PARIS – Writers are supposed to be neutral. But I’ll admit it, I’m an Agassi man.
It started when boy Andre was a phenom at Nick Bollettieri’s tennis factory. “Steve, [Bollettieri always called me Steve} you’ve got to come down and see this kid. He’s gonna be No. 1.”
I was at Wimbledon when Andre flopped to his knees when he won his first Slam. One of my elderly British relatives then said, “Oh that Agassino, he’s a fine lad, but he could use a good hairwash.” I was courtside in San Jose when he was kicked out of the tournament for his naughty words.
No less than five times have I interviewed the Las Vegan, one-on-one. We talked at length on The Strip when, with Monica Seles, he opened an ill-fated fast food place. On the spur of the moment, I got a wonderful interview with him in Munich. We spoke in his and Steffi’s splendid suite in LA’s Bel Air Hotel and again at, of all places, the Freight and Salvage – a venerable Berkeley folk music landmark. When his book came out, I wrote 10,000 words.
No wonder I was excited when he signed up to be Novak Djokovic’s coach. Like about two billion other journalists here in Paris, I wanted to talk with “the man,” as Djokovic described him. But there were problems. For starters, in the absence of Roger, Serena and Sharapova, the “meeting of the minds” alliance of Andre and Novak was at the center of the tennis universe.
Their every twitch was scrutinized. The two have so much in common: restless seekers who have overcome trauma and on court they were great baseliners with fabulous two-handed backhands and returns of serve that were fierce. And right now these men were very big deals.
Novak has won more money than any other ATP player. And Andre is now a carefully crafted brand unto himself, who has raised over $60 million and reportedly backs 72 charter schools. What other high school dropout cares so much about books and kids?
And every year in Paris – thanks to hefty endorsement deals with the French watch company Longines and the Italian coffee company Lavazzo – he makes a whirlwind – swoop in, swoop out – appearance. It’s a tightly controlled universe of corporate agendas and uplifting images -– makes sense.
But it’s a web that’s not easy to penetrate. And, in a hospitality center, when I randomly come across seven or eight kids from his Vegas Academy, I thought, “Wow, what luck. If I could just get a snapshot. You know, “Vegas city kids do the City of Lights.” What happens in Paris, I reasoned, doesn’t have to stay in Paris. But no way. I was clearly told, it wasn’t going to happen.
On top of this I was exhausted. America’s great sportswriter, Frank Deford, had died and I had to compose a thoughtful remembrance. A Ukrainian tennis players spoke chilling truth about Russia’s dark side and one of tennis’ greatest players, Margaret Court, was misbehaving and a thorny story had to be told.
All the while, reporters everywhere were trying to get interviews. When I heard that Boris Becker himself was going to get an interview, I had to laugh. It brought to mind the long ago story about a reporter who spotted none other than Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl and Becker all flying from Australia to Japan. The reporter asked Boris, “Have you thought what would happen to tennis if this plane went down with you, Stefan and Ivan all on board?” Becker turned ashen white. “What’s wrong?” the reporter asked. “I just realized, that if it goes down, then Agassi will be No. 1 in the world!”
Today, from what I could tell from youtube, Boris got a brief 1:12 interview with Andre in which Agassi said that Djokovic had called him when he had finished playing Monte Carlo and the two of them had talked tennis.
Even though Novak was a very inspirational guy for him, Andre felt that due to his schedule, it wouldn’t be possible for him to coach Novak. But then Steffi told him that he might enjoy it and since he respected Steffi so much, he decided to just go to Paris early.
Andre continued and said that he is doing the coaching “on my time and my dime. I don’t want anything. Him at his best is good for the game. It’s a way for me to contribute.” He added that he would plan to be at Wimbledon.
As for me, I knew Andre would be leaving Paris in a Vegas flash. So right after Novak’s dreary 199 minute, five set win over Diego Schwartzman, I camped out in the players lounge. And sure enough Agassi zoomed by. He smiled. We shook hands and shared a pleasant, far too busy greeting. I knew this was not the time to ask to talk. He was on a bee-line to the locker room where he’d counsel his guy.
Forty minutes later – just before Novak’s press conference – I thought I’d give it one last shot. So I descended to the depths of Roland Garros’ inner sanctum and turned a corner.
“Bingo” – there he was!
Andre was talking with Novak’s manager and poised to get out of Dodge. This was my one shot. Billie Jean King always used to always, “Go for it Billie!” I repeated her mantra and, despite my fatigue, jumped in.
INSIDE TENNIS: Excuse me Andre, can I ask you just a few questions?
ANDRE AGASSI: Sure, if they aren’t too crazy.
INSIDE TENNIS: Okay Andre, then I’ll start in your wheelhouse – education. What is the one most important thing for American education these days?
Andre Agassi: That we just fix it.
INSIDE TENNIS: Because it just doesn’t stimulate our children?
ANDRE AGASSI: I can’t make that comment. They can be stimulated, but you don’t still necessarily have the environment and the accountability. And that’s for everybody – from the parents and teachers to the students – everybody.
INSIDE TENNIS: You said Novak was inspiring. What is so special about his mind? He seems like a seeker. He always seems like he is interested in so much.
ANDRE AGASSI: Yeah, he is one of the strongest spirits and one of the strongest minds. And he has talent. But that’s separate. But when you combine the strong mind and the strong spirit you expect great things from yourself and sometimes perfection is not what you need.”
INSIDE TENNIS: Pete Sampras always used to say, “I’m just a tennis player – nothing less, nothing more.” In tennis, can obstacles somehow help you in the long run?
ANDRE AGASSI: It’s about getting the most out of yourself. So if Pete got the most out of himself by thinking that, than probably it’s the right thing. But Novak is far from thinking he is just a tennis player.
INSIDE TENNIS: Andre, just talk about Novak’s incredible baseline game. Is it one of the greatest we’ve ever seen?
ANDRE AGASSI: When you combine what he can do with the ball and his movement, it represents a problem that if you gave that to me, the hardest part would be going to sleep at night. I would be too excited to come out the next day.
INSIDE TENNIS: And if you could look at the big picture for a moment and change one thing in our great sport?
ANDRE AGASSI: I’d make every tournament to be played in Vegas.
And with that, Andre was done and all set for an “Officiel Car” to come by and whisk him away, after making the most intriguing drop-in coaching appearance since Jimmy Connors briefly guided Maria Sharapova.
But still, I wasn’t finished. Just minutes later in Djokovic’s formal press conference, I told Novak, “People who know Andre talk about what a special mind he has. He’s so very sharp, unpredictable, and sees the big picture. Talk about his mind and what it’s been like working with him …”
Djokovic replied, “We had a great chat after the match. We focused on positives…But generally, he’s someone with a very positive mindset about tennis and life in general. He likes to simplify things. He likes to focus on the right frames and get the best out of it. He likes to engage 100% in whatever he likes and wants to do.
In conversations with him, you get that sense that he knows exactly what he’s talking about…Sometimes when you start talking about technical stuff or life in general, he gets complicated…[But] one of his virtues is the ability to simplify and make it very clear.
He is very bright and genuine. [He’s a] very good soul [with] a good heart, [who] cares about the game, cares about others and always tries to be kind to others. He possesses those values that I stand for, as well. That’s where we relate to each other very much.”
And that, I think, why I can relate to both Andre and Novak – two great champions, two great men.