Coming Into Focus; It took startling transformations — from callow
prodigy to thoughtful champion, from punk to philanthropist, from
conflicted son to devoted father — for Andre Agassi to finally see
the big picture, and he’s still searching for answers
July 17, 2006
by GARY SMITH
You knew the end was near. You knew the screen would soon go black
and leave you in the dark, wondering what the hell you’d just seen.
One Andre, two Andres, three Andres, four. Five Andres, six Andres,
seven Andres, more. Has any athlete ever changed as much as Andre
Sure, you’d watched Tiger Woods change his swing, Michael Jordan
change his sport. But who changes himself? Metamorphosis is the rarest
achievement in sports.
Why would a man bother to change when he’s got the American dream by
the throat? Maybe it’s just too damn risky; what if it puts out the
fire that forged his steel?
You traveled to a lake in Texas 20 years ago to find George Foreman,
fished with him for bass and for the story of how he went from
sullen menace to grinning Buddha. But even George’s transformation
got an asterisk, because it came during his 10-year hibernation from
All those years you kept watching the Andre show, rebel becoming
humanitarian, showman becoming machine, style becoming essence. But
something about all those images of him–there were just too many,
too different, too quick–made you keep waiting. To trust the change.
To be sure.
Finally, 10 months before his announcement that he would retire after
the 2006 U.S. Open, you realized that the time to find out how Andre
Agassi went all the way from there to here was nearly gone.
So you started moving closer.
Somebody at last year’s U.S. Open would surely know. "He’s changed as
much as anyone I’ve ever seen," said Jim Courier, a four-time Grand
Slam singles champion who’d known Andre since they were teenagers.
"It’s almost like an atonement," said Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis
"He decided to be a grown-up," said commentator Mary Carillo. "He
didn’t have to do that. He had all the money and fame. He didn’t have
to become a great champion, either. But he did both. Now you really
feel there’s a soul in that guy."
When you asked them how and why that occurred, they said, Well, he
married a good woman, he had kids, he grew up. But plenty of athletes
do those things. Those answers were like all those images of Andre:
They made you think you knew what happened to the man when you didn’t
have a clue.
So you went closer.
You were 50 feet away, watching him talk to the media after winning
easily in the first round at the 2005 U.S. Open. Years ago, after
a victory, he said, I’m as happy as a fag in a submarine. Years ago
he growled at an audience in his home state, Nevada, for cheering an
opponent’s shot. Now, asked why he’d felt nervous in a first-rounder
at age 35, he said, Because everyone here took a day out of their
lives to come watch me play. Did he feel badly for his opponent as
he destroyed him? No, he said, you don’t cheat anybody out of their
experience, whatever it is. I promise you, it’s all part of what makes
you who you are down the road. And if a match is getting blown out
one way or the other, you’ve got to learn from it and you’ve got to
understand it for what it is. I’ve been on the other side of that.
I wouldn’t want to cheat anybody out of that experience.
You smelled it there, a whiff of what you were seeking.
So you went closer.
You were 10 feet away. Andre was showing Robin Williams and members of
Earth, Wind & Fire the academy that he built in the middle of the most
destitute neighborhood in Las Vegas. It’s a charter school, mostly poor
black kids. He was explaining why learning levels here had made leaps
so striking that the academy’s middle school was the only one among
328 public schools in its county that’s received an "exemplary" rating.
He took us to the room where Cirque du Soleil performers taught the
kids acrobatics. Past the art class where a French painter who trained
with Picasso taught them the use of color and space. He led us into
a kindergarten class where, like a five-year-old himself, he burst
forward so eagerly to tell everyone about the academy’s innovations
that he knocked over half of an edifice of blocks that the class had
built, then dropped to his knees in such haste and remorse to rebuild
it that he knocked over the rest.
You followed him down the gleaming hallways, thinking, Man, he got it,
he really got the big picture, and wondering what the world would be
like if a couple of superstars in each city did this. But his annual
fund-raising gala for the school was scheduled for that weekend,
and he was too busy to sit and explain how he got here.
So you waited nearly two months … and went closer.
You sat two feet away. Flying in a private jet last December with
Andre and his wife, Steffi Graf, on their way to play an exhibition
arranged by a company that they endorse, Genworth Financial, in order
to raise money for its youth charity work and Andre’s charter school.
It was only the second time that he and Steffi had gone anywhere
together without the kids, and they were stuck with you. And still he
did something that, during 30 years in this work, you’d never seen.
In a country in which celebrity means never having to ask a question,
he asked a zillion of them. Almost as many as you asked him. With
eyes unlike any you’d seen in an athlete: aglow.
But something was unsettling him. He kept wanting to know what
aspect of his life you wanted to write about–to whittle down the
big picture–and you kept explaining that it was the whole shebang
you were after, how and why he traveled all the way from who he was
to who he is.
It was all over that full moon of a face: hmmmm. But he knew his tennis
life was about to end, and part of him yearned for perspective. So
he invited you to his house for a steak dinner, but not just any
steak dinner. If it’s not the best steak you’ve ever eaten, he said,
then I’ve failed.
Of course you said yes … and went closer.
You were studying that steak. It was four inches thick, prime dry-aged
loin, express-mailed from California in an ice pack, marinated by
your host for 16 hours and now searing over charcoal and water-soaked
wood chips on a backyard grill, all of which he’d painstakingly
researched. The flame was caramelizing a coating of port wine,
kosher salt, sugar and a palette of seasonings that he wouldn’t reveal
because it was the fruit of six years’ seeking–launched when Steffi,
eager to meet his friends, innocently uttered the words, Let’s have
a barbecue–and because if he told you, then his steak soon might
find itself in a tie with yours as the best you’ve ever eaten. You
were sipping a peach-raspberry margarita that was the product of the
same exhaustive quest. And it was true. They were both the best.
You watched him, during brief breaks from his cooking, play with
his four-year-old son, Jaden, with the intensity of a man living
his second childhood–no, his first. Andre was three when his father
began tugging open the bedroom curtains in the morning, tugging on
his toes, tugging off his blanket, tugging him onto the tennis court
before he ate breakfast so he could become what his dad already was
telling other people he would be: the No. 1 tennis player in the world.
You were sitting in front of a fire after dinner, looking around a
house without a single trophy, plaque or tennis picture, without a
nanny, maid or cook, asking him how he came to see the big picture,
how he got it … and he started shaking his head no, saying that he
hadn’t got it, that he still couldn’t see the big picture. I can’t
see anything objectively or in context, he said. I wish I could. It
drives me crazy. It causes a lot of problems. Show me a drop of water,
and I’m fine. I’ll learn everything about it. But don’t show me the
ocean. Don’t show me the whole forest. Every time I try to see the
big picture, I’m finished, I’m lost….
Wow. The seer was telling you he couldn’t see. The seeker was telling
you that the only way to see the forest was to go even closer,
inside it, and take it tree by tree. Then he remembered this game,
introduced by his first wife, back in an earlier life….
You’re about to enter a forest, says the beautiful woman. What does
it look like? It’s dense, says Andre. It’s deep. There’s no trail. No
one has been here before. I have to find my own way.
You come upon a key, she says. What does it look like? What do you
do with it?
It’s rusty, he says. It’s one of those big, old-fashioned keys.
Normally I’d be curious, but in this case I feel no reason to find
what it opens because it’s obviously been used many times and what
it opens has already been explored.
Following her prompts, he comes upon a cup in the forest … then a
bear … a wall … and a body of water, describing each one and his
reaction as he sees it in his mind’s eye. It intrigues him, this game
called A Walk in the Woods. But what does it mean?
His depiction of the forest as difficult and dense, Brooke Shields
explains, reveals how he sees life. That rings true. The key symbolizes
education, and since Andre is an eighth-grade dropout who learns
through experience rather than books, his reaction to the key makes
sense as well.
His eyes kindle. The game conjures the path-blazing life he wants
to lead, self-discovery around every corner. Whenever it comes to a
pause, he grows so uneasy that he’s willing to take wrong turns and
even go backward.
Like marrying the beautiful woman.
Like leaving her in such haste that night: Jan. 26, 1999.
He has just arrived in Los Angeles after a 13-hour flight from
Australia, taken her to dinner and confirmed what he knows in his
bones: It’s over. It’s nearing midnight, he hasn’t slept in a day
and a half, but he grabs some clothes, a bag of coffee beans and his
margarita blender, heaves everything into the backseat of his big,
white ’76 El Dorado, Lilly, and heads hell-bent for his hometown,
What do words mean? What’s COMMITMENT? What’s REAL? Tears stream down
his cheeks as he rips at himself. The traffic, as he climbs the San
Bernardino Mountains, slows to a crawl.
The cars around him begin to peel off in search of motels. But he needs
motion. When he proposed to Brooke 2 1/2 years earlier, he thought,
I’m asking her to marry me, and I could just as easily be breaking up
with her. But he’s a glutton for experience, for what lies beyond the
next bend, and so, like tonight, he ignored the omens and shoved on.
O.K. So he’s wrong again. Snow has shut the mountain pass. He turns
Lilly around and begins creeping back, pulling off and being turned
down at one crowded motel after another. It all begins to feel
like a dream … or like his life. He’s nearing 30, marriage shot,
another Grand Slam title opportunity in Australia frittered away,
his forward-then-backward career appearing ready to perish far short
of the glory that his teenage fame and forehand promised.
A 12th motel sends him away. Now he’s driven an hour and a half the
wrong way, toward the life he just left. Wind batters his car. His
mind swims with fatigue. Brooke’s Walk in the Woods? It’s just a Sunday
stroll in the park compared with A Journey Through Andre’s Forest.
He rises from a strange bed in a cheap motel somewhere between L.A.
and the San Bernardino Mountains. What does he see in the mirror?
Eyes, wide as a child’s, that he used to frame with eyeliner and
mascara. Lips that pray before each meal and curse chair umpires. The
face of a man who yearns to change, to find something rock-solid and
reliable in himself that won’t change.
He climbs back into his car. Which way now? His art goes to hell
when he pursues love. His love goes to hell when he pursues his
art. It’s raining. He’s crying. He heads back toward Vegas, toward
an empty house.
His coach, Brad Gilbert, shows up a few weeks later. Andre tells him
that his marriage is over. The television’s on. As Andre clicks from
one channel to the next, a vision fills the screen. The holy grail.
Tall. Willowy. Killer legs. Kind eyes. But private eyes. Resolute.
Steffi Graf’s serving in the semifinals at Indian Wells, Calif.
"You need to meet her," says Brad.
Andre’s eyes lift, full of futile hope. "I already tried that,"
he sighs. "A long time ago…."
It’s 1992. He’s 22. He comes upon a field of grass. What does it
look like? Faded green, bordered by white lime, surrounded by vintage
wooden seats. Intimate.
Sacred. That’s what everyone else calls Centre Court at Wimbledon. To
Andre it’s stuffy, a place he avoided for three years. His
fluorescent clothes, black hightops and denim shorts were forbidden
by traditionalists there, the rebel complained, and besides, he needed
But this year he needs the grass. Somehow he has become his sport’s
richest and most famous player without doing one little thing:
winning when it really mattered. It’s his sixth year on the tour. He
has never won a Grand Slam singles title. Credibility. That’s what
the sacred meadow offers.
And maybe her.
>>From the time he first laid eyes on Steffi, his soul knew. She is
what he isn’t. She has what he needs. At the French Open a few weeks
earlier, he finally took a deep breath, gathered all his courage …
and asked his manager to ask her manager if they could meet.
"Meet her?" said Steffi’s manager. "In regard to what?"
"Just to talk," said Andre’s manager. "You know, he’s not some wild
rebel like they make him out to be. He’s really a good, clean kid,
very religious, in fact, born again."
Steffi’s manager told Steffi that Andre wanted to talk to her about
religion. Steffi told her manager to tell Andre’s manager to tell
Andre, No, thanks.
Her reply, reaching him just before Wimbledon begins, jolts him. They
can’t even talk? He’s that unworthy?
He has one shot left. The male and female singles winners traditionally
dance together at the Champions Ball at the end of the tournament. If
they both win….
Steffi mauls everyone for the 11th of her 22 majors. Thump-thump….
One day later Andre survives 37 Goran Ivanisevic aces to win the men’s
championship in five sets–his first Slam title! He sags to his knees,
drops to his back and sobs. Thump-thump, thump-thump…. On to the
ball! His stomach tightens. He doesn’t know how to dance. He can’t
wait to dance.
He arrives and stares. Swept-back hair, short white dress, plunging
neckline…. That’s Steffi Graf? A Wimbledon member sidles up to him.
When, asks Andre, is the dance?
Sorry, old chum, he’s told, that’s been scrapped.
The rebel blinks. What about tradition?
He can’t squeak out a word to Steffi when the photographers put them
elbow to elbow and pop flashes in his eyes. He flies home to Vegas,
throws a party, gets drunk, gets sick, takes off his clothes and ends
up on his lawn, staring at the stars, as naked as….
The day he was born. He opens his eyes. What does he see? Fuzzy.
Green. A ball. Dangling from a string attached to a racket hanging
from the ceiling over his crib. Above it a man, moving the string,
trying to compel the newborn’s eyes to follow the ball.
Another ball. A balloon half filled with water, flying from the
man’s hand toward Andre’s high chair a year later. The racket
taped to Andre’s hand–a Ping-Pong paddle split in half to make it
lighter–smacks the balloon across the kitchen. Fifteen-love, says
Then another ball. A bladder extracted from a volleyball so it’s
light enough for a baby to whack with a sawed-off tennis racket,
chase it in his walker, then whack it again and again.
Those eyes. They’re what convince the man, at a Ping-Pong tournament
one day, that his two-year-old will be rare. Every head in the
audience shifts back and forth to follow the action, except Andre’s.
His eyes alone flash, affixed to that ball.
As soon as the boy can walk, his father–a short, stocky Iranian with
a thick accent and thinning hair–takes him to the Tropicana Hotel’s
two tennis courts, which the immigrant grooms in exchange for their
use. Emmanuel Agassi swooned for the sport as a 13-year-old in Tehran,
coming upon it one day on a dirt court behind the American Mission
Church. Sure, said the American and British soldiers who played there,
the little street fighter could play if he would be their ball boy
and groundskeeper. The game and the big Americans entranced him,
transported him far away from the one-room home, too cramped even
for a table, where he, his parents and four siblings ate on a dirt
floor and shared, along with 35 others crammed into the compound,
one hole in the ground–their toilet.
He fought his way out with his fists, all the way to the 1948 and ’52
Olympics as a boxer for Iran, but when he arrived in the U.S. at age
22 with a couple of bucks, a couple of words of English and a new first
name–Mike–he didn’t choose his Olympic sport, the immigrants’ sport,
as his ticket into the big tent. He chose tennis. All his life he had
been an outsider, a Christian Armenian in a Muslim Persian city. In
his new land he was going to walk his yet-to-be-born children right
up to the elite and hit ’em where they lived, where they played–in
their country clubs.
He settled in Vegas and set to work. His eldest child, Rita, had
the gift, but she hit puberty and hit the road, middle finger raised
to her old man’s relentless tennis regimen as she ran off with, of
all people, tennis legend Pancho Gonzalez. His next child, Phillip,
didn’t quite have the foot speed or audacity that it took to play with
the pros. His third, Tami, bumped her ceiling playing at Texas A&M.
That left Andre. Last child. Last chance.
Meet the future Number 1 tennis player in the world! Mike crows as
he takes his four-year-old around the casino showroom where he serves
as a host.
He builds a tennis court in his backyard. Andre enters a tunnel. As
long as he remains inside it and never comes up to see the big
picture–how vast the world is, how rife with challengers, how
monstrous the odds stacked against him–he can go about the task of
fulfilling his father’s vision.
Dad plucks him from school a half hour early to get him on the court
before Mike leaves for his night job at the casino. Weekends and
summer days, Mike wakes up on a few hours’ sleep and herds Andre
onto the court where the 32 garbage cans await–each filled with 300
balls–along with the 11 machines that Dad has custom-welded to spit
balls with different spins from different angles, one every two to
three seconds … for the first of Andre’s three-a-day workouts.
Thousands of balls struck each day, 365 days a year, including
Christmas and the day after a surgeon reattaches the piece of finger
sliced off by a kid’s blade when the 10-year-old Andre goes ice
skating, which, dammit, he never should’ve done. Day off to heal? Kid
can rip a forehand with a cast on his left hand. Don’t pull the
racket that far back, son–shorter the backswing, bigger the pop,
like a boxer’s straight right. C’mon, step inside the baseline,
hit the ball early, crush it–lower, deeper, closer, farther, more
topspin, more–go for broke on every shot!
Now Andre’s hands are as fast as those phenomenal eyes, so swift that
20 years later he will enter a cage with a pitching machine set to
throw 90-mph fastballs and hit them with a bat while running toward
the machine. But what about the fire that he’ll need to dominate the
world, the desperation that drove Mike to the Olympics and America?
There are four bedrooms and two bathrooms in his house, plumbing,
electricity–and no Muslim bullies in sight. Well, then, Mike will
be the bully. Mike will be the fire. Mike will snarl at Andre when
his game goes sour during junior tournaments in Utah, Nevada and
California. Mike will bring a hammer to a tennis match and bang on
the railing in disgust. Mike will scream at officials and get thrown
off the grounds. Mike will drive home, obsessing over each shot no
matter how good it was because it could’ve been better. That’s when
Andre wins, which is virtually always. When he loses….
He races off the court and hides behind a tree at age nine, sobbing
in anticipation of the fire, after he drops the deciding tiebreaker
in the final of the 12-and-under nationals. Runner-up trophies get
left on the table at awards ceremonies or heaved in the trash.
What’s a kid to do? Appeal to Mom? She’s a peach, but tennis issues
she leaves to her husband. Confront Dad? Sure, Andre is scared to,
but it’s more complicated than that. He loves his dad. Dad goes to war
if anyone tries to take advantage of his son, gives Andre all his soul
and heart, and his heart is as big as all Persia. In the middle of the
night, if a friend has lost his job, Mike will go shopping and leave a
heap of groceries on the friend’s front step. He’ll tip five bucks on
a 50-cent cup of coffee, give people cars, nurse injured birds back to
health, hard-boil eggs for them to sit on, end up with a half-dozen
pigeons living in his house. But Andre can’t, for the life of him,
figure out why a game means so much to this man, why it feels as if
it’s his responsibility to keep his father and his father’s home happy.
Puberty lurks. Mike grows anxious. He knows there’s no player in Vegas
good enough to compel his kid to keep improving. He knows, after
his experience with his first daughter, that fathers and teenagers
and tennis courts with 32 bins of balls are Vesuvius waiting to
happen. Something has to give. Someone has to go.
The boy halts and looks around. He’s 13. He’s alone in the depths
of the forest. He comes upon a training ground, an academy for young
What does it look like? What does he do?
Twenty-two acres. Forty-two tennis courts. One hundred eighty
teenagers, but only the select. A leathery ex-paratrooper in charge.
Twenty-five hundred miles from home. Andre’s heartsick. He had agreed
to come. He felt he had no choice.
It’s only for eight weeks, he tells himself. That’s all his dad can
afford, two months’ tuition on the half scholarship that Andre’s been
offered to attend the Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Tennis
boot camp. That’s what it was called in the 60 Minutes segment that
introduced his father to it. Fifty-six days. Andre can last that long.
It rains one day, two weeks after his arrival. Andre’s summoned to
the indoor court to play in front of Nick Bollettieri for the first
time. Ten minutes is all it takes. Nick calls Andre to his office
and calls Mike in Vegas.
"Take your check back," says Nick. "He’s here for free."
That’s it. Gone, his friends. Gone, his mother’s touch. Gone, his
bedroom, his childhood and any normal teenage life. It’s tennis,
conditioning and school from 6 a.m. to lights-out, then dreams of
dog eat dog.
Nick anoints Andre top dog. He has never seen a kid hit the ball
so clean and early and hard. He has never seen such eyes. "I became
hypnotized with those eyes," recalls Bollettieri. "I felt the depth.
But there was also a question in those eyes: What am I doing here? I
think Andre was frightened."
Terrified. But he’s the coolest, most charismatic kid in camp; he can’t
tell anyone he’s lost. He turns his fear and loneliness inside out,
into hard, hip anger aimed at–no, not at the one who sent him here,
not his father. At Nick. Rebellion by proxy.
Andre breaks curfews, drinks Jack Daniels, berates opponents,
smashes balls at their teeth, smashes rackets, trashes linesmen. He
gets a Mohawk haircut, grows it out, dyes it red, dyes it orange,
draws crosses on his face with eyeliner, grows an inch-long pinkie
fingernail, paints it red, paints it black … and takes the court
at a televised Florida tournament in pink lipstick and ripped denim
jeans. He’ll do what his father–whose aversion to homosexuality is
rooted in lurid tales he had heard as a boy in Tehran–wants him to do:
play world-class tennis. But in a way that’ll make his father wince.
Only a few see beneath the bluff, see Andre’s loneliness on
Thanksgiving Day when nearly all the other kids can afford to fly
home. He finds suckers to play for 40 bucks a match, sells clothes
given to him by sports-apparel companies and buys an airline ticket
home, unbeknownst to his parents. Just to stay at the home of his best
friend, Perry Rogers, to sit in class with him, mingle in the halls,
talk about the big dance–just to smell a normal life. Then fly back.
He can’t bring himself to say, "Please, Dad, let me come home, for
good." He knows the game would pass him by, knows how much his dad has
sacrificed, knows he can’t turn his back on the immigrant’s American
dream. What he doesn’t know frightens him more: What becomes of Andre
without tennis? Dammit, how did this happen? He resents tennis. He’d
never chosen it. How dare it wash him up so far from home?
Then, after Andre’s been at the academy a year, it gets scarier. He
goes numb. Dead inside. Indifferent. Nick explodes, tells him to pack
up, it’s over. Andre stares at him and says what he can’t say to his
dad: "What difference does it make, Nick? Have you ever stopped for
one second to feel what it feels like for a kid to leave his home,
travel across the country and do this?"
Something in the boy’s deadness makes the ex-paratrooper pause …
then soften. "What would it take to make it better?" Nick asks.
"Leaving here," says Andre, "and turning pro."
He staggers out of a stadium in Washington, D.C. He’s 17. He can’t
bear this. He’s just found God in a flurry of prayer meetings and
been born again. So why, if he’s found the way, does he keep losing
it in the third set? Why does he always feel that God is so angry at
him? Why does he keep having that dream in which he’s a child walking
down the hall toward his bedroom door when his path is cut off by a
He stops and looks around. He’s in the woods. He reels through Rock
Creek Park, just outside the tennis center, then comes upon a pack of
homeless men. He opens his bag and hands them all his rackets. He’s
quitting tennis, done with this gypsy life in a crummy rental car.
It’s time to find Andre.
He returns to his hotel and informs his brother, Phil, who travels
with him. "So what are you going to do?" asks Phil.
Well, he does have that high school diploma, the one he scored with
help from his mother by doing four years’ worth of correspondence
courses after he dropped out. That qualifies him to … uh … hey,
couldn’t he give tennis lessons for $50 a pop?
The phone rings. A player has just backed out of an exhibition in
Winston-Salem, N.C. It’s $2,500 if Andre just shows up. That’s 50
tennis lessons, he calculates. He’s back in the crummy rental car,
barreling down the path that isn’t his.
Suddenly it opens wide. All that losing has shredded all those
expectations for the long-haired hotshot out of Nick’s academy.
Suddenly he’s got something to prove to himself instead of something
to live up to: He’s got purpose. He wins six tournaments in 1988 and
rockets, at age 18, to No. 3 in the world. He still guns for white
lines and glory on every shot, but he’s just two steps from becoming
what his father told everyone he’d be before he could tie his shoes,
The question drops like a snake from a tree.
Are you playing tennis for you … or for someone else’s image of
you? Number 1 in the world–did you sign up for that?
His thoughts, during matches, start darting here and there, a flock
of startled birds. He falls behind, overwhelmed by the mind flutter,
and does the one thing that would cut Dad’s heart deepest: goes numb,
caves in, folds, accepts losing. Big strokes, small heart, the lads
in the locker room start saying.
Then the oddest thing of all occurs. He comes upon the pot of gold.
Millions in endorsement dollars and appearance fees. No need to show
up for Wimbledon or the Australian Open. No need to lay off that Coke,
burger and fries 45 minutes before taking the court. Just keep the
hair long, the threads flashy, the bandanna flapping, the earring
glinting, the jaw unshaven, the emotions bared. Just be the rock ‘n’
roll racket-rippin’ rebel, the sassy foil for staid Pete Sampras.
Just let Madison Avenue use that rebellion against a father that’s
never actually occurred, by a champion who’s never actually won a
major championship, by a rock ‘n’ roller who actually listens to
Barry Manilow–to tap into a desire that every consumer has felt to
tell his father or boss to go to hell.
So now he’s living someone else’s image of someone else’s image of
him. He gets the Lamborghini, the Ferrari, the Vector, the Corvette,
the three Porsches, the JetStar airplane, the 727. He gets the
Lamborghini girlfriend, Brooke. Nothing holds his interest. He sells
the cars, sheds the airplanes, shears off all the hair. Blows off
tennis, then feels lost without it. Sends himself on missions–brewing
the world’s best cup of coffee, procuring the planet’s finest hair
clippers, pouring the ultimate margarita–narrowing the world to one
thing, tunneling to its bottom, then moving to the next. A second dream
crowds his sleep: the dream of his tongue rubbing relentlessly against
his teeth, pushing until one tumbles out. Even teeth don’t last.
Canon asks him to say three words. He thinks they pertain to a
camera–literally–not to a philosophy or to anything to do with him.
He still has tunnel eyes, can’t see the big picture: that Madison
Avenue’s calculation will come off as his calculation. Three words
tied in a nice neat noose, just what everyone suspected of the Slamless
Wonder: Image is everything.
Maybe some of the calculation is his. But the cynics don’t see
the multimillionaire sitting for hours on a weight bench in the
ramshackle garage of Gil Reyes–the trainer who has turned his life
into a study of body and spirit–wringing truth from the wise old soul
as if his life depends on it. They don’t see the rebel flying home
from tournaments, driving straight from the airport to the home of a
songwriting minister named John Parenti and driving circles around the
glitter of Vegas all night, questioning, trying to find a gentler God,
a comprehensible father, a reliable Andre.
One day Perry, his oldest friend and new manager, suggests that Andre
enter the thorniest place: psychotherapy. Because nothing has ever
been resolved between Andre and his father. Andre’s first phone call
after he finally wins that first Slam at Wimbledon? Dad. Dad’s first
words? Should’ve won in four sets.
But everything he has comes from his father. Who knows where therapy
might take Andre or what it might demand that he do? Besides, he
explains to Perry, it feels like a shortcut. I’m bound and determined
to eat experience, he says. If you give me an option to cut a corner,
I take more than I should. But if I make it hard, if I face it at its
worst, then I stay focused and driven and it only gets better from
there. I need to be in the thick of process. So I can’t let myself
Rather than dwell on what Dad took from him, he decides to help
someone else with what Dad gave him. To turn millions of endorsement
dollars into a 25,000-square-foot building, a Boys & Girls Club where
thousands of children might find their own gifts.
Rather than stir old pain, he creates new pain. He digs at his
cuticles and picks at his lips till they bleed when his strokes aren’t
perfect. He starts setting the fires that his dad’s not there to set,
lighting wads of paper on hotel balconies after he loses, and on a
restaurant table in Toronto, where an infuriated waiter extinguishes
the flames. He puts lit matches in his mouth, making his jaw glow
like a jack-o’-lantern. Sure, that burns his palate and fingers
sometimes. That’s O.K. That’s better than numb.
No, the forest isn’t thick enough, he needs to dig under it, creating
the tunnel that his father’s not there to dig. He cocoons himself in
process, obsesses over what tension his rackets are strung at, tweaks
them each day according to temperature, humidity, wind. Fixates on
his forehand or backhand even when they’re fine, three days of drama
involving everyone in his camp until, yes, he’s figured it out, moved
his hand an eighth of an inch…. No. Wait. It’s the balls. Too much
fuzz. They don’t feel right. No. It must be the court. Damn, it’s so
exhausting, no wonder he’s always on the verge of dropping the shovel
and walking away. Because it’s always so near, that urge. One slight
shift in perspective, one glance out of the tunnel….
Like that October day in 1995, up 6–4 against MaliVai Washington
in Essen, Germany, when the sole of his sneaker flaps off and Andre
has to borrow a shoe from a friend while someone races to his hotel
room for a backup pair–but too late. He’s already floating up,
glimpsing the big picture, seeing himself down there playing tennis
in a stranger’s shoe, living a stranger’s life, and it’s adios, Andre,
6-1, 6-1 in the next two sets, and for most of the next two years.
He decides to marry the beautiful woman because marriage forces a
man–doesn’t it?–to be what Andre aches to be: the rock. But Brooke’s
an actress, a model: Image is her job. At night she wants to go to
parties and premieres at which movie and TV people gather, to make
the new friends she needs to succeed. Andre loathes that life, longs
for something real. He becomes, he says, a dry, empty husk of myself.
Maybe that’s why he risks a transformation that other athletes never
do: because he, unlike them, isn’t sure he wants to be an athlete.
Somewhere in the wilderness, as lost as he’s ever been, he gets an
idea. O.K., maybe it’s not his. Maybe it’s his unconscious’s idea:
To go backward, as near as possible to where he entered the forest,
and shatter everyone’s image of him. To regress to No. 9 in the world,
then No. 29 … 74 … 102 … 141. It feels so awful back there. It
feels so hopeless. It feels so … perfect. At last he can choose
his life and start over.
At age 27, in his 11th year as a pro, Andre Agassi signs up for tennis.
He begins in the satellite tournaments with the nobodies and
never-weres. Number 122….
He reenters therapy. He’s finally going to see the big picture,
finally going to confront–well, no, he’s not. He’ll go for a year
and a half, on and off, and skirt what happened in his childhood,
but damn, he’s trying. Number 87….
He lifts the blinds on his gym window, overlooking the house he built
for his parents. He watches his old man, with a heart that’s squeaked
through quintuple-bypass surgery, hitting balls spit from a machine
for an hour and a half on 100° days on his backyard court, and Andre
feels something that he could never quite see: that it’s bigger than
him. That it’s not personal. That this fire was set long before he was
a child and still blazes long after he’s become a man. Number 71….
He meets with Tony Robbins, the oracle of accountability, and gives
himself a crash course in dreams, so he can learn to defang the hallway
apparition and escape the endless loop of the tongue and the crumbling
teeth. Number 50….
Each morning he awakens and writes two or three goals for that day
in a notepad, then checks at night to make sure he accomplished them.
He becomes the best-conditioned athlete in tennis, pares all motion
between points except those that hasten the next point, to grind his
huffing opponents to dust. Number 21….
At last he fully embraces the methodical game that Brad Gilbert,
ever since replacing Bollettieri, has been pushing him to play, to
stop gambling and start letting his opponents lose points instead of
his having to win every one. Number 13….
He decides that the Boys & Girls Club and the 3,000 kids he’s helped
clothe aren’t enough. He seizes on Perry’s idea of a charter school
and commits to building the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy.
One more thing must be resolved: his inauthentic marriage. As he
leaves his wife that night in 1999, as he grabs the world’s best
coffee beans and shuts the refrigerator door, his eyes fall on the
picture there that Brooke cut out because she admired the graceful
legs of the woman in it. Her. The undanced dance. The holy grail.
She’s here. He can see Steffi’s balcony from the condo he rents six
weeks later on Fisher Island, Fla., where he’s staying while he plays
in the Key Biscayne tournament. What if…? Nah. She’s already said
no. She’s had the same boyfriend for seven years. But if the guy
hasn’t sealed the deal by now…. Besides, the guy’s not here!
Go down swinging, Andre tells himself. You’re not the same guy she
turned down. He goes to work. Huddles with his old pal John Parenti
and starts preparing that first phone call to Steffi as if it’s a
State of the Union address. Recruits the Fisher Island ferry operator
to report her comings and goings. Discovers her practice time, with
help from Brad, so they can accidentally schedule Andre’s practice
right after hers. Contact! They hit together for a half hour! He’s
aching to tell her what’s still a secret–that he and Brooke have
split–and the other secret bursting in his heart. But he doesn’t
want to blow it. He floats back to his room. He blows it. He orders a
bouquet of roses too big for the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton. He paces,
bleeding over every word in the note to go with it, calls Perry to
help him revise it again and again and finally sends the bouquet to
her room. He watches her balcony window, spying … dying….
At last Steffi staggers out under the megabouquet and deposits it on
her balcony. That can’t be a good sign. He waits. Forever. The phone
rings. He pounces. "I want no misunderstanding between us," she says.
"Don’t come near me now. My boyfriend is here."
Here? He blanches. Reconnaissance failure! He parses every word she
uttered. Don’t come near me now. He loses his first match and heads
home, his whole life rising and dipping on the kite string of that
one word: now.
Two months later, on the clay he’s never solved, he learns how much
he can rely on himself. Down two sets against Andrei Medvedev in the
final of the French Open, he wins in five sets, drops his racket and
weeps: At 29 he’s the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all
four Grand Slam singles titles. Seven years after his first attempt,
he feels like a man who deserves Steffi Graf.
It’s just the start of a 27–1 run in Grand Slam matches, the best
since Jimmy Connors’s 20–0 in ’74; three majors in less than a year.
On the flight to Wimbledon a few weeks after Paris, he scissors out
a picture of a barn and a field from an airline menu, turns it into
a birthday card, rolls it up, ties it with a ribbon and gives it to
Steffi’s coach to pass on. It’s so sweet she has to call him. Boy,
is the boy ever ready. I want no misunderstandings, he says. I’m sure
you’ve heard by now about Brooke and me. I think you’re beautiful
and fascinating and I have a tremendous amount of respect for what
appear to be the pillars of your life. Can we have lunch or dinner
or coffee, take a walk, I don’t care–I just want to get to know you
better. Bull’s-eye! She green-lights him to call her after Wimbledon.
One month later, two days before she plays the final match of her
career at age 30, they go out to dinner in La Jolla, Calif., and
Steffi gets a surprise: Andre’s not at all like his image. They end
up running on the beach and start discovering that somehow they’re
completely different … and uncannily the same. That Steffi, too,
has a foundation for children, one that addresses the psychological
scars from violence all over the world. Her dad’s a fanatic for
tennis, boxing and soccer? Precisely the same as his! Her favorite
musicians are George Michael, U2 and Prince? Exactly his! When she
asks him his favorite alltime movie a few weeks later, she lets go
of the phone and screams. It’s hers, Shadowlands, the story of C.S.
Lewis’s finding his soul mate late in life and then losing her to
cancer. Steffi, too, is a seeker–she planned to travel the globe
to photograph animals until Andre began laying siege–but the big
difference between them, the saving one, is this: Once she finds an
answer, she trusts it. She leaves it alone.
She flies to Vegas to see his world. She approaches Andre’s father
for the first time. He’s on his tennis court, of course. Andre
tenses–remembering how Dad disdained his marriage to Brooke, how he
walked out on their wedding reception–still yearning to be part of
a family that’s whole.
Steffi walks right up and wraps her arms around his father, an embrace
so warm that it melts the old man … and more of the ice between
him and his son.
Here’s what happens when a man finds a lens that makes every choice
in his life clearer: Will it make my wife proud? Here’s what happens
when a boy raised to win more Grand Slam tournaments than anyone else
on earth ends up with not even half as many as the woman in his own
bed, and he’s so damn grateful for it that at night he writes on a
chalkboard in their kitchen the things he noticed and admired about
her that day. Here’s what happens when that gratitude begins swelling,
rippling outward from that bed and kitchen.
He starts having children, and they turn his churning energy outward,
and his meltdowns become rarer and rarer, and he starts playing some
of the best tennis of his life, outlasting all the peers who’d been
far more dedicated to the game. And in his children’s faces he sees
the child he didn’t get a chance to be, and the faces of all the
children who lose that chance, and he begins adding more classrooms
to his school for kids from broken homes. He lifts his own kids to
hold them so often that it aggravates a condition in his back, caused
by a vertebra that’s slipped over the one below it, and so then,
to get things right with tennis that he got wrong all those years,
he has to do it with pain shooting down his sciatic nerve.
And suddenly he’s in front of the world in the first round of the 2005
French Open with his back killing him and a far lesser player taking
him apart, but rather than quit and call off the embarrassment as
he would’ve before, he fights to the end and then explains why with
such conviction and such appreciation of the fans who’d paid to see
him that an ESPN editor includes it on SportsCenter.
It reaches the eyes of a man on his back in California recovering
from a kidney transplant, the hot television comedian George Lopez,
who feels so moved that he sends a text message that ricochets from
his TV producer to Perry to Andre. "Because," says Lopez, "you could
tell Andre’s words came from a man who has traveled the world and found
compassion. A man who said Image is everything is now saying, Humanity
is everything." And so, of course, Lopez accepts Andre’s invitation to
take the stage at his annual fund-raising gala last October, where he
joins Robin Williams and Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand and a slew
of other celebrities who come to Vegas to auction off their time and
perform for Andre’s cause, which raises $7.5 million in one night,
prompting Andre to bound to the microphone and round off that number,
from his and Perry’s pockets, to $10 million, so that all the kids
at his academy can walk into a brand-new high school that’ll open
How do you move on when you’ve finally found the sweet spot? He
couldn’t say farewell to the game during the first six months of this
year, even as back pain and inactivity from a severe ankle sprain kept
driving him out of tournaments in the first round or before they even
began. It wasn’t so much the tennis he’d be losing but the cocoon of
all that process. Finally on June 24 at Wimbledon, the field of grass
he once couldn’t bother to play, he swallowed hard at 36, said enough
… and felt liberated.
He insists he’s not worried about a void after tennis, once he’s done
playing several hard-court tournaments and the 2006 U.S. Open, because
he’s learned by watching how his wife moved on without a hitch. Sure,
his new life will probably have a lot to do with the academy, perhaps
trying to replicate it around the country. Sure, it’ll have even more
to do with his own kids, but not likely on a tennis court unless they
really want it. Already his father’s telling him that Jaden’s not
playing enough and that Andre needs to start dropping the boy off at
Grandpa’s house at sunrise and picking him up at sunset, to which Andre
just nods and says, "Yeah, I might do that, Dad" … and never does.
Andre: I just hope the kids find something to pour all of themselves
into because that’s where the marrow of life comes from. If it’s
tennis … wow, I’d take a deep breath. I’d have to hand it to Jaden
if he did that. He’d have to have a mighty big pair of….
Steffi: It would work out, Andre. Just trust your instincts. You’d
do it right.
Andre: Yeah … but my instinct is to NOT trust myself.
Even now. After the magic thing happened.
The fifth set. Last September against James Blake in the U.S. Open
quarterfinals. The changeover as Blake prepares to serve for the
match. The crowd rising, love thundering from the highest seats
like a waterfall, gathering volume as it rolls. Love for the battle
Andre has waged, digging out of an 0–2 grave in sets against Blake,
and for his 20 U.S. Opens, and for more than that: for his arc, for
who he has become. He’s as deep in the tunnel as he’s ever been, but
he looks up and around, and for the first time in his life he sees
and hears everything outside the tunnel. He sees his friend James
instead of the distant blur that his opponents have always been. He
sees what he’s never seen in the audience: actual faces, individual
joy. He hears not the fuzzy din that he has all of his career but
each syllable growing louder and louder: An-dre! An-dre! An-dre!
Chills run through him. He battles from behind once more and beats
Blake. It’s O.K., he says now, that Roger Federer defeated him four
days later in the final because Federer’s the best he’s ever seen,
and besides, being No. 1 never was what his journey’s about. It’s
O.K., he says, because he finally knows what it’s like to be totally
absorbed in yourself and yet feel part of everything.
He shakes his head. All that trekking, only to find out that where
you get to means nothing, and all that matters is how you look at
I used to look at it as something overwhelming, he says, something
separate from me that I had to find my way through. Now I see myself
as part of it. When you start out on the journey you think it’s all
about taking in experiences to fulfill yourself. But it’s not. The
greatest experience is changing someone else’s experience of life.
And once you come to that realization, it becomes your foundation,
the ace in your pocket, who you are. It’s the opposite of what you
think it is. When you see the world through the lens of others,
that’s when you find yourself.
The fire’s out. The world’s best margarita blender’s empty. The man
yawns and rises. You thank him for taking you on the journey and wish
him luck on the second leg, the new path. The one where the man who
learned to see learns to trust his eyes.
SI.COM For coverage of the hard-court tennis season, leading to the
U.S. Open, go to SI.com/more.
His sister had the gift, but she hit puberty and hit the road. His
brother lacked audacity. That left Andre. LAST CHILD. Last chance.
He breaks curfews, drinks Jack Daniels, SMASHES rackets, dyes his
hair orange, draws crosses on his face with eyeliner.
Andre’s first phone call after he finally wins a SLAM TITLE, at
Wimbledon? Dad. Dad’s first words? Should’ve won in four sets.
A vision fills the TV screen–Steffi Graf serving. Tall. Killer legs.
KIND EYES. "You need to meet her," Gilbert says.
He puts LIT MATCHES in his mouth. Sure, that burns his palate
sometimes. That’s O.K. That’s better than numb.
"He decided to be a grown-up," said Carillo. "He didn’t have to. He
had money and fame. Now you really feel there’s A SOUL in that guy."
Steffi, too, is a seeker, but the big difference between them, the
saving one, is this: Once she finds an answer, she TRUSTS IT.
GRAPHIC: PHOTO: Photograph by Steffi Graf