Transcript for Andre Agassi on "Open"

 

Jim Fleming:  Andre Agassi retired from tennis in 2006, leaving behind one of the best records in modern times, including eight Grand Slam titles.  Throughout his career, Agassi was never just another great player.  He was a showman from early on, turning heads with his skin tight denim shorts, not to mention his blistering shots.  Later on he slumped badly, then somehow managed to climb back on top of the tennis world and became the sport’s elder statesman.  It’s a complicated story Agassi tells in his candid memoir, Open, which the New York Times has called it “one of the most passionately anti-sports books written by a superstar athlete”.

Steve Paulson has played tennis his whole life and he’s followed Agassi’s career with great interests, so he was surprised to learn about Agassi’s bitterness towards the sport that made him famous.

Steve Paulson:  The very first page of your book you say you “hate tennis”.  You “hate it with a dark and secret passion” and throughout the book you keep saying this to the people who become important in your life and of course no one believes you at first when you tell them that you hate tennis, so I guess I have to ask, do you still hate tennis now that you’re retired?

Andre Agassi:  No, I do not hate tennis.  You know people say “Is it a love-hate relationship?”  I say “It’s more like a hate-love relationship” you know?  Tennis was something I certainly didn’t choose, I didn’t choose it as a young man.  My father kind of pushed it on me.  I felt fear to not do it, not in any sort of form of abuse, but in the form of just having the pressure of the world on my shoulders.  He introduced me as “The Future #1 Player in the World” and then I went to an academy that I hated.  It was more like a glorified prison camp and my only way out of there was to succeed, and I succeeded and found myself on the world stage.  That scared the living daylights out of me and all of a sudden I’m being judged for many things that I was and wasn’t.  So I never had the ownership of tennis.  I was scared later on, and then I played because I didn’t know what else I was going to do.  It wasn’t probably until I was 27 years old that I took ownership of my choices and chose the very thing that I hadn’t chosen in my whole life.  When that happened the scales started to get balances.  I started to understand what it was giving me, my school in Las Vegas that I built, it gave me my wife and it made a lot more sense to me then.

Paulson:  Let me take you back to the early days that you write about with your father and how intense that was.  I mean you talk about how he groomed you to become the best player in the world and he taught you some things that made you a great player like learning to take the ball on the rise when you were 7 years old.  How did he do that?

Agassi:  Well, he did that by inventing one of the gnarliest looking ball machines you’ve ever seen and I nicknamed it the Dragon in the Boat because it stood in front of me first breathing and he’d push this thing as close to the next as possible and he had thing long, aluminum tube necking and the thing would hold the ball in its throat until the pressure built up so much and then it would fire out about 110 miles an hour.  And then he would kind of pace behind me, back and forth, a bit like a caged lion kind of making sure I’m staying on the baseline and “Don’t back up.  Play the ball, don’t let the ball play you.  Go after it.  Hit it harder.  Hit it harder.  Hit it earlier.  Hit it earlier.”  So you learn fundamentals that allow you to deal with those sort of extremes and as a result you have the skill set to kind of adjust to the pace of tennis picking up as you get older and it was probably a huge reason for my success in between the lines.

Paulson:  So why do you think your father was so determined to turn you into a great player?

Agassi:  For him, he’s from what he calls old country and he didn’t have a life of choice himself and he grew up fighting the world, getting in a lot of fights as a kid because of being a Christian Armenian in a Muslim Tehran, getting in a lot of fights because his mother would make him wear hand me down girls clothing.  As punishment she was pretty abrasive, pretty abusive in many ways and so he fought, he fought, he fought and then he went into boxing because he realized he was good at it.  And as a result I think he’s been fighting his whole life.  The world’s against him and he saw tennis as the quickest road to the American dream and wanted that for his kids and he brought his intensities and his rage, I mean, anger was a way that he kind of reacted to a lot of things.  If he didn’t understand his own emotions he would get upset and I think that tennis reminded him of boxing without the downside of physical contact.

Paulson:  So were you afraid of your father when you were growing up?

Agassi:  I think you’re afraid of any father at 7 years old when you’re looking up at this man and you watch him knock somebody out in the middle of the street.  I wasn’t afraid that he didn’t love me.  I wish his love was softer.  I wish it was just a little less, you know, the intensity of his loyalties were unmistakable and the intensity of how much pride he took in me just has a real healthy power over a young man growing up, but there’s a real level of fear as it relates to watching your dad fight, seeing him get in fights, also, too, just the mood of the house if you weren’t winning or you weren’t practicing well or hard enough or long enough.  I mean, it fundamentally unsettled him and when was unsettled everybody around him was unsettled.

Paulson:  Now you were a Vegas kid and once you started getting good you hustled people for money as well and you have a great story Jim Brown, the old NFL great who shows up in Vegas and comes to your tennis club and is looking to play for money.  Can you explain what happened?

Agassi:  Yeah, I was at my racquet club.  We came walking into racquet club like we did on most days and my dad points out Jim Brown and says “You see who that man is?  That’s Jim Brown, one of the greatest football players of all time”.  I’m like “Oh, OK” and I’m looking at him, this big man and he’s talking to the manager of the club who we knew pretty well and he’s upset that a money match fell through.  The guy didn’t show up and he wanted somebody to play.  He loved gambling, he loved tennis.  My dad steps in and says “My son will play you” and he says “if you’re looking for a game’.  He turns around and snickers and basically says “I’m looking to play for money”.  I say “We’ll play you for whatever you want”.  He says “I’m talking about playing for real money”.  He says “We’ll play you for your f’in house” and Jim Brown says “I don’t need your house.  I’ve got a house.  What do you say we play for 10 grand”.  He says “Let’s go” and I’m starting to sweat, I’m just standing there, my eyes like saucers, like poker chips.  Jim Brown says “Not so fast, you need to go home and show me some money up front” and my dad says “I’ll be right back” and he gets in the car and leaves me there which he used to do a lot of days when he had to go to work.  He would always be there, Mr. Fong, the manager used to look out for me and he would always make sure I was out there practicing.  He comes back with our life savings, with his life savings and he shows it to Jim Brown and Mr. Fong is encouraging Jim Brown not to take the bet because he says “This kid’s going to beat you”.

Paulson:  How old are you at the time?

Agassi:  I was 8 years old.

Paulson:  Wow.

Agassi:  Maybe 9, maybe 9, I just turned 9.  So we go down to the court, and he says  “I tell you what, let’s play a couple sets and we’ll decide how much to bet”.  So I relaxed but I kind of..I just, not much pressure but I’m still going to win.  I beat him the first couple sets and he’s getting the feeling like this could be tough.  But then he decides to bet me $500 for the third set.  I’m probably pretty tired and I’m 9 years old, he’s been running me around and I end up beating him worse in the third set and never felt so good.  When he shook my hand, his hand was huge and rough with calluses.

Paulson:  You know, it’s a great story, but on the other hand, you were 8 years old 9 years old, your father was putting incredible pressure on you.  I mean, as you say, betting his life savings on what you were going to for him.

Agassi:  Yeah, but if you really think about him through different minds you know it’s a real conflicting emotion because certainly that pressure feels unreasonable for any child, but at the same time that pride, you know, that confidence, that belief that he had is a bit like a drug.  It felt good to have a father to have believed that much, but then it felt so bad because he just, you almost wish he didn’t but then you’re glad he does.  It was a weird emotion for me.

Paulson:  You know, you’ve talked about how you resented, how your whole life had turned into tennis, but on the other hand it was clear from very early on that you were incredibly gifted and I assume you must have taken pleasure in that skill and enjoyed winning all those tournaments that you did as a junior.  Was there a big upside as well?

Agassi:  Well I think soon you become identified with it and I think a child winning anything finds some sense of satisfaction, but it was fleeting.  You know, that feeling was fleeting.  You were always faced with the next challenge.  You know, in tennis you win five matches and lose one and you’re a loser.  You can win six matches and lose one and you’re a loser and you can win a tournament and have to play the next tournament and lose and you’re only as good as your last results.  So there was always that never ending kind of pressure that came along with it that seemed to carry the day at the end.

Paulson:  You talked about then being sent off to a tennis academy, Nick Bollettieri’s famous tennis academy.  You became his most famous protégé.  You’ve described it as prison camp or maybe boot camp.  What was the hardest thing about being there?

Agassi:  Raising yourself.  You know, not having any really role models, anybody to really steer, help you make decisions, help you understand things.  Being so far away from home all those things were pretty tough, being when a group of kids it was like Lord of the Flies with tennis racquets.  We raised ourselves.  We determined the rules and the pecking orders and we determined it any way we saw fit, whether who was going to rebel the most, who won the match, how we did with each other on the tennis court tended to dictate how we dealt with each other off the court which meant winning was the only way to kind of organizing your life which came with its own pressures and resentments.  Then there was just the fundamental practical life of it.  It was a boot camp.  It was four hours of school and six hours of tennis.  It was that endless ratio of tennis to school left you really having to say “No” to school because you’re just too damn tired to even think about it after a while and even care about it.

Paulson:  You became a tennis prodigy and then you turned professional really early.  I mean, you were 16 and you quickly rose up through the rankings.  You were labeled the next great hope of American tennis which I’m sure must have been a burden.  You’re flashy, your hair was long, you wore denim shorts, you hit the ball really hard and then you did that famous commercial for Cannon camera where you say “Image is everything” and that, of course, became the rap against you.  Did you have any idea what kind of lasting damage that commercial would do to your reputation?

Agassi:  I never thought I’d be 39 years old and still talking about it all the time.  I’ll tell you that much right now, but I quickly started to become aware that “you’re not going to shake that”.  I didn’t know, I didn’t know, but more of not knowing the damage it would do, I didn’t know what the actual statement was.  It was a weird thing.  I was doing a commercial and a girl I’d known for my whole life had just come back from college and she looked so beautiful when I saw her and she showed up there and I was thinking more about Wendy than I was about what some guy wants me to say into a camera lens and when I get done she even asked me what that was all about and I said “I don’t know.  It’s just some line for a camera.  Image is everything.  They’re taking images and it’s an image on the screen and whatever” and certainly I came to regret that  IT was a few months later that it became what I was identified with and it became what haunted me whether I was doing well on the court or whether I wasn’t.

Paulson:  Didn’t reporters keep throwing that back at you, especially when you weren’t doing so well that you were all flash and no substance?

Agassi:  Yeah, reporters, peers, fans.  They would yell it from the audience if I was falling apart at the seams they would tell me “That’s alright.  Image is everything”.  You know, if I was winning the comments they’d make was always built around this something that I just felt certainly wasn’t what I wanted to be.

Paulson:  You also talk about some of the top players you didn’t especially like Boris Becker who accused you at one point, well he said the pro tour was catering to you.  He called you elitist, said that the other players didn’t really like you, and this got really personal for you didn’t it?

Agassi:  And I didn’t know how to deal with that and one of the ways that you can do is to repress it, but what I chose to do with it that summer when he said those things was turn it into some anger, use anger as a motivator and focus on him.  There’s no secrets between me and Boris.  It’s what we went through, but we had beers together late after he was retired and we had good laughs about it because it’s all pretty much juvenile.  It’s long ago and juvenile in many respects, but it’s one of those things that you have to tell because it left an indelible mark on me.  What was really formative was how I channeled it and how I used it and then how I didn’t get over the line at the US Open, all of this emotion and all this anger going 26-0 to that US Open final and then losing to Pete, how all of that meant you were a loser.  You’re 26 and 1 and you feel like a loser and that, to me, was a real meaningless kind of existence.

Paulson:  What people always said about Pete Sampras is that he gave his whole life to tennis.  He was 100% committed to tennis, and tennis was clearly not your whole life.  You had tremendous ups and downs throughout your career, and looking back do you have any regrets about dedicating yourself to tennis the way Sampras did?

Agassi:  No, no.  I don’t have regrets about that.  I have regrets about a lot of things.  I’m glad I found my peace with tennis.  That would have been a crime if things ended prematurely as it related to me appreciating the game and then what it had given me, but winning and adding more titles, I never identified with athletes who did that.  It’s not something I understood.  At times during my career I wished for his sense of clarity or his sense of focus or his lack of need for inspirations, but for me it just wasn’t in my DNA.

Fleming:  Andre Agassi talking with Steve Paulson about his memoir called Open.

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