does someone has read the vogue article?
As his highly anticipated memoir hits stores, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf open up to Rebecca Johnson about their unlikely courtship, married life in Vegas – and why they no longer play tennis.
English is not Steffi Graf’s first language, but on the subject of the first roses Andre Agassi ever sent her, words came easily. “I wondered where they came from. Each rose was stunning. You felt every petal had reached the perfect moment of its bloom.” Sitting a few feet away from her in the empty dining room of a private golf club near the home they share with their two children in Las Vegas, Andre Agassi gets one of those goofily endearing “Isn’t my wife great?” smile on his face.” There was something special about those roses,” he agrees.
His timing, on the other hand, was not so good. Agassi was married to someone else, and the man standing next to Graf as she unwrapped the bouquet in her Fisher Island hotel room off the Florida coast was her then boyfriend, a German race-car driver who was not happy to see his girlfriend of seven years receive flowers from another man. “I didn’t know what to think,” she says diplomatically.
“She thought I was a dog.” Agassi interjects. Albeit a dog with a plan. “When she called to thank me for the flowers, I was going to explain,” he says, referring to his imminent divorce from the actress Brooke Shields. Graf never called, but the flowers did the trick. “He definitely got into my head,” she says.
Agassi has a way of doing that. There are players with more stellar records (his wife, for one), but when it comes to capturing the public’s attention, Andre Agassi, a scrappy kid from Vegas with a chip on his shoulder and a fire in his belly, has been packing the stadium ever since he turned pro at the age of sixteen. On his good days, Agassi was very, very good. As Graf says, “Andre has an eye for the ball like no one else. He was the best returner because he was able to take the ball earlier than anyone else.” But even on his bad days, the crowd adored him because he fought so hard and wore his emotions so openly. There were tears when he won and tears when he lost. Sportswriters may have hated his brash persona, but people who didn’t normally watch tennis suddenly started showing up to cheer the kid from Vegas on.
And then there was the visual spectacle. Before him, tennis players tended to look like investment bankers on a weekend in the Hamptons. Their hair was short; their clothes were white. Agassi’s mullet, denim shorts, and dangly earring made him the Madonna of tennis. Even Graf, who didn’t know him then, wasn’t sure what to make of him. “He brought a freshness to tennis,” she says, “but from the outside it was hard to tell if it’s him or marketing dreamed up by someone else.”
As Agassi reveals in Open, his autobiography published in November by Knopf, the bravura was nothing more than sheer terror. “I was scared to death,” he admits. “It turns out the greatest way to hide who you are is to wear a mullet. People will make assumptions about you that have nothing to do with who you are.”
“I like Andre without the hair,” Graf volunteers, “but it didn’t bother me. I was surprised that people made it such a big issue.”
“You didn’t judge me?” Agassi asks.
“No,” Graf answers.
“Thank you, baby.”
Open, which took him two and half years to write with the help of J.R. Moehringer, author of the memoir The Tender Bar, is like Agassi’s game itself – fast-paced, aggressive, and surprisingly vulnerable. From his descriptions of his scary father, the kind of person who pulls a gun during an incident of road rage, to his fractious relationship with mentor, Nick Bolletieri, a man with skin “the color of beef jerky” who doesn’t know tennis “all that well,” to his emotionally frigid marriage to Brooke Shields (“the most animated talks we have are about things”), Agassi holds little back. Poor Pete Sampras gets whacked for being a lousy tipper. And that kid who cheated on him at a juniors tournament 30 years ago? It’s payback time. Even tennis itself, the game that has made him a world-famous multimillionaire, takes a beating- “I hate tennis,” he writes in the introduction, “hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.”
The frankness and score-settling make for entertaining reading, but they also make you wonder – is her nervous about being so, well, open? “There were skeletons in my closet, and I had to face that,” he answers. “But early in the process I had to commit internally to doing it full-on. Yes, it was hard. Yes, I do worry. I jumped from an airplane with this book, and I am in free fall. I just hope the parachute opens.”
Actually, Agassi seems to have very wisely married his parachute. He is the first to admit the relationship began with testosterone: “My first attraction to her was physical because she is hot.” Still true. At 40, Graf works out almost daily and looks as long, lean, and healthy as she did when she posed in a bathing suit for a 1997 issue of Sports Illustrated. But over the last eight years the relationship has evolved into a mature partnership centered on children, family, and charitable works. Graf focuses her attention on Children for Tomorrow, a nonprofit she founded in 1998 that runs projects in South Africa, Uganda, and Eritrea. Agassi, who admits to having been a lousy student himself, spends the majority of his time and energy on Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, the public charter school he started in an economically devastated patch of downtown Vegas. The $40 million campus now serves 650 students, with a waiting list of 800. Las Vegas might seem a stranger place for a couple that’s traveled the world to settle down, but Graf feels lucky to have Agassi’s extended family and her own mother and brother, a Web-site designer, living nearby: “Seeing all the kids growing up together, it doesn’t get much better than that.” As for Agassi, he says, sounding like he still can’t quite believe his luck, “If this relationship didn’t work out, I think every one of my friends would disown me.”
Nevertheless, when they first got together, the tennis world was shocked. Steffi Graf (she prefers Stefanie) and Andre Agassi? No way. If he was fire on the court, she was ice. Even though they played the same tournaments year after year, the two never really met, because organizers tended to schedule Graf’s matches in the morning and Agassi’s at night. The economics were simple – she would be done in an efficient 45 minutes, while he might go on all night. “They knew I would provide entertainment value,” he says. “It’s not that she didn’t use strategy. She was just such a better athlete. She had a gear that most women didn’t have. I didn’t have that luxury, so my opponents became more of an equation that I had to solve.” Agassi made tennis personal. When he was out there, battling for every last point, he hated his opponent with an intensity that had the crowd on the edge of its seat. Graf never saw tennis that way. “My challenge on the court was to push myself as hard as I could, to get to the next level,” she says. “That was more important than who I was playing against.”
Underneath the surface, however, there were similarities. Both went professional in their teens – Graf because she ran out of players good enough to challenge her; Agassi because, as his father put it, “You have an eighth-grade education. What are your choices?” There’s a reason the couple don’t have a tennis court at their house and don’t actively encourage the sport as a career for their children, Jaden Gil, eight, and Jaz Elle, six. Growing up in the bizarre bubble of professional tennis is not easy on a child. “It’s surreal and absurd world,” Agassi says. “You are experiencing world attention and success when you’re emotionally immature and undeveloped. You have no tools to deal with normal growth, let alone this odyssey.”
More profoundly, they share the distinction of having been raised by “difficult” fathers. Mike Agassi, a former Olympic boxer who lived on tips from his work as a captain in a Vegas casino, was so determined to make his son a champion, he insisted the seven year old boy hit 2,500 balls a day from a souped-up machine that spat them out at 110 miles per hour. Mornings, he would leave the house as if to drive the kids to school, only to take them to the local tennis courts instead, instructing them “not to tell their mother.” He once wagered the family house on a bet that Agassi, then nine, could beat a grown man in a tennis game. Now that Agassi himself is grown, he’s developed some sympathy for his father. “He wasn’t the guy who thought school was important. Work was important, and tennis was the work.” But it doesn’t take a therapist to understand Agassi might have come to hate the game of tennis.
Peter Graf, who quit his job as a car and insurance salesman once he realized his daughter’s talent, was notorious for arguing with referees or illegally coaching from the stands when Graf was a young player on the circuit. Once she started earning millions in endorsement deals, there was a scandal involving her father and a Playboy Playmate, followed by the bigger trauma of tax-evasion charges brought by the German government. Graf was eventually exonerated, but her father served two years in prison. The media frenzy set off by those events still seems to haunt the former champion. “I knew that being in the spotlight was part of being a professional athlete, but I was never comfortable with it,” she days. “I was OK when the focus was on me, but when the focus became my friends and family, I felt violated.” Her mother, a supportive presence who traveled with Graf on tour, eventually divorced her father, who still lives in Germany.
In the shadow of his father’s volatility, Agassi had trouble controlling his emotions, while Graf controlled hers all too well. Coming together as a couple has moderated both of them. “I admire that he is open to emotions,” Graf says. “It helps us in our relationship. I think it makes me more comfortable opening up.” Agassi agrees. “When we met, her governor came off her engine and came to mine.” The governor? “It’s a device on a car that keeps the engine from going too fast. She has always had one, and I didn’t. Now that the governor is on me, it’s a good thing.” Fans needn’t worry that their personalities have completely reversed. When the subject of Serena Williams’ unfortunate outburst at the recent U.S. Open arose, Graf’s response was as measured as you might expect: “As an athlete, it was hard to watch, but it was obviously a tough moment for her.” Agassi’s response, on the other hand, sounded like the governor was on vacation. “Utterly and completely out of line,” he fumed. (Nevermind that he once called a linesman a cocksucker.)
Open expertly captures the profoundly stressful job of professional tennis player, but nobody who hasn’t lived it can ever truly understand what it does to a person’s psyche. “I am surprised when people ask me about the ‘glamorous’ tennis life,” Graf says, “because it is really a demanding sport. You’re traveling twelve months a year, with no off-season. You have a coach and maybe a parent traveling with you, but there is limited opportunity for friends. It never stops. It’s not cruel” – Graf hesitates, searching for the right word – “but it’s excruciating.” Agassi agrees. “Emotionally, physically, mentally, it is so demanding. ‘Rest’ is the real example of what a grind it is. When you’re not playing, you have to just sit there and do nothing. You can’t go out in the sun; you can’t go out and do anything, because you are in training. I used to think I was moody, but then, after I retired, I realized, I’m not moody. It’s tennis that’s moody.