LAS VEGAS –
INSIDE TENNIS: When you retired, Andy Murray reported that when you went into the locker room about half the players were in tears after you spoke to them, and Lindsay Davenport said you were the most important person in tennis in the past 25 years – that you made the sport so cool and exciting and popular for young people. How does that strike you?
ANDRE AGASSI: My first reaction is that the greatest compliment you can receive is from those who you are in battle with, because they’ve seen you in good times and in bad times. They have a perspective on you and I don’t think you can hear it from a better source than the people who you live with for 35 weeks a year.
IT: I do want to go back to when you were just 13, a seventh-grader who was about to be shipped off to an academy across the country and you had a feeling of dread and abandonment. You looked at your mom and she had an expression that told you, “I’ve seen dad break three kids. You’re lucky to get out when you’re still whole.”
AA: That feeling was very formative in my life. It puts you into a position of survival. It makes you raw. You start way too early in life to see it cynically. But I think now that I am raising my [two] children it’s grown in its profoundness because I try to imagine what it would have been like to say goodbye to my son three years ago or to say goodbye to my daughter a year ago.
They turned 16 and 14 last month and these have been some of the most beautiful years of my life since I’m sharing in their growth. Quite frankly, I would hope these years would be very important to them as it relates to who they want to be.
It makes me rethink those years and understand the cost that came with what people see as only a successful sort of life. But I see much more of a cost to that, which is part of my begrudging love-hate relationship with tennis. However the scales were balanced. I gave up my childhood to be able to have my children’s childhood. At this stage I feel reconciled with all of it, but that doesn’t change the fact that that that was a very trajectory-shaping moment that happened in my opinion at way too young of an age.
IT: You speak of your love of your father, but in describing him in your book, it’s clear he was such a tough, fierce man. He told you to, “Put a blister on your foes.” You’ve said you weren’t abused, but –
AA: I have to speak to that generally because of how people perceive abuse. I feel that in many ways it was unfair, but when you grow and come to understand who your parent is, you understand what their intentions were. Abuse is an action of wanting to hurt. It’s not a byproduct of thinking you’re doing the right thing – it’s the intention behind it. If I were to do what my dad did, I would consider that abuse, because I wouldn’t know how that’s being perceived. My father, who came from a whole different background, had nothing but love and loyalty for his kids, but he made a lot of mistakes. We all are broken in a lot of ways, so I don’t judge it.
IT: You talk a lot about pain. Your trainer and guide Gil Reyes said, “Woo the pain, seek the pain” and in your book “Open” you quote C.S. Lewis who said, “Pain is god’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” How have you used pain, has it been a stimulus for change?
AA: I don’t know if I’ve used pain. Pain has been an influencer in my life. When we’re at low points, we’re much more receptive to having a larger understanding of what this journey’s all about. When things are good and easy, it’s a distraction from the reality of many things, none more profound than that we have only a certain amount of time here. As a result, pain is not a horrible place to be, because it’s an opportunity. I prefer to stay away from it. But unfortunately we can’t avoid it at some point in our lives. I learned that really early and that prepared me for the rest of it.
IT: I’ve been fortunate to have been around tennis for a long time and see a lot of athletes and in my opinion no other athlete has transformed himself from such a ragged edge into such a thoughtful, giving man. How did that happen?
AA: We all grow, we just all don’t have the instinct and in some cases the strength or the fear, to allow people in on that growth. For me, I just formed. You are constantly in that formation. People seeing it was a choice I made: to live as honestly as I could. It’s always been important to me. I can’t speak to the reason for that but everybody grows and everybody changes. Only some people choose to let people in. I wasn’t scared to let people in on my strengths or my weaknesses.
IT: Was there was a spiritual side to that?
AA: Yeah. Faith has had a strong place in my life despite my abandonment of it at many times. Nothing’s by accident. I believe there’s been a DNA of purpose and governance in my development. I just try to stay as receptive to it as possible.
IT: You wrote about the tennis circuit being such a whirlwind, with such adrenaline – peak experiences and peak lows, to coin a phrase. How’s the transition been, do you miss the tour?
AA: I don’t miss it at all. To me it’s a hamster wheel of sorts. And there’s also an addiction to the immediate feedback nature of the engagement which can become a drug in and of itself. There’s this dynamic, a pace of activity that can become your sensibility, your connection, your feedback. It becomes your weight scale of life, this feedback.
Departing from the tour came with a lot of relief to me, but I still had to find my purpose and place again in many ways. The only thing that’s changed is not the objectives, because we all fight our battles regardless of whether we are on the world stage or not, but the pace of that feedback. I lived this enough to know that I’m doing the things that need to be done to create goals and achieve objectives in my life, which includes business, the foundation, raising children – they’re all working components of staying disciplined with your day to day choices.
IT: What values that you learned over the years help you now and contribute to your role as a philanthropist and fundraiser?
AA: It’s about understanding that there’s no destination in this process. In tennis, you’re chasing something and then you achieve something and then people are chasing you and now you’re just running from something, tasting something that might be unchartered. You’re always trying to get better, it doesn’t matter if you’re No. 100 or No. 1 in the world. In the foundation, in business, in family, it’s not about ticking boxes, it’s about choice of engagement on a daily basis. That discipline has been a lesson well-seared and well-learned.
IT: In your current role – seeking funds, trying to develop charter schools – what has surprised you the most? Certainly you have experience a lot of rejection.
AA: What never ceases to surprise me is how far a little hope goes. In tennis, you can lose, lose, lose but there’s always something to gain from the loss. There’s always hope that after a result you’re going to be closer to that one person that might be the one that wins.
It’s the same in my mission and in raising children. You can feel like you’re failing quite often. You can feel like you’re making mistakes quite often. When you are open to leaning from it and making yourself better as a result there’s always hope that you’ll be better and that everything around you will be better. That hope goes a long way and you end up winning the day and being true.
IT: So maybe having had to fight back from No. 141 taught you some lessons and gave some experience?
AA: It was No. 141 to the world, but I fought back from a lot lower than that. As a result, that journey was a byproduct of lessons learned, the reassurance of lessons learned.
IT: Will you be going to Melbourne to work with Novak [Djokovic]?
AA: That’s the plan as of now. When I say that, part of my responsibility is to help him be better than ever and that he doesn’t make any decisions that don’t take him in that direction. Assuming his health and assuming his readiness, we’ll collectively make that decision.
IT: He’s a great baseliner with a great return of serve and two-handed backhand but he’s also a real thinker, a seeker, he’s always asking questions. Talk about the simpatico nature of the two of you – do you see some of yourself in him?
AA: Here’s what I can say – the only thing that outmatches his intellect is his heart. He is a champion because he values heart, he has a champion’s mind, he is a seeker, he’s a person who is a perfectionist. Every perfectionist is tortured. He has less awareness of how tortured he is because he’s that strong intellectually and emotionally. We share what can be shared. I have lived and learned 17 years longer than him, so as a result I choose wisely and choose my words carefully because he values them.
IT: You and Pete was an interesting struggle. What’s Novak’s relationship to being in an era with two such great champions, Roger and Rafa?
AA: What I see is a person who wants to beat everybody’s best. I see a person a bit like my wife [Steffi Graf], who doesn’t need the applause. He’s somebody who needs to push himself. My guess is that he sees it [Roger and Rafa] as a blessing, an opportunity, a gift to have such barometers of excellence because he feels he can cover it, and I think he’s probably right.