THE MAN WHO SAVED AGASSI’S LIFE

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Photos by Chris Woodrow

In 2001, Andre Agassi came to Berkeley’s Claremont Resort to give the induction speech for Brad Gilbert’s entry into the Northern California Tennis Hall of Fame. This May, Andre was in San Francisco to present his former coach to the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. Agassi didn’t even mention that Gilbert reached No. 4, that Brad also coached Andy Murray and Andy Roddick, and he’s long been an ESPN broadcaster. Instead, Andre both drew great laughter and spoke from the heart.

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Brad was unique. He found ways to problem-solve and to win. He took a great deal of pride in playing like crap yet finding a way to win. He’s never really learned how to hit the ball properly [laughter]. I’m not sure what’s tougher – playing Brad or watching him play. If he’d known how to hit a tennis ball, Federer’s record would be in jeopardy. But his spirit was contagious, it was something you respected and I’m grateful for it. He taught me that coaches aren’t measured by what they know, but by what their students learn. He taught me that in tennis you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t even have to be good. You have to be better than one person. That’s what you call problem-solving. That’s what you call simple.

He also taught me to think for myself, because it’s a lonely sport out there, with no one to pass the ball to. They don’t tell you, “You only have to play this long.” He taught me to look at tennis as geometry. How do you play to somebody’s weaknesses and avoid their strengths? How do you make them play to your strengths and avoid your weaknesses? He taught me that sometimes less is more ­­– simplicity.

 

 

Once in Cincinnati, I should have been beating the crap out of a guy, but I was lost and confused. I looked up and asked, “Do you have any advice?” Brad responded, “Yes – stop missing.” There was an art to that. There are times to complicate things and times to simplify. He was a master at that…Brad’s eternal optimism combines with his child-like expression of it. It’s such an odd thing. You’re so grateful for his optimism…but sometimes not so grateful for the way he chooses to communicate that optimism. After a bad practice, Brad would gently walk over, put his hand on my shoulder and say, “I’m sorry, buddy. Tomorrow will be better.” I’d ask, “How do you know?” He’d say, “I’m a stats guy. I look at the odds and I know that there’s no way you can play any more sh–ty than you played today.”

On a serious note, now I’m going to talk to Brad’s family. I’m grateful for your dad saving my life. The first time we got to No. 1 together, it was a great journey, but I did have a lot of demons. I wasn’t very satisfied with what the world called success. This took me on a two-year, self-inflicted journey from No. 1 to No.141, with a marriage that, at age 28, was headed towards divorce. No coach in their right mind would take someone on and go through that with you during that downturn. But your dad believed in me and his faith gave me the belief, the desire, the hope and the prayers that somehow, maybe, despite not having chosen my life, I could take ownership of it and start again. And we did.

So fast forward two years and we’re in the finals of the 1999 French Open – the Slam I should’ve won ten years earlier and the only Slam I’d never won. I was heavily favored and knew I’d never have this opportunity again. I was so scared, and didn’t know what to do. In 47 minutes, I was down 6-2, 6-1. I was lost – a deer frozen in the headlights. Then there was divine intervention; rains came. The locker room was so dirty, it stank, and everyone was speaking every language except English because Americans can’t play on clay.

It was so quiet – I thought all was lost. I looked up and asked, “Really Brad, you’re going to wait for this moment to finally shut up?” And everything I had to say could be heard in the locker room by the only guy I had to beat.

Then Brad went to a locker and slammed it so hard that it broke. He said, “What the hell do you want me to say? You’re the one guy on court who can do something special. You just need to be better than one person [Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev]. Are you actually asking me to tell you that you’re not better than this person?” Brad continued, “You’ve been at the top, you’ve been at the bottom, I’ve never left your side. You play this tournament on your terms, play to win. Hit your shots. Right now I’m going to simplify this for you. If he hits the ball over there, here’s a great idea: run. Wherever he is, don’t hit it there. You’re going to go back and play on your terms. Your dreams are in your hands, and we’re going to go for it with our guns blazing and do it the way we’ve done it from the beginning.”

So I walked back on court, managed to find a groove and a bit of the zone and found myself serving for the match in the fifth. Then I recalled Brad’s epic words: “Go to the well.” I’d always asked, “What the hell are you talking about?” He’d say, “Make him go to his weakness.” On the last ball of the match, I served wide and it left his racket, and there’s a picture of one person, Brad, standing with his arms up because he knew I was about to achieve our dreams.

Wins come, wins go – they’re fleeting. But what that win and that time with your dad did was give me the second half of my career. It gave me a chance to find my mission in life, to provide education for underserved kids that don’t have a choice in their lives.

Your belief in me gave me the second half of my career and that helped me find my beautiful bride. Because of your guidance there, too, we got her to say “Yes,” and we would raise two beautiful children. So, I’ve been the beneficiary of the belief you always showed in me. I love you like a brother. I can’t thank you enough for everything you did – and I can never repay you. I love you, man.

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