'Did I Leave the World a Better Place?'


@DMT_7987Over three decades, from Berkeley to Vegas to Munich, Inside Tennis has interviewed Andre Agassi many times. On the eve of his induction into the International Hall of Fame, we wanted to chat with him about his perspectives. Agassi asked IT Editor Bill Simons to send him his questions. He did. Here are his answers.

INSIDE TENNIS: When all is said and done, how do you want to be remembered?

ANDRE AGASSI: Life is so, so short. If we want to be remembered well in the future, here are questions we should ask ourselves in the present. Did I leave the world a better place? Did I create more than I consumed? Was I grateful for every day I was given? Did I do enough for the next generation? Will the things I built continue to produce results, long after I'm gone? I'm not concerned about my legacy, but if I can say yes to those questions at the end of my life, that's all I need.

IT: You said, 'I can live with losing. I can't live without taking my chances.'

AA: My DNA is hardwired to take calculated and educated risks. I'll take my time when I need to assess and choose a direction, but once I choose it, I go hard. My process has always been all or nothing.

IT: Life after the ATP is a whole different kettle of fish. What do you miss the most – the thrill of winning, the challenge, the adrenaline?  What has surprised you the most? What have you learned?

AA: For me, everyday life provides me the opportunity to feel all of those emotions. Now that I can engage full time with my Foundation and the additional work of building new schools in inner cities throughout America, my adrenaline level is at an all time high. I hope my future will have a much more profound impact on the world than my past. I don't miss playing and the physical and emotional toll it takes to play at a high level, but I do miss the people. Tennis produces some of the great people of the world, and I was fortunate to be in the mix with them. It was also a privilege to meet such a diverse group of people from country to country. Our cultures are so different, but our struggles and dreams are so similar.

IT: You said that your life is a fight for peace. How is it going now?

AA: Peace, for me, is not the absence of troubles or anxiety, it is an action word. It means I am living the life I am meant to live. I'm at peace when my everyday actions reflect my values. Peace is when I can look at my work, my family, my friends, and say, “This is where I'm supposed to be, and this is who I am supposed to be.”

IT: You've run all those dunes in Vegas, you had to play a challenging backcourt at UNLV by a chain-linked fence, you faced tens of thousands of hostile people while playing Davis Cup. Which of these was toughest?

AA: None of the above. I am my own harshest critic. No one will ever be harder on me, than me.

IT: How did all this compare with facing your demons?

AA: We all start out a bit lost, trying to find our way. Our rebellions and outer struggles that are visible to others often mask the more serious search for truth, motivation, direction and authenticity that takes place inside. My way is to face things head on, the sooner the better, which can inflict a lot of pain, but I can't approach life any other way. Face it, call it what it is, and grow. The reward is on the other side of pain.

IT: Shortly you'll be going into International Tennis Hall of Fame. What does that mean to you.

AA: The Hall is special because it connects the past, present and future. We remember and celebrate our past champions, and their memory is kept alive at the Hall. It also preserves the sport for future generations and keeps the continuity of the sport alive. Also, it truly is an International Hall, and so few sports are international. Tennis though, belongs to the whole world. Becoming a member of such a hallowed organization is humbling. Being in the Hall alongside my wife is a true honor.

IT: If you could gather around a table of four to talk about life or tennis, what three other people would you have join you among those who are already in the Hall of Fame?

AA: Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King. Both were champions in their careers but they also used their platforms to change the world. They became champions for millions of those whose rights were being suppressed and those that had no voice.

IT: If you had to select just two or three of your favorite memories what would they be?

AA: First, when Stefanie said yes. Second, feeling the love from the fans at the U.S. Open when I retired, and being able to tell them how much I love and appreciate them.

IT: How have your thoughts on Pete Sampras evolved over the years?

AA: My take on Pete is more of a flat line, than an evolution. We're different players, different people, and we come from different worlds. That's one of the reasons it was such a compelling rivalry. He was dominant and one of the greats of the game. I regret that I still don't know him well enough off the court to have an opinion.

IT: What's your read on Roger Federer?

AA: First, he's a friend, and a good soul. He's a true gentleman of the game. He is great for tennis and I would argue with those who are counting him out so early. Never underestimate Fed. He has a lot of great tennis left in him.

IT: Without revealing too much, can you talk to us about how your relationship with Stefanie has evolved and grown. Could you ever imagine it would be this good?

AA: How much time do you have? How much space can I take. To be able to say that the greatest person I have ever known is also my wife and the mother of my children makes me incredibly grateful.

IT: Your book had an incredible impact. How would you say it touched people's lives? Are you glad you did it? Any regrets? What's the most surprising reaction to the book?

AA: I wanted to connect with people on a deeper level than I could with my tennis. I want them to believe, to dream, to take ownership of their life. My story reveals a dramatic fall, in terms of tennis and life. The question becomes, what do you do when you lose hope? Where do you reach for inspiration to rebuild a shattered life? Hopefully readers will grasp that regardless of how far they have fallen in life's rankings, they can have hope. Life is full of second, third and fourth chances, if we are determined to take them. As for the biggest surprise, it is strange to me how many people felt comfortable having an opinion about the book that actually never read it.

IT: There is something very magical about the game of tennis. It's not just that it's for boys and girls; that you can play in Bali or Brooklyn; that its a recreational and a spectator sport; or that you can play when you're eight or 80. But our sport develops and expresses character, and reflects life and its messy wonders more than any other. What makes our game so special?

AA: First, it's not a team sport. There is no one to turn to and nowhere to hide. You rise and fall by your own wits, just like life. I mention in my book how tennis even uses the language of life, words like love, serve, break and fault. A point becomes a game, which becomes a match, which becomes a career. In the same way, a day becomes a week, which becomes a year, which becomes a life.

IT: After your U.S. Open match with James Blake, Bill Dwyre wrote, “It will be 120 years before we see another match like that.” Comment.

AA: It's usually a bad thing when you have a moment or event that you will never forget where you were when it happened, but in this case it was surreal and beautiful. Anyone who saw that match will probably never forget it, which says something about the beauty of competition, and how a sport can produce such a special experience.

IT: Yannick Noah once said thinking about winning is a disease I don't want anymore. Please comment.

AA: I can say that the pain of losing is stronger than the joy of winning, so you have to get untangled from that equation. During my career, I never allowed tennis to be my life, and winning to be the driving force of my life. Tennis was my work, and a platform to give back, but it was never a substitute for my full passion for living. That's why I feel so comfortable after retirement, because I used tennis as practice for life.

IT: What was it like for you and Stefanie to do the Get Moving ad with Michelle Obama?

AA: She was wonderful to work with. She radiates class and grace. We support her mission of creating a healthier young generation. Stefanie and I have reaped the benefits of sports and fitness our whole lives, and it is important that we raise our two children the same way. Being healthy and fit pays enormous dividends; it provides confidence and healthy thinking. Active children develop habits, discipline and relationships that will serve them well for life.

IT: Noah said you can make a difference, we can make things better together if you change one person, one mind, one idea.

AA: True. We can help get a life back on course, and I believe the earlier you stop that downward spiral, the more profound the impact you can have. That is our 'reason for being' at the Agassi Foundation for Education. Equipping a young person with a complete education and preparing them to succeed in college and in their career, are the most important tools we can offer. It costs three times as much money to incarcerate a man than to educate a boy. That's why our focus is on giving tools of hope to children.

IT: You've talked about the importance of heroes in society as a way to measure ourselves, and you said that a hero teaches you that it can happen. Outside of your family, who are your heroes?

AA: By group, I would say, great teachers. They serve our children; they nourish and inspire them, they empower young impressionable minds. Think of how one great teacher can radically alter thousands of lives over the course of a career. Heroic acts are not only happening in the spotlight, they're happening in a classroom, in a hospital, at an older person's bedside. They're happening now, quietly, in Haiti and in Japan. It's safe to say that my heroes are the unsung heroes.

IT: What's your favorite success story at the academy?

AA: I'll give you two bookends. The first is the day we broke ground for the school. I looked out at that vacant lot and imagined thousands of children learning and playing. I could almost hear the laughter and happiness the future would bring to them. The other great memory is of our first graduating class of seniors. Many of our graduates were the first in their families to go to college; some were the first to graduate high school. Every single senior graduated that night, one hundred percent, and all were accepted to college. Just walking the halls of Agassi Prep can be life changing for people. You can see the children being inspired, learning to believe in themselves, and learning to believe that they can have a great future. Success stories are being written there every day.

IT: What are the two things you've learned the most relating to education?

AA: Never underestimate a child's desire to learn and succeed. Children thrive when met with high expectations. At Agassi Prep, we respect our students enough to expect excellence with no excuses, and our students love us for it. Secondly on the macro level, it is going to take all of us who have an interest in educating our children, to come together. Each of us can do a part, but only by working together can we systemically bring about change. Every time you try to move a lever in education reform, you find a stakeholder attached to it at the other end…

IT: Sometimes letting go is the hardest thing for a parent to do. When does the parent know when he needs to let go?

AA: I don't see it as a balance of holding on and letting go. I see a balance between protecting them, directing them toward the future, all while holding them accountable for their behavior. As they grow, a trust develops, and as a parent you allow them to make more choices for themselves. I believe a parent should expose their children to as many healthy life choices as possible, and see what resonates with the child. When a child lights up and discovers he has a natural talent or is drawn to something, it is our responsibility to encourage that path and celebrate it. We should help them explore the world, identify their passions and allow them many choices in their young lives, so they can feel ownership of the direction they take in life.

IT: Steve Bellamy said if you put your kids in tennis, they'll be smarter, happier, healthier, will make more money, have a stable marriage, have more children, live longer and add more to society. What other activity can attest to that?

AA: Those are all great destinations, if only the roads that traveled there were easy. It's our choices that define our future, and usually a great choice leads to a great outcome. But not always. Life is still messy and unpredictable. So, control what you can control, and hopefully your life will resemble Steve's profile. Does tennis help? I think so.

IT: Martina Navitilova said the ball doesn't know I'm 45. Talk about the aging process.

AA: The sentiment is right. In tennis and in life, we are often told, either you're too old, or it's too late. I respect age, my body has forced me to respect it, but my future and my accomplishments will not be defined by a number. With age comes experience, and the ability to see circumstances in context. Use your age as an asset; never stop believing in your future.

IT: Rafa Nadal said, “Work with humility and never make do with what you've got. Always want more.”

AA: My trainer taught me: every day, just be one day better. You don't need to be two days better and you can't be satisfied with being no days better, just one day.

IT: In terms of American education, what should be our first priority?

AA: Teachers are the key. Studies show that the teacher is the single most important component in a student's success…Often teachers come well-trained in core curriculum, but virtually untrained to deal with discipline problems, language barriers, students with disabilities, and real world classroom management. By reforming how we teach our teachers, we will have better outcomes. Next, we need a way to identify our great teachers. We treat good teachers and underperforming teachers the same…I believe in reform that compels us to measure teacher effectiveness, which can then lead to better training for those who underperform…The sooner we can identify good teachers, the sooner we can replicate their success.

IT: Esquire's Chuck Klosterman theorized, “The reason I need sports in my life is that it's the only aspect of my existence that I understand completely. It's the only subject that fills me with confidence and gets any sense of control…I don't really understand any subtexts of Moby Dick, every woman I've known has completely baffled me, but if I meet a stranger in an airport bar…I can talk to this dude…Sport is the only medium that millions of Americans comprehend. It is the only subject that allows us to see or at least feel the truth.”

AA: It's true of sports, and it's also true of music, science, and any kind of learning and creativity. The key is not just sports, it is a passion for life, and how, in tapping that passion, by calling on it for everything we do, we find fulfillment.