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Sunday, November 1, 2009

More Sensational Agassi Confession: Drugs or Hatred of Tennis?

There's not much going on in tennis today, so it seems like a good time to explore the recent revelations in Andre Agassi's new book, Open: An Autobiography. Although generally I attempt to keep the focus of this website on current junior and college tennis, I have always been interested in development, and when one of the U.S.'s greatest champions goes into great detail about his introduction to the game, I think it merits discussion here.

I just finished reading the Sports Illustrated excerpt in the current issue, which emphasizes not the crystal meth drug use that has made all the headlines, but Agassi's fear of his father and his loathing of the game (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas isn't just a Hunter S. Thompson title, I guess.) In fact the SI cover blurb and the excerpt's title is "I Hate Tennis" and it's clear that sentiment is meant to be in the present tense, not the past.

There is what I would call a romantic notion--one I confess I share--that it's impossible to do all the work and make all the sacrifices necessary to excel at tennis without loving the game. When Agassi describes his childhood, which is portrayed as being exclusively directed by his father's desire that Andre become No. 1 in the world, there is only resentment, dread, anxiety, a fear of failure that would seem to be debilitating, but somehow wasn't. Agassi does appear to realize, in retrospect anyway, that the constant practice had produced rare skills. Even though he says he "takes no pride in my reflexes" when he succeeds in sending a ricocheting ball back over the net, he actually does seem proud that "there are few children in the world who could have seen that ball, let alone hit it." Later he adds:

"Though I hate tennis, I like the feeling of hitting a ball dead perfect. When I do something perfect, I enjoy a split second of sanity and calm."

If Marat Safin were to come out with an autobiography claiming that he hated tennis, few of us would be surprised, as his ambivalence toward the sport has been on display for many years now. Or Mark Philippoussis, whose soap opera of a life doesn't exactly exude fulfillment. But Agassi, who extended his career long past the normal retirement age of his contemporaries, married a former tennis player, spoke so eloquently and knowledgeably about it during short stints in the broadcast booth and is still playing exhibitions, how could he hate it?

One interesting exploration of this question was published last week in the Guardian. Stuart Jeffries talks with various prominent British athletes about the issue, and comes up with some pretty compelling arguments. One, former ATP pro Barry Cowan, says:

"If you're at the top of tennis, you're on tour 30-plus weeks of the year – and when you're doing that, everything revolves around tennis. Every decision you make, tennis is at the back of your mind. That's the main reason for burnout among tennis players in their 20s.

"I know this for myself – it's something you've done since you were six years old, and there's a sense that if you stop giving 100% you are doomed to failure, and that is unacceptable. No wonder so many players hate their sport – the surprise is that so few admit it."

Justine Henin, who has announced her return to tennis, recently gave an interview at her Sixth Sense Academy in Florida, and although the Belgian, who had a difficult childhood of her own, didn't say she hated tennis when she retired in May of 2008, she did say this, according to the article in Bob Larson's Tennis News by Charlie Bricker:

"I once said to Carlos that I was afraid the only thing I can do is play tennis. But after this much time off, now I know I am a human being. I can do other things. I found I could trust myself as a person. I needed to try different things to realize how the world is."

She is also quoted in this Miami Herald AP story as saying:
"It took me a while to realize that it's not just about hitting a tennis ball," she said. "At 5 years old, there's no way you can know that tennis is what you want. Now it's something that I choose to do."

It seems that Andre Agassi could have come to that same conclusion eight or nine years ago, made his personal peace with his past, and once retired, concentrated on his school and his other charitable activities. He chose a different path, just as he had in 1997, and the revelations will probably continue through next week, when the book is finally available for sale. Today's headline from the book is "Agassi says he took what he believes to be speed," with his father behind his ingestion of that drug. There hasn't been anything from the Bollettieri years yet; it would be surprising if his teenage years didn't produce some indiscretions.

For some of the thoughts from tennis writers who have covered Agassi throughout his career, and there is nothing like a consensus emerging from them, I'll provide the following links:

Peter Bodo, for espn.com
Bonnie Ford, for espn.com
Jon Wertheim, for si.com
Chris Clarey, for the New York Times
Neil Harman, for the Times


Tennismom said...

Hi Colette,

I'm a bit surprised you're not more on the outrageous parent case - far too much of that and most of them don't end up with their kids as grand slam winners.

I'm not suprised AA doesn't like tennis. I notice that same SI extract says Steffi Graf doesn't either. Partly what Cowan noted in the article you link - incredible grind etc etc. But watching Agassi over the years, I don't think I ever had the impression he was enjoying it. Enjoyed the fans etc yes, and of course winning, but the tennis no. In fact I remember sometimes being quite struck by how he didn't seem to enjoy it.

Journalists you link to - all basically much more sympathetic to AA than most of the media comment, and I notice what they do have in common is that they have read the whole book (although not yet allowed to reveal more about it) and not just the had to contextualize extracts the rest of us are getting. Reilly on ESPN also. I think basically we (and you) should hold fire until we can see the whole book.

I'm appalled by the media myself - wide circulation of Navratilova's very ignorant remark comparing Agassi and Clemens (the latter took a performance enhancing drug, took it for years, and continues to deny using it) with much less circulation of the many positive reactions, including tennis icons like BJK (who was smart enough to say people shouldn't comment until reading the book); speed story today which is part I gather of the not officially released extracts and circulated widely as if AA took speed before matches as a pro etc; circulation of the WADA's head's remark about possible perjury charges - you can only commit perjury under oath; he was never under oath - can't a single journalist point that out?

I'm not sure why Agassi felt the need to say this now - I really don't think he needs the money despite some recent losses (like everyone else), certainly as famous as anyone could possibly be etc. He used the word "atonement" in the video statement on amazon - and if atonement is watching people who have only seen a fraction of the picture trash you, he's getting plenty of atonement...

Greg Delaney said...

interesting possibility — maybe it’s the drug use that caused Agassi’s hair to fall out

tennismom said...

Ps Another article on how common it is for leading sports people to hate their sports - I think the only thing that may be sensational here is Agassi's willingness to say it:


Aron said...

I think you're right: It's not surprising that Agassi hated tennis, or even that he's willing to admit it. It's that we don't hear more top pros saying the same thing. You know, John McEnroe said it in his book: None of the top pros love the game. They love to win, and the game is merely a vehicle. For them, it's not a game. It's work. It's the salt mines.

Same reason I've never wanted to be a food reviewer, a movie critic or tennis pro. How can you possibly enjoy it?

Anyway, good for Agassi. He obviously had a lot to get off his chest, and it must feel cathartic if nothing else.

The Dude said...

I'm looking forward to reading Agassi's atonement. It's got to be more interesting than the run of the mill gloss over bio. I never liked Agassi as a player (playing style too predictable and methodic) or a person (image is everything). However I liked him in the announcement booth as he knows a lot about his craft and I apppreciate him more nowadays allowing for his coming of age in the public eye. Tell it like it is, Andre.

Amtex said...

Of course he hated tennis, his dad made it a full time ob from infancy. It would be abnormal if he didn't hate it. By the time he was old enough to make his own decisions it was too late, tennis was his sole identity.

I like Andre but his admissions now are lame. He took all the accolades at the US Open, no admissions. The 60 Minute interview, no admissions. At no time in 12 years did he feel the need to come clean....except to promote a book. So lets not say it was a character move, far from it. A character move would have been coming clean about lying to the ATP years ago while still playing and taking the punishment.

Man in the Moon said...

Many pro families in other sports -- have their children go into those sports

most famous the Manning family

Is it any wonder -- I can't think of one family - aside from Amritraj and to a lessor extent Stan Smith family that have gone into the family business.

I think the top stars - know exactly what is involved and they don't want their children following in their footsteps!!

Personally, I am not going to make any judgments on a book by it cover / or by reading a few pages.

I will wait until the book comes out and then make my judgment of Andre and his book!!

Man in the Moon said...

I forgot about the Dent Family --

I am sure there are a few more --but not compared to other sports

Austin said...

One thing that has puzzled me a bit since this came out is everyone's shock to hear he hated tennis. That isnt news, we knew this years ago. I guess in the book he delves into great detail about his relationship with his father and hating tennis, but we've known these things for awhile. The guy once showed up for a match in jeans for petes sake. Bollettieri has made comments alluding to this as well. Now the meth thing, that really depresses me. I didnt think that was in him, kind of a bummer.

Has anyone read Brad Gilberts comments regarding the situation? Said how he had no clue about anything from Andre's personal life, THATS BS! He couldnt have tried any harder to play the "were not that close" card with his statement, also dissapointing.

One other huge difference was the opposite reaction the foreign players had compared to the American players.

The one person I want to hear from is Sampras. The media portrays them as total opposites, not being friends, etc, HOWEVER, they have known each other since they were 6,7,8 years old. Even though they arent hanging out buddies, Pete studied and worried about this guy more than any other person in the world, he is actually someone who would really be able to tell a difference in him.

At least now we know what happened to continue his downward slide in the rankings after the wrist injury. Now soon as Michael Jordan admits he left basketball to go play baseball because he was secretly suspended for gambling all the secrets will be out there.

Man in the Moon said...


A first --

I agree with your entire post

who said miracles don't happen

I really enjoyed reading your post and you are right on the $$$$!!!

steven s said...

"Amtex", your first paragraph is very telling, and dead on. There are many proud as a peacock parents out their gloating about their junior prodigies. As Colette noted, Justine Henin made the obvious comment regarding how a 5 year old could possibly know they want to hit thousands of balls each week. I myself cannot decide if this approach is right or wrong. If it never happens, then we would not be watching the Williams sisters (or the latest Black sisters from Florida:)..and Agassi would be a former college player probably settled into a nice regular career. What I do know is this: it does bother me when some of the parents, in their strange delusion say, "my kids have always wanted to be great players"..rather than admit the following: I gave my kids extremely "tough love" at young ages to get them to practice hard, hit thousands of balls WITH PURPOSE, and now, they do love tennis but only because it is all they have ever known, and they knew that it was what I (the parent) wanted from the get-go.

Thomas Falcon said...

Man in the moon,

Welcome to the town of zero credibility. Population = you.

Seriously man, if you couldn't name Sandon Stolle, Carsten Ball, Tim Henman (huge family history of tennis), Donald Young, Tony Trabert's family, Safin/Safina, the Everts, the Harrisons and the Austins as just name a few of the families where tennis has been the profession for multiple generations
then you've got nothing viable to add to a tennis site.

FYI said...

For Everyone's Information

Agassi had to come out with those comments because if he did not someone else would have

Since Andre is an incredible human being who has done SO MUCH on and off the court for the game of tennis and life, he decided to say it himself and not let someone else do it for him.

He certainly is not the first top player to get involved in other stuff. everyone can not criticize him because you have no clue what it is like to be in his shoes every day.

Lets focus on everything that he has done for the betterment of the world because it is ALOT. He has motivated and changed lives for the better.

Man in the Moon said...

Thomas Falcon,

wow - you need to take a walk in this beautiful weather.

First, Tommy Boy, you need to read what I wrote and don't jump to conclusions!!!

my quote was "I am sure there are a few more --but not compared to other sports"

and I quote "I think the top stars - know exactly what is involved and they don't want their children following in their footsteps!!

(1) I was talking about parent and child - not siblings

(2) I was talking about the "TOP STARS" -- I hate to use caps for emphasis - but it seems you either don't understand English or you can't process what is written.

(3) I don't count Young nor Harrison as their parents being TOP STARS in the Pros.

(4) Carsten Ball, Tim Henman (huge family history of tennis), Tony Trabert's family, Safin/Safina, the Everts,-- THE PREVIOUS NAMED FAMILIES HAD BROTHERS OR SISTERS INVOLVED. Only one generation not two in the Pro ranks.



so Tommy Boy the only name that I really missed was Stolle - father was a TOP PLAYER and son played on the ATP. (see #1 and # 2)

so Tommy Boy, before you start ranting and raving -- please READ WHAT IS WRITTEN

You need to reread your last sentence about viable, Tommy Boy and adding to this site!!!!

Enjoy the day- it is fantastic outside.

Man in the Moon said...

Tommy Boy,
I missed Syd Ball (son Carsten) who played mostly Dubs for Australia, and frankly I wouldn't call him a TOP ATP STAR.

So Carsten Ball and the Stolle family (Australia) are the two that I missed from your fractured list.

And Stolle really was a TOP STAR.

BTW - those two names come under --

"I am sure I missed a few names"

now I am going out to enjoy the day!!

Thomas Falcon said...

Man in the Moon,

YOU'RE the one who needs a class in remedial English. YOU wrote:
"Many pro families in other sports -- have their children go into those sports
most famous the Manning family
Is it any wonder -- I can't think of one family - aside from Amritraj and to a lessor extent Stan Smith family that have gone into the family business."

There's no mention of the 'top stars' until your next paragraph of blather. The only person stupid enough to think you were talking about them in the PRECEDING paragraph is you. The only person stupid enough to make it so unintelligible is you. If you've got anything to do with tennis in this country then it's no wonder we're doing so poorly.

Now go and enjoy your day, just don't try to talk tennis with anyone you'll only look stupid.

Man in the Moon said...

Tommy Boy or should I say Tommy Tunes as in cartoon

What a leap, now you are insinuating that I am the reason for the state of tennis in the USA.. wow (emphasis added)

I don't even know how to respond to that comment -- (see Tommy Tunes how one paragraph / sentence connects to another one)

Tommy Tunes, when you quote me please use my words and quote me exactly without leaving off sentences/ paragraphs.

You left this paragraph (sentence) off your quote of mine:

"I think the top stars - know exactly what is involved and they don't want their children following in their footsteps!!

Whether it is the first paragraph or the 2nd paragraph -- the word TOP STAR connects to the all 3 paragraphs.

Tommy Tunes - you just got caught on so many mistakes and this is your feeble attempt at redemption- your last post is really comical,

so Tommy Boy / Tunes let's call it a day

and don't try and play word games with me -- you don't have the firepower -- and your name calling really is a total sign of weakness.

This is my final comment to you on this subject.

Knows it all said...


What are the chances you could quit posting Man "I Live on the Moons" comments. He is like that gnat that just won't go away. There is absolutely nothing positive about posting his comments. He knows it all. These kind of people truly believe the stuff that comes out of their mouths. With an ago this large there is nothing you can say that will convince him that he doesn't know everything about everything.

Texas tennis mom said...

Seems like you were wrong to jump on the SI headline and book hook, Collete.

Here's what he actually says in the book to put that in context (from the CBS preview of 60 minutes):

"I was tortured by it. Hated it. Took ownership of it. Started to have a relationship with it. Started to embrace it. Started to extract from it and grew to love everything it had to give me, which was the relationships in my life, the people, the fans. It was a gift."

How come SI didn't choose that angle to push......?

Tennis Betting said...

After reading the SI extracts and the other confessions of Agassi, am eagerly waiting for the book to hit the shelves. Will get a copy of the book soon.