Andre Agassi

Ode to Andre: An essay, which grew out of a review of Andre Agassi’s Autobiography, ‘Open’.

I first saw Andre Agassi play live at the French Open, in 1987. I was keen on becoming a tennis coach in those days, and I already knew about Andre. So when I saw he was scheduled to play Peruvian Pablo Arraya, I was first on the scene on one of Roland Garros’ outside courts. Another débutante was a tiny ball boy with red hair and a broad batch of freckles. The kid was full of energy and enthusiasm, but he looked nervous. It was a nice touch that Agassi put the youngster at ease and I immediately liked him for his consideration.

Reacting to Andre Agassi’s autobiography, entitled Open, a reporter in one of the British nationals wrote of his distaste for the ‘cold’ Agassi and his legend, once again (…and again) citing Sampras as the gentlemanly antidote to Agassi’s theatricals.

In his imperious prime, Pete Sampras was the predictable stodge of tennis columns the world over, though this had more to do with the stodgy limitations of those who built a career on platitudes and borderline advertorial.

I recall taking one of my young tennis pupils to watch Sampras play at a Wimbledon warm up tournament, at the Northern Lawn Tennis Club in Manchester. Simon Roberts rose to about 500 in the world has been Lancashire County Champion at least 9 times. But back then he was knee-high and, with autograph book in hand, he approached Sampras.
‘Can I have your autograph please?’ he squeaked shyly.
No. Come back later after my match!
The fact that there wasn’t another person in sight was irrelevant. An autograph would’ve taken two seconds of silent endeavour, which hardly qualifies as a distraction or require a woman’s multi-tasking skills.
I was livid.

This resurrected a similar snub from my own childhood. As a boy of about seven my dad took me to Harper Green playing fields in Farnworth, where Everton and England footballer Alan Ball was making an appearance. Having queued up to get his autograph, I passed him my pen and autograph book and he scribbled his name. He then realised I hadn’t pushed the button on top of the pen to release the ball point, causing him to scratch at the paper. The Everton man scorched me with the withering look of an egomaniac. Ball then made a point of showing me (and everyone else) how the pen should’ve been handed to His Greatness.
My cheeks fired up in embarrassment. It was all I could do to slide away without bursting into tears.
I’ve always been unsure as to how I would’ve reacted, had I met Alan Ball in adulthood.. But I doubt reason would’ve prevailed, and Sampras’ snub of Simon just brought it all back wrapped in unhealthy and unforgiving rage.

That same day I’d arranged to interview the young Sampras, for what was then Tennis magazine in the UK, and as we sat down in the club house later I had the simmering impulse to retaliate, which to be fair owed more to Alan Ball than the indifferent tennis player before me.
I did my best to ask inane questions through gritted teeth, which pander to both the ego and the marketplace (and which made all but one tennis magazines unreadable irrelevant and subsequently extinct), but I had a chip on my shoulder that made for a vile atmosphere.
Needless to say I didn’t warm to Gentleman Pete: what marketeers and their associated cheerleaders shaped into sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct, I saw as the smugness born of self-absorption, which was as dull as the copy that writ it up on a pedestal.
Happily, Simon wasn’t as sensitive as his coach, and he wasn’t put out in the least – he toddled off again after the match to get his scribble.

Andre Agassi’s autobiography is one of the better sports autobiographies (sadly, Jimmy Connors’ riposte fell flat and I didn’t even finish it), and the first half of the book is a kind of wholesome revenge on those who turned him into something he NEVER had any say in – a tennis player. Andre’s father, Mike Agassi, should serve as a pantomime stereotype of the tyrannical tennis father. Not so much for the edification of tyrannical tennis dads, who are often blinded by their own shortcomings and rarely derailed. Such cautionary tales are best heeded by rebellious mothers and tennis kids themselves, so that the next Mother Teresa, Dickens or Chopin doesn’t end up becoming one more failed tennis player, broken on the blind back of paternal ambition.

In their obsessiveness, tyrannical parents do have a knack of unearthing the essence of how to properly hit a tennis ball, and employing specially adapted ball machines, to get the young Agassi to crunch the ball early and on-the-rise, is spot-on tennis drilling.

One of the more bizarre episodes in Agassi’s life is when wife Steffi Graff’s father turns up in Las Vegas, and he is keen to meet Mike Agassi and see the famous ‘dragon’ ball machine. Not surprisingly, the two cast-iron egos are too much alike to get on.

Over the years, when studying photos of Agassi’s ground strokes, the hi-speed sequences of Andre always seemed to be missing a frame. It was is if his racket head were travelling faster, over a given distance, than everyone else’s, and I would’ve loved to have put this theory to the test (in the days when such things seemed of primary importance). Mike Agassi’s insistence that Andre take an ever-shorter backswing, whilst powering his ground strokes ever-harder and earlier, against ever-more power from the ‘dragon’ ball machine, was always going to result in either serious injury…or the fastest travelling racket head in the history of tennis ground strokes. 

The problem for me is that there’s nothing to suggest Agassi would not have fulfilled his gift and achieved the same ends, by means other than the lonely, loveless grind that he highlights in his book.

Someone else who doesn’t shine too brightly from the pages of Agassi’s autobiography ‘Open’ is Nick Bollettieri. Whenever photographers were shooting on the practice courts (when Nick was ‘coaching’), ‘Nick the Dick’ would appear from the shadows of his so-called ‘pupils’ and quickly position himself behind the lens’ line of fire – with arms folded, he’d muscle in on any available photo op and angle for some free PR.

Quite a few people have claimed to see through this Warholesque eye for the main chance, to a flim-flam merchant who traded on the hard work and talent of others.

‘I ask some of the older boys, some of the veterans, about Nick. Who is he? What makes him tick? They say he’s a hustler, a guy who makes a very nice living off tennis, but he doesn’t love the game or even know it all that well.’

But as the pages progressed, I got to like Nick Bollettieri a little more… mainly for his lack of malice, which amounts to a greater honesty than many people in tennis possess. And anyone Jeremy Bates doesn’t like can’t be all bad!

It remains true, however, that tennis boot camps produce too many failed players at the expense of the person and Bollettieri’s percentage success rate would make interesting reading. In using the likes of Agassi, Seles, Courier and Barbikova to sell the cock-eyed dream, Bollettieri has no doubt helped to crush many young spirits born for greater things than ball bashing. For youngsters less talented than Agassi―those who cannot use the skills they’ve acquired under duress, to rise above this shallow court of no appeal― the dream is most often the recurring nightmare of the terminally unfulfilled.

I didn’t know what tennis was until I was a fully-formed school kid in well-lived skin, and what for Agassi was a chore very quickly became for me a healthy obsession, which kept my head out of a veritable trough of less healthy delights…and worse substances that Andre had flirted with.

In the year that Agassi first played The Lipton tournament on Key Biscayne, Miami, I did everything I could to get a photographer’s credential to the tournament. In my search for knowledge about the game (and hi-speed sequence photos of the best and most quirky of players), I’d scrape together whatever money I could, fly out to Miami and bed down in some cheap, cockroach-ridden dump on Indian Creek, or the buzzing (and always over-subscribed) youth hostel called the Clay Hotel on Miami Beach.

In those days, the Key Biscayne tournament had Grand Slam pretensions – it was keen to attract and impress, and a sizeable fleet of courtesy rides were made available to press as well as players. The great Michael Cole and Fred Mullane apart, I was uneasy amongst the cut-throat careerists and agency wallahs on the photographer’s bench, and I had no time for the networking and posturing in the press room. I was also deeply ashamed of the places I got to stay in (and I couldn’t drive a car), so each day I chose to catch buses to and from the tournament site on Key Biscayne, via the bus station in downtown Miami.

Owing to his extreme popularity (which Andre plays down in the book), Agassi was the best night match draw at the tournament. So as night fell, I’d pack away my cameras (I couldn’t afford the more expensive fast film to shoot under floodlights) and sit on the empty photographers bench and watch, mesmerised by Agassi’s thumping talent.

The downside of such a privileged perch for the night matches was that by the time I changed buses in Miami, heading back to South Beach, a shady night crew had made their way onto the streets and there were some pretty ugly characters lingering downtown…even for a Northern lad!

To avoid looking like prey worth mugging, I got into the habit of not shaving for the duration of the tournament (no wonder Mary Joe looked uneasy when I interviewed her!) and I carried my cameras around in a battered ex-army back pack.

One of the gems of Agassi’s book takes the form of Brad Gilbert, who polishes up like someone driven half-bonkers by an obsessive, solitary tennis life and who is borderline Tourettes. Andre looks to Brad for help, in the midst of a miserable on-court performance, and Gilbert’s advice is ‘Stop missing!’
Out of the mouths of babes and Brads!

Gilbert’s take on Boris Becker is also pure diamond:
‘Brad has never cared for Becker. Brad has always called him B. B. Socrates, because he thinks Becker tries to come off as an intellectual, when he’s just an overgrown farm boy.’

Much of Agassi’s ire is reserved for media commentators and sports journalists, but he takes this mass of instantly forgettable text too personally and WAY too seriously. Unless you are Muggeridge, George Orwell, James Cameron or Alistair Cooke, who see beyond the bullshit game and turn out sentences with their own intrinsic value, the only hope a journalist has of his sentences outliving him, is in relation to lasting achievements like Agassi’s, and Andre makes sure a New York journalist called Lupica is named and remembered… for stating that Andre ‘simply isn’t a Champion’ in the run up to him winning the U.S. Open.

Agassi’s crystal meth blip leaves me largely unmoved, because if I throw a stone in any direction from where I now sit, I’ll hit scores of people who are doing or who have done much worse: this doesn’t make it right, but it does make it human and reaching epidemic levels.

The predictable, sanctimonious drivel that spewed forth reminded me, to a lesser degree, of Jennifer Capriati’s fall from media grace. She was another test tube tennis player, raised for the general consumption of pulp and PR, then slaughtered in her prime by the same bunch of cowardly, nodding donkeys that wouldn’t think twice about buying a ticket to a rock concert, by a performer who has openly lived nights in pharmaceutical stupor.

Few are the judges who can lead us to a higher place, for redemption is an other-worldly process that works from the inside out. And those eager to cast stones usually do so for the basest of motives.

Andre Agassi’s book will make sense of different things for different people. He clarifies the story behind that empty slogan, Image is Everything, coined to sell Canon cameras. At the time of it’s conception, I was disappointed that Agassi adopted such an empty statement. In ‘Open’ he claims it was ‘hung’ on him by ad men without his knowledge.

But if this is the case, why has he subsequently done sponsorship ads for Longines – usually aired on Eurosport throughout the French Open – portraying him like some kind of Disney-like saintliness, which is reflected back at him in the eyes of the most photogenic of children from his (no doubt worthy and well-thought out) Las Vegas Academy?
At best these ads are questionable, though at least Mrs Agassi looked uncomfortable in the role.

The irony is not wasted on Agassi that, having been tarnished with the Canon slogan, his trade-mark hair starts to fall out in clumps. The tale of him playing the French Open final against Andres Gomez, whilst fretting over whether his hair piece will fall off, has to be one of the strangest stories in the history of sport.

Agassi rises from Slough of Despond of his Breaking Bad period, and does his penance in lowly ‘challenger’ tournaments, in Las Vegas and Burbank.

‘How the mighty have fallen! Image is Everything, eh buddy?…Sports writers say I’m humbled. They love saying this. They couldn’t be more wrong. I was humbled in the hotel room with Brad. I was humbled smoking meth with Slim. Now I’m just glad to be out here….It took me twenty-two years to discover my talent, to win my fist Slam―and only two years to lose it’.

Although the sentences and sentiments have been ghosted into shape by author J.R. Moehringer, Agassi’s book is very funny and he has an eye for detail and the ridiculous. The Spuds Mackenzie dog, which trotted onto the court in the midst of Agassi’s disqualification from a tournament to pee on the net, is a great example of the absurdity of the faux serious and it is not wasted on him.
‘Part of my discomfort with tennis has always been a nagging discomfort that it is meaningless.’
You and me both, fella! (but at least you made some frickin’ money out of it)

And the following few sentences make a devastating observation… belatedly acted upon.

‘Brooke and I buy a house in Pacific Palisades. It’s not the house I wanted. I had my heart set on a big rambling farm house with a family room off the kitchen. But she loved this one, so here we are, living in a multi level French knock-off set against the side of a cliff. It has no flow and it feels sterile, the ideal house for a childless couple who plan to spend lots of time in different rooms. ‘
Agassi’s fellow tennis players are synopsised to perfection, and delivered to the page with efficient crispness.

‘Pete can play a lousy 38 minutes, then one lights-out minute and win the set, whereas Rafter plays well all the time. He’s six foot two, with a low center of gravity, and he can change direction like a sports car. He’s one of the hardest guys of the tour to pass, and even harder to dislike. He’s all class, win or lose…’

His memories of Sampras, too, are surprisingly gracious and they almost make me like him (...almost…).

You have to be in and around something (a certain world or fishbowl) to fully see through it, and Agassi has no time for the ‘fakery’ of television and its participants (the Friends and the friends of Friends), along with the non-contact art of acting, which often spills off stage or screen and poisons the living, with it’s ersatz lifeblood. The constant need for novelty, which characterises those who become slaves to surface and the passing moment, is keenly observed in Brooke Shields.

‘After the initial fun of introducing me to Frankie, she’s cool about him, indifferent, as if he’s played his part and it’s time for him to move offstage. This follows a precedent, a pattern that repeats itself with many people and places…Just as I start to enjoy something, to learn from it, she casts it aside…’
‘How could you get so involved?’ (asketh the ACTOR)
‘How could I not?’ (answers the PERSON)

In fact Brooke Shields is the one person who comes over as expected: someone trapped inside a fantasy, where the stage matters (beyond any meaning the script might harbour, and furnishing the artificial lives of those cast upon it) and playing dress-up amounts to some kind of living.

I watched Agassi a lot in the 80’s and 90’s, and rarely missed an opportunity to shoot film of his strokes. Put plainly, Andre Agassi was the most gifted hitter of a tennis ball I’ve ever seen in the men’s game, and I’m with Gilbert in believing he was far more talented than Pete Sampras (and probably everyone except Federer). I was therefore puzzled why he didn’t turn this gift into total domination of the game at an early age. But it turns out Andre has always hated tennis, was racked with self-doubt (unlike Sampras) and void of the full-time tunnel vision that sits many top athletes at the bottom of the personality rankings.

Even so, at his best (and at the same age), I would still back Agassi’s groundstroke game against any player in the history of tennis, including Roger Federer, Djokovic and Nadal (on the right surface!).
But we’ll never know if I’d win my bet.

The fact that Agassi achieved what he did on court is owed in large part to Gil Reyes; a debt that is fully acknowledged in Andre’s book. Gil Reyes is a man who no doubt has many good stories of his own to tell and he reminds me of an old friend, who was driven into the school weights room by a rough childhood, where he turned himself into a formidable weapon that could ‘control the things he could control’ and was not to be messed with.

When you hear Reyes speak in interview, you realise how much he has learned about tennis from his years with Agassi, and in the book he comes across as the diametrical opposite of Nick Bollettieri: intelligent, faithful…and he isn’t on the make.
Those of us who got so much enjoyment from the Agassi years are also indebted to Gil, as well as Brad Gilbert, for facilitating the summer of a sporting gift that was nurtured in a cold desert winter, and I thank you all for the memories.