My Dinner With Andre
OK, it wasn’t over a meal, but I did spend a delicious hour with Agassi in Las Vegas at his eponymous academy a few days ago for a story in USA Today that will run Monday. Whatever one thinks about Agassi – pre- or post- his new book, Open – the guy knows how to articulate his views, however conflicted, duplicitous and self-serving they can feel at times. When you sit down with Andre, you have a conversation. That is rare in this era of Teflon tennis players.
Agassi preparing for the photo shoot on the roof of his academy in Las Vegas
The book is chock-full of insight one rarely sees in the jock genre. Agassi mocks several of his peers, among them Boris Becker (he and Gilbert call him “B.B. Socrates” for his phony high-minded intellectualism), Michael Chang for his holier-than-thou religiosity, and Thomas Muster, who once tousled his hair at the net following a loss. He disembowels Jimmy Connors, who he first met as a 7-year-old, labeling the five-time U.S. Open winner an “egomaniac prick.” He relates how after his final match in 2006 only one man stood apart and refused to applaud in the locker room – Connors. “Poor Andy” he says of Roddick, then coached by the five-time U.S. Open champ. He labels Nick Bollettieri “The warden,” and disses not only his tennis knowledge but also his narcissistic greed.
Gil Reyes, Andre’s surrogate father figure, comes off as a near hero. Ditto his two main coaches, Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill. Andre’s childhood friend, confidante and ex-business partner, Perry Rogers, also is shown in a positive light. Their subsequent financial battle and personal rift is not discussed, however. Nor is Rogers mentioned in the acknowledgements, but as Andre explained to me, the book ends at age 36, before that happened.
Perhaps no one comes off worse than his father, Mike, who Agassi depicts as a tyrannical, sadistic, hard-charging and heartless figure that is “violent by nature.” There is a stream of other revelations – how he beat NFL great Jim Brown as a 9-year-old to win a bet for his dad; how his biggest fear going into the 1990 French Open final was losing his hairpiece; how his father gave him speed or some kind of upper as a junior before matches; and the most sensationalized portion, his use of crystal meth during his fog of 1997 and his lie to the ATP to avoid a drug suspension when he tested positive. (Agassi told me he wasn’t even sure what the drug was since his assistant “Slim” bought it, prepared it and dispensed it.) There is his ill-fated marriage to actress Brooke Shields and his warm-and-cuddly courting of Stef(anie) Graf. There are some beautiful lines in the book, too, such as this one about Agassi's tormented soul: “This gap, this contradiction between what I want to do and what I actually do, feels like the core of my life.” (Thanks J.R. Moehringer). And much more.
Suffice to say, this is a must-read for tennis fans and a near-must for anyone else.
Beyond the juicy anecdotes in the autobiography, the central question for me after reading the book and talking to Andre is this: If the eight-time major winner has had a consistent pattern of concealing the truth or outright lying, why should we believe what he writes now? Frankly, I’m not sure where I fall, particularly since I didn’t cover tennis during the most turbulent times of his career. People will have to make that determination for themselves. I will give him the benefit of the doubt in this regard. It’s his book, it’s his memory, it’s his view of his own life. He’s entitled to lay it out as he sees it, though the truth, too, can be “open” to interpretation.