Agassi is one of my favorite athletes of all time. I’ve always pulled for him to beat Sampras, Courier, Edberg, Becker and Chang (who am I forgetting?). I think I held Agassi’s balance in high regard. The guy won on every surface and has a career Grand Slam, something that none of the others mentioned can claim. That’s a big deal in my estimation. So I grabbed his bio.
In retrospect, I haven’t read that many biographies. I read maybe only one or two a year.
What’s the definition of a biography? Webster says that it’s a “written history of a person’s life.” I’m taking that in the strictest sense and calling something a biography only if it relates to the person’s whole life, from birth to publication date. Books like River of Doubt (Theodore Roosevelt) or Called Out of Darkness (Anne Rice) have certain biographical aspects, but they don’t weight the person’s whole life as much as they do a certain time frame or theme; so they’re not biographies in my view. This Agassi book is a biography for sure. He starts with his childhood and goes into the scathing details of his life and the people connected to him up through the present day.
Speaking of the present day, did you see the little tiff that Agassi and Sampras got into the other day at that exhibition match? This book shines a little light on what’s going on there (Agassi tells a “Sampras is cheap” story). It’s understandable how some people can be disgusted or disturbed with Agassi’s book because he didn’t hesitate to throw anybody under the bus, including his dad, Sampras, Bollitieri, Chang, Courier, and Brooke. But it feels very honest, and that makes it acceptable to me and a boatload of fun. I loved this book and Agassi has separated himself even more as my favorite tennis player of all-time and probably one of my top five favorite sports stars of all-time. Here’s a list (on a whim, in no particular order) if you care:
- Clark Kellogg
- Andre Agassi
- Barry Sanders
- Tiger Woods (even now, I’ll explain later)
- Jerry Pate/David Duval (tie)
I know, kind of obscure huh? I actually haven’t given this much thought and I’m treating this list as temporary. We’ll circle back on this when I read the next sports bio.
Agassi’s father pushed him into tennis at young age, which is why Agassi grew up hating tennis. His father was nuts. Agassi gives plenty of examples, like this:
For instance, he often reaches a thumb and forefinger inside his nostril and, bracing himself for the eye-watering pain, pulls out a thick bouquet of black nose hairs. This is how he grooms himself. In the same spirit, he shaves his face without soap or cream. He simply runs a disposable razor up and down his dry cheeks and jaw, shredding his skin, then letting the blood trickle down his face until it dries.
Not only did his father force him to practice insane hours, but he would also drag him around to clubs and hustle tennis games for Andre. Heck, when Andre was nine his dad actually challenged Jim Brown to a tennis match with Andre. Yeah, that Jim Brown. The way Andre tells it, his dad worked at a local club giving lessons or stringing rackets and overheard Jim Brown looking for a game, and even offered to wager his house or $10,000. It’s a good story, read the book to hear how it comes out.
His dad even tries to give him performance enhancing drugs of some sort. But Andre takes them only once and plays horribly, on purpose, to fool his dad into thinking they’re bad for his game. It works and his dad never tries again, but it’s a glimpse into how Andre doesn’t hesitate to rip even those he loves.
He rips Bollettieri pretty much, but also spent a big chunk of his early tennis career in a very close relationship with Bollettieri. Here is how Andre described the Bollettieri academy:
People like to call the Bollettieri Academy a boot camp, but it’s really a glorified prison camp. And not all that glorified. We eat gruel – beige meats and gelatinous stews and gray slop poured over rice – and sleep in rickety bunks that line the plywood walls of our military style barracks.
At times Agassi describes his relationship with Bollettieri as “harmonious.” But eventually it breaks down and Bollettieri quits and tells the press before he tells Agassi.
I remember watching tennis on TV a ton during the 90s and the cameras often panned on Bollettieri. Reading this book made me think that these could have been the glory days of American tennis. There were so many American stars. What I didn’t realize was that it was also a much bigger soap opera then I could have imagined. Andre does plenty of dishing on his competition, like Chang:
Once more I square off against Chang, who’s developed a bad habit since we last met. Every time he beats someone, he points to the sky. He thanks God – credits God – for the win, which offends me. That God should take sides in a tennis match, that God should side against me, that God should be in Chang’s box, feels ludicrous and insulting, I beat Chang and savor every blasphemous stroke.
Courier and Becker get dished on too. As does Connors and the aforementioned Sampras. He saves the praise and worship for his team, his entourage if you will. And one of his closest friends and confidantes is his trainer, Gil Reyes, who remains with him throughout his career. It’s one of the coolest parts of the story, this trainer-trainee relationship, which evolves into something much deeper.
Agassi walks into the UNLV gym one day and asks if he can use the facility to get in shape. At the time Gil is the strength and conditioning coach for UNLV After a few months of training there, they strike up a friendship and Agassi brings Gil on full time after the UNLV sports season ends.
Here what’s cool. Gil doesn’t have a gym so he fashions all of the training equipment with his bare hands. He tells Agassi:
I want to weld the metal, make the ropes and pulleys, with my own hands. I don’t want to leave anything to chance. I won’t have you injured. Not on my watch.
Gil has no experience with tennis but learns quickly, and works his ass off.
From the start, Gil keep a careful record of my workouts. He buys a brown ledger and marks down every rep, every set, every exercise – every day. He records my weight, my diet, my pulse, my travel. In the margins he draws diagrams and even pictures. He says he wants to chart my progress, compile a database he can refer to in the coming years.
Doesn’t this sound like Mickelson’s caddy Bones? Mickelson and his caddy have been together forever and supposedly Bones has a massive database of every shot that Phil has taken on every course. I love stories like these and think about how I need to start building the same database in Google Docs for myself. Is that strange?
Agassi and Gil become tight and Gil accompanies him everywhere and at times acts as his bodyguard, buddy, and therapist. Agassi’s cadre is made up of his brother Philly (tennis manager), his high school buddy Perry (business manager), Gil, and J.P. (spiritual-like adviser). He has a connection with this crew and they stay together for the bulk of his crew.
Soon, they start winning tournaments and Agassi wonders what the point of all this fame is (I call this his David Duval moment, but with less disillusion).
I find it surreal, then perfectly normal. I’m struck by how fast the surreal becomes the norm. I marvel at how unexciting it is to be famous, how mundane famous people are. They’re confused, uncertain, insecure, and often hate what they do. It’s something we always hear – like that old adage money can’t buy happiness – but we never believe it until we see it for ourselves. Seeing it in 1992 brings me a new measure of confidence.
I find this interesting because reacting with confidence isn’t what I expected, but it makes me like Agassi. It’s like yeah, this stuff really is stupid and meaningless, but let’s make the best of it, and use it to our advantage.
Then he hooks up with Brad Gilbert and wins more tournaments. Gilbert seems like quite a character and makes some tweaks to Agassi’s game. Gilbert puts it this way according to Agassi:
…You don’t need to assume so much risk. F*&% that. Just keep the ball moving. Back and forth. Nice and easy. Solid. Be like gravity man, like motherf*&%ing gravity. When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you’re doing? Your chasing something that doesn’t exist.
At age 33, Agassi ends up being the oldest play ever ranked number one (Darren Cahill is his coach at this point). That is cool.
Then Agassi pulls out a wild card to jack up his cool cred with me. During the 2006 U.S. Open he cracks open J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar.
During my final U.S. Open in 2006, I spent all my free time reading J.R.’s staggering memoir, The Tender Bar. The book spoke to my heart. I loved it so much, in fact, that I found myself rationing it, limiting myself to a set number of pages each night.
J.R. ends up collaborating with him on the book but refuses to attach his name to it. Agassi finishes with this:
…I was late in discovering the magic of books. Of all my many mistakes that I want my children to avoid, I put that one near the top of the list.
How can you not like this dude? I’ve had a rough relationship with sports the last few years. At times I find myself, for the first time in my life, disinterested in being a sports fan. But stories like this bring be back, man. Beautiful stuff.