal” and “passionate” by Agassi, react to his depiction?

“When people didn’t have my nuanced take on him they just represented him as abusive. But my dad was clear. He said: ‘Andre, I know how I’ve lived and I know who I am and who I’m not. If I could do everything all over again I would change only one thing – I wouldn’t let you play tennis.’ I’d pulled the car over when he said: ‘I would only change one thing.’ I said, ‘Wow, why’s that dad?’ He said: ‘Because I’d make you play baseball or golf so you can do it longer and make more money.’ I got back on the freeway with a chuckle.”

Agassi’s knowing laugh echoes his belief that “you can’t spread who you are without being broken first. Sometimes, when you’ve been broken into pieces, you come back and give much more to people. You can see my scars and they’re key to me making a difference in other lives now. You can’t have any wounds in this game that don’t leave scars. They never quite heal but they make you who you are.”

Agassi is so obviously intelligent it’s tempting to wonder what he might have done if his father had been obsessive about education rather than tennis. “Yeah, but my dad is the reason I’m in education now,” Agassi says. “My lack of education, a lack of choice, had a huge impact. The question always remains: what might you have done? But I don’t have any deep regrets.”

A possible outcome, if his dad had turned the classroom into his battleground, is that Agassi would have ended up hating learning and buried himself now in middle-aged games of tennis. Instead he has made a substantial impact on education. He was only 24 years old, wearing a mullet and hot lava pink shorts, when he started his first education foundation for underprivileged children in Vegas. In 2001, he opened a school which became an educational model in Clark County.

“That school is still thriving and our endowment allows it to live in perpetuity,” Agassi says. “I then figured out a way to scale that mission across the country and in the last three and a half years I deployed over $650m nationally to build 79 new schools.”

How many kids has Agassi helped educate? “I’ve got 1,200 kids in my foundation school and they revolve annually. I now have 38,000 kids nationwide revolving. I can’t do the math but the numbers go up pretty quickly.”

He has also launched an online tennis coaching course with Udemy which chimes with his philosophy that teaching should be available widely. The most interesting facets of the course focus on Agassi’s tennis psychology – and his attempts to help players of different levels understand that improvement cannot always be measured in victory or defeat.

Agassi knows more about winning and losing than most – and his fall from being the world No1 in 1996 contains a significant lesson. “The real tragedy in my decline was happening during my success – it was the disconnect I felt from the game. Despite being good at it I had a deep resentment and even hatred of tennis. That disconnect after getting to No1 was even worse because you believe being the best will fill the void. I felt nothing. Every day is Groundhog Day and what’s the point? I declined in different ways. In some cases it was lack of work. In others it was the self-inflicted damage of drugs. I found many ways to hurt myself.

Andre Agassi in action at his final tournament – the 2006 US Open. He lost to Benjamin Becker in the third round. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images Sport

“But I got to a point where I realised that just because I didn’t choose my life doesn’t mean I can’t take ownership of it. That was the epiphany. But epiphanies don’t change your life. It’s what you do with them that changes your life. That’s when I saw children whose lack of choice was far worse than mine. I found myself feeling pretty blessed but compelled to confront the unconscionable reality of these kids – which is that, without education, there’s no hope, no choice, no breaking the downward spiral. Once I started to focus on that, tennis became a vehicle for me. I started to appreciate it. I learned a lot when trying to get back to No1 as it’s much harder. I realised you had to plan your work and work your plan. That became my mantra.”

Agassi became the world No1 again in 1999 and competed in grand slam tournaments for another seven years. In 2005 he lost the US Open final to Roger Federer while, the following summer, he was defeated in his last match at Wimbledon by Rafael Nadal. Agassi watched his old adversaries play the Australian Open final in January – with Federer winning his 18th slam over five sets.

I hated what the scoreboard doesn’t say. It just tells you if you won or lost

“I don’t think anyone who cares about tennis could have missed that match. I was as neutral as possible because they’ve both given so much and have great stories. Of course seeing Roger win at that age was special. He never ceases to impress me but he’s stopped amazing me. I expect it from him. And Nadal persevered through so much adversity and with people writing him off. I didn’t believe that with the amount of physicality he’s put into his career he’d ever get his game back to that level. He certainly proved me wrong. It was a beautiful match and one of those times you truly wish there wasn’t a loser.”

Did Agassi also wish he could be on court playing Federer or Nadal? “No. You can’t believe you once were at that level – and, even if I could do it, I think of my life now and ask: ‘Why do they do it?’ Steffi said: ‘Can you believe what these guys are still willing to put themselves through?’ It’s remarkable but if I went back in time I would probably retire sooner.”

Surely he misses the intensity? “I miss that the least. That was always the tough part for me. I enjoyed the work that went into making yourself the best you can be but I hated what the scoreboard doesn’t say. It just tells you if you won or lost. But the biggest issue for most athletes is you spend a third of your life not preparing for the next two-thirds. One day your entire way of life comes to an end. It’s a kind of death. You just have to go through it and figure it out. In her own quiet way Steffi feels stronger than me. She’s pretty linear in how she lives. I probably do a little more reminiscing than she does – which says a lot.”

So Graf did not mind Serena Williams overtaking her, after they had been locked on 22 slams, by winning the Australian Open? “It has no relevance in her world. The hardest part of Serena chasing down those numbers was respecting the game. Steffi doesn’t want people to feel she doesn’t care about tennis. She cares but she’s so disconnected. Every time she was asked she felt obligated to put importance on it for the sake of tennis and an incredible champion in Serena.”

After Djokovic won the French Open last year, his 12th slam title, it looked like the Serb might challenge Federer’s record. But he has since lost every major, relinquished his No1 ranking to Andy Murray and was defeated again last week by Nick Kyrgios in Indian Wells.

“If it was a physical thing it would be obvious,” Agassi says of Djokovic. “You don’t lose it quickly unless you’re dealing with a significant injury. So there’s got to be something emotional, mental, behind the curtain that only he and his team know. But he’s way too good to not find the solution. He’s also going to find perspective given his history. After clearing the courts of bomb shrapnel to practice I’m sure he understands how cruel and tough life can be.”

Murray also lost early in Indian Wells and, like Djokovic, will miss Miami this week with an injured elbow. “Andy has skills that are rarely outmatched. I was never the best athlete and had to think strategically. But he has so much athleticism he has a tendency to rely on that and make matches harder than they need to be. If you brought down his speed, matches might get easier because he’d have more conviction to go after [opponents]. He’s getting more assertive and that will help because long-term wear and tear is a factor. But Andy would be terribly disappointed if he didn’t win another slam or two. There’s no question he can win more.”

There's a gap between what Isner, Monfils and Kyrgios do and what I think they can do. That's interesting and exciting

Who would Agassi like to coach if he returned to tennis? “I can point to people that would be fun and interesting. To me there’s a gap between what [John] Isner, [Gaël] Monfils and Kyrgios do and what I think they could do. That’s interesting and exciting. But if they don’t want to be coached it would be short-lived and painful. I would pay to watch all of those guys play but it’s impossible to say whether I could coach them.”

The idea of Agassi working with Kyrgios is fascinating. Could it be a short-term option? “I would not have any room now with my kids – who are 15 and 13. So the answer is no. I wouldn’t be able to do it because I couldn’t do it the way I would need to do it.”

Has Agassi learned to like tennis? “There’s a deep appreciation for the sport. That’s the best way to put it.”

Agassi pauses when asked if he and his wife sometimes hit a few balls in Vegas – for old time’s sake? “No. It sounds a nice idea. But as soon as you hit the first couple of balls you remember you can do this. But you’re also reminded of what you can’t do. I just thank God I played the game long enough to enjoy lots of good moments. It gave a lot and it took a lot. I think me and tennis are about even now.”

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