Andre Agassi | Interview
The tennis icon returns to the sport he once loathed.
Once pro tennis’s bad boy, Andre Agassi was one of the sport’s greatest icons by the time he retired in 2006. So it took the world by surprise when he revealed in his 2009 memoir, Open, that he tried meth, wore a wig on court and, for most of his life, hated tennis. Since then, he’s been resting his back, raising his two kids in Las Vegas with tennis legend Steffi Graf and trying to improve public education for underprivileged youths through the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education. But now he’s back in the game. On October 20, he’ll face off against John McEnroe, Jim Courier and Björn Borg at the United Center as part of the Champions Series, a.k.a. the “seniors tour.” We spoke with him hours before his first Champions match in Washington, D.C.
How does it feel to be playing on the senior tour at age 41?
For me, it’s a great way to stay connected to the game and stay connected to people you spent so much of your life with. And the format works really well for our bodies and our lives as it relates to schedule and family.
Your book describes in gut-wrenching detail the back pain you endured near the end of your pro career. How are you doing now?
I can’t really grind it and put together five hard practice days in a row, but if I play on my terms and I play comfortably, I live my life relatively uneventfully. But we all feel the aging process.
Do you still hurt?
Not my back as much, but my hip has started to show some signs of the wear and tear over the years, so I’ll be getting a little procedure done on it.
Did being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this summer level the playing field at home? Now Steffi isn’t the only Hall of Famer in the house.
Yeah, I just strive to keep up. It was an incredible moment. When I was still playing, I got to see her inducted, and it gave me a full appreciation and prepared me fully for that moment for myself. Stef had it completely different. She appreciated the moment, but I don’t think she allowed herself to enjoy it, and when she saw me, she thought, Wow, I could have enjoyed the moment more.
Your rivalry with Pete Sampras is one of the greatest in the history of the sport. You’ll play each other on the Champions tour, though he won’t make the Chicago stop. What’s your relationship like with him today?
My relationship with him is strictly platonic, I assure you. I’m kidding. We don’t know each other really well. This will give us a chance to spend some time together. When you compete on the tour, you live such individual lives. This will be a fun time to get to know who somebody is.
After the book came out, there was a lot of talk about your trying meth and wearing a wig, but for me as a tennis fan it was harder to hear you say you hated tennis. How do you feel about the game now?
The game has given me many things in my life, starting with my family, to being able to raise my kids, to giving me my life’s work. But the best news is I got to play long enough to have that sensibility. It wasn’t until I was 27 years old that I decided to give myself permission to quit. At that moment, I finally chose it for myself. You fight yourself, you fight your demons, you’re never rid of your demons, but you can take ownership. Do you ever get rid of the pains that have come along the way? I don’t think so. They are inherent, they are seared into your memory banks, your childhood, your relationship with your father, your relationship with tennis for 23 years was one of complete angst, and I resented it. But after I was 27, I started to shift that tide, and I believe I reconciled all of it.
So it’s a love/hate relationship?
I call it a hate/love relationship because it really went from hate to love. I do feel like I love the game, but I can’t ignore that it just wasn’t that way. I can’t ignore that, and I can’t deny that. So in the same breath you talk about that love, you are also aware of the ugly side of it, and I’ve seen both sides of it.
How did the tennis community react to that?
I think those that understood the full spectrum of my book appreciated its honesty and also appreciated the fact that this might just help a lot of people. When I wore jean shorts, people said it wasn’t good for tennis, it was bad for tennis. And it turns out, in hindsight, it broadened the interest in the sport. It put the sport in a different light and created a more expansive audience. I have the same hopes for my book. I think ultimately it will be good for the game.
Do your kids play tennis?
Not much. My daughter plays once or twice a week. My son plays baseball. He’s all baseball.
Tickets for the October 20 Champions Challenge match at the United Center are available through Ticketmaster or at 800-745-3000.