Tennis Turns Its Lonely Eyes to Andre Agassi

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Photo Courtesy of Andre Agassi

COVID-19 and the Gospel of Andre Agassi

Bill Simons

A sign at Andre Agassi’s Las Vegas academy features the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

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In our brave new world, who is tennis going to look to? One thinks of Arthur Ashe. To his dying days, the sage with a flowing backhand fought the AIDS pandemic. But he’s gone. CNN noted that the US Open’s Billie Jean King Tennis Center was being used as a hospital. The self-isolating King said, “Everyone has come together to help each other.”

And then there’s Andre. First the kid was underestimated. He’s “a haircut and a forehand,” said Ivan Lendl. Young Andre was once a self-loathing rebel with a pink Mohawk, dozens of little whiskey bottles and a penchant for self-destruction. The conventional wisdom was that “Mr. Hot Lava” was a a punk, a fraud, a clown, a fluke. Dismissing him as a money-hungry pitchman without substance became a sport within a sport. Yet, ultimately he realized a central truth: “The idea of stagnating, of remaining Andre the rest of my life, that’s what I found truly depressing.”

The charismatic man-child pivoted. The survivor became a seeker who would soon be lionized. “He’s a Zen master,” gushed Barbra Streisand. Comic George Lopez quipped, “He’s gone from ‘Image is everything’ to ‘Humanity is everything.’”

Andy Roddick recalled that moments after he retired, Andre spoke to the players in the US Open locker room and left half of them in tears. Lindsay Davenport said he was the most important person in tennis in the past 25 years because he made the game so cool and popular.

Plus, he evolved into a unique activist. In inner cities he’s been instrumental in opening 106 charter schools. He’s become an entrepreneur, a thinker and, of all things, a comforter.

In the wake of the biggest mass shooting in US history, he told Las Vegas,Strength isn’t anger…Strength is unity. Strength is valet parkers who become medics. Mothers who become emergency responders. Sisters who shield brothers because they love them with the love that has no bounds…Strength is the voice of community and love in the face of the unspeakable. Strength is when we all pull together and rise up. All of us in every corner of this world.

Andre referred to James Agee’s A Death in the Family, in which a young woman in deep mourning says, “This is simply what living is: I never realized before what it is…Now I am more nearly a grown member of the human race.” Agee writes, “She never before had a chance to realize the strength human beings have to endure; she loved and revered all those who had ever suffered, even those who had failed to endure.”

Agassi mused, “I love and revere those who suffer…God wants us to grow up, and love is how we do it…We are here to fight through the pain and, when possible, to relieve the pain of others.”

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For nearly 30 years, from Munich to Beverly Hills, we’ve spoken with Andre about many things. Here are his insights on the journey, renewal and hope.

IT: In your book you quote C.S. Lewis, who said, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Your guide Gil Reyes said, “Seek the pain, woo the pain, recognize that pain is life.”

AA: When we’re at low points, we’re much more receptive to having a larger understanding of what this journey’s 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…I learned that really early.

Nelson Mandela said that there is clarity and nobility in being a journeyer.

It’s always been about the process – the battle, not the destination…It’s about appreciating that life happens between your plans. That’s where the joy is for me…It’s like we’re all swimming to Hawaii and nobody’s going to make it – some might get further… So, the question is, “What is life really about?” It has to be about how you choose to go about it, regardless of your success or failures…There has to be a process and a connection that you have with the journey…Every journey is hugely important. Just because Mandela’s journey was so extraordinary doesn’t mean that ours has less value.

Your story has been said to be a kind of fairy tale. You called that fierce ball machine your dad imposed on you ‘the dragon.’ You dismissed Bollettieri’s academy as a dungeon. You called Gil Reyes a Merlin-like wizard, and he described you as Lancelot. The two of you called the Roland Garros stadium ‘the monster.’ And in the end, you got the princess – Stefanie Graf.

That’s a form of storytelling. It’s finding the strand, the narrative in your life…There’s a hero’s journey in it. There’s an authenticity to the depths of the soul – through the good and bad times – and the confusion.

Gil said you had to be part engineer, part mathematician part artist, part…

…mystic. It’s an intangible, an ability to sense how somebody is feeling so that you ask just enough of them to get better, without asking so much that it comes with a cost.

What roles do heroes have?

They’re part of the human experience. We need them. It’s like the rankings. You’re always measured with those who are better. Heroes are inspirational…models who teach what and what not to do. A hero teaches you that it can happen.

You said there’s nothing worse than a child without hope.

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.

It’s the same in my mission and in raising children. You can feel like you’re failing quite often…[but] when you are open to learning and making yourself better there’s always hope that everything around you will be better. That hope goes a long way and you end up winning the day and being true…It starts with the children and ends with the children. They are our future. I have dreams of my school becoming a model for how education can be in our country.

When you were a kid, your dad told you, “Don’t think. You’re going to be No. I, that’s the plan.” Then, when you were getting to know Steffi, you were caught in your head and your thoughts. She insisted, “It’s all about feelings. Stop thinking.”

My father didn’t want me to think because he wanted me to do what he was saying. He thought and still thinks he has the answers to pretty much everything. Steffi wanted me to stop thinking so that I could feel my own answers, feel my own conclusions, so I could just let it happen.

Did you?

At times I felt it more than I could do it. I wasn’t good at it, because I’m analytical by nature…Experience has taught me that I can’t always trust what I feel. That is one of the things I love and hate about myself.

When you were 13, you were about to be shipped off to an academy across the country. You had feelings 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.”

That feeling was formative. It put me into a position of survival. It makes you raw. You start way too early in life to see things cynically. But now that I’ve raised my children…I imagine what it would have been like to say goodbye to them. It makes me rethink those years and understand the cost that came with what people see as a successful sort of life. But I see much more of a cost than that, which is part of my begrudging love-hate relationship with tennis…I gave up my childhood to be able to have my children’s childhood. I feel reconciled with all of it, but that doesn’t change the fact that that…happened at way too young an age.

You speak of your love for your father, who was such a tough, fierce man. He told you to “put a blister on your foes.” You’ve said you weren’t abused, but –

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’d consider that abuse…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.

Many athletes have transformed themselves, but your change has been astonishing.

We all grow, we just all don’t have the instinct and in some cases the strength to allow people in on that growth. It was a choice I made, to live as honestly as I could. It’s always been important to me…It’s the simple things in life, though. It’s not how you think, it’s how you choose to live. The most profound moments come from the simplest action. That’s the beauty of my life now…It’s been a hard evolution. I always had a certain level of desire to face the truth. I just grew into a lot more than my little world.

Talk about the spiritual side of all this.

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…in my development. I just try to stay as receptive to it as possible.

You said you hated tennis. But people responded: “Hold on, you got so much from it – fame, fortune, position, and it led to your marriage, family, and the academy. Where’s the appreciation?

I’m not saying, “Woe is me.” I’m saying, “This is me.” There’s a big difference. I’m not suggesting that I don’t have a lot of things. What I’m saying is what I wanted was something deeper inside that was missing. I wanted a connection to my life…

Tennis does not allow you to do a whole lot of looking at yourself because you’re so exposed. You’re constantly under pressure, and once you start to open up, you’ve got to go through all that bad stuff to get to the good stuff…[But] tennis was what I found myself in, what I used to explore, to grow and understand myself…

Tennis is the loneliest sport. It has more pressure than any other sport. Even in boxing there’s somebody – you talk with your corner. In tennis, we don’t talk with each other, touch each other, smell each other. We’re on islands out there.

The tennis tour is such a whirlwind, with such adrenaline. Do you miss it?

I don’t miss it at all. To me, it’s a hamster wheel of sorts. There’s an addiction to immediate feedback, to a kind of engagement which can become a drug. There’s this…pace of activity that can become your sensibility, your connection, your feedback. It becomes your scale of life.

Departing from the tour came with a lot of relief, but I still had to find my purpose. The only thing that’s changed is the pace of the feedback…We all fight our battles.

Since becoming a fundraiser and philanthropist, what have you learned?

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…You’re always trying to get better. 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.

When we see Federer he plays with such ease, an almost dreamy serenity.

I never identified with somebody like that. I never knew if I believed it. And if it is believable, it’s certainly a different life than I’ve had. When you see those moments like when he lost to Nadal and he just broke down, you wonder what he’s suppressing.

Did that make him more human?

For sure. I certainly understood that emotion.

It was tough when fans called out, “Connors is a legend, you’re a punk.” After beating you in the French Open final, Jim Courier went out for a jog, as if the final had been a breeze. You said it “got into your kitchen” when Michael Chang thanked God for beating you, and you noted that you lost a lot of titles because of Pete Sampras, but you also learned from Pete.

He shined a light on what was so apparently obvious. I needed inspiration, and the way that he went about his work made me feel very different. He made me feel like an alien. He made me look at myself pretty hard. … We just were complete opposites, which lent itself to an even more special rivalry….I always thought tennis played too much a part in his life and not enough in mine.

You’ve coached Djokovic. He’s such a great thinker and seeker.

The only thing that outmatches his intellect is his heart. He’s a champion because he values heart. He has a champion’s mind; he’s a seeker; he’s a perfectionist. Every perfectionist is tortured.

Talk about Novak playing in the era of Roger and Rafa.

What I see is a person who wants to beat everybody’s best. I see a person a bit like my wife, who doesn’t need the applause. He’s somebody who needs to push himself. My guess is that he sees Roger and Rafa as a blessing, a gift, to have such barometers of excellence because he feels he can cover it, and I think he’s probably right.

What about Serena at the U.S. Open?

I certainly can identify with that. I understand getting mad. I’ve gotten mad many, many times… But like any mistake, it’s not the mistake, it’s what you do with it. Any point can be our finest or our darkest. It’s our choice.

You once said, “I fight for peace.” Do you find peace most days?

Most days I win. But you have to fight. It’s work – to keep your focus in a cluttered world.

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