The Tennis Week Interview: Andre's father, Mike Agassi (December 2004)
By Richard Pagliaro
Tennis Week: Andre has said he plans to play the 2005 season and we've been hearing, if his health holds up, he could play even two more years. How much longer do you think he will continue playing and what motivates him after all he's achieved in the game?
Mike Agassi: He could play another few years, another two, three years or more. He is in pretty good shape. He is top five, six, seven in the world. All these people who are top 50 in the world want to play another five, six years. There’s no reason for him to retire, that’s one (reason not to). Rosewall played to age 39, Connors played well at 39. Some good players played into their 30s and he (Andre) has proven that he is just as good, maybe better, and so there is no reason for him to retire.
Tennis Week: Andre showed in Cincinnati that at his best he can still beat some of the best players as he beat Moya, Roddick and Hewitt in succession to win another Masters title. Andre almost always gives Federer a tough time, he took Federer to five in that windy U.S. Open match and Federer has told us he considers Andre to be his toughest opponent. Do you agree?
Mike Agassi: He has always given Federer more trouble than anyone else. Yes, I agree. Why should he retire? That’s my idea. His physical shape is fantastic. You know he works out at the gym every day and he loves the game.
Tennis Week: Do you think Andre will focus on the Grand Slams and play a limited schedule basing his season around the majors or do you think he’ll play a full schedule?
Mike Agassi: He has to play all Grand Slams and many of the Masters Series for sure. But the other ones, it’s a business, you know what I mean? It depends on other things.
Tennis Week: Patrick McEnroe has told us he asks Andre to play Davis Cup before each tie. I know Andre has said repeatedly his Davis Cup career is over, but he is friendly with the captain and guys on the team and he has a tremendous Davis Cup record. Do you think he will ever play Davis Cup again?
Mike Agassi: I talked with the new president of the USTA, Franklin Johnson. I had a nice talk with him. He wanted Andre to play at least one Davis Cup (tie), which was the last one. I talked with Andre, but my daughter was getting married on the same day, which was on the Saturday. He said, "I have to go to the wedding."
Tennis Week: Family comes first.
Mike Agassi: Yeah, that was exactly what his answer was. He didn’t answer whether he would play or not, but he said he had to go to his sister’s wedding.
Tennis Week: Do you think we will see any small adjustments in Andre’s game this season? Or will we see the classic Agassi style, taking the ball early, taking control from the baseline and playing high percentage shots to punish opponents?
Mike Agassi: I had a talk with him. I said: "When you are playing the backhand to backhand (rally) too long, they make a change of direction…"
Tennis Week: Right, they take it down the line.
Mike Agassi: Yes. I said: "Try to think about it, get a rhythm yourself and make a change.". He said, "Yes, but that’s not that easy." But he’ll try it — if that’s what he wants to do.
Tennis Week: I want to ask you about Brad Gilbert in light of Roddick’s recent dismissal of him. What are Brad’s strengths and weaknesses as a coach?
Mike Agassi: Brad is a constant talker, you know. If you can sit and listen to him continuously, after a while, he repeats himself. If you can take it, he’s OK. But if you cannot take it, then it’s annoying. Myself, I had such a little problem with Brad. He used to work with Andre’s serve. He would tell Andre to serve 115 miles an hour to the T then next serve, the second serve, would be 92 miles an hour wide to the backhand. From 115 you go to 92, I would say try to between five to nine mile differences in the serves. Brad is a good talker. He always had answers. He once told me: "Everybody is two or three inches taller than Andre, that’s why they serve that big." I said: "Then here is a racquet two inches longer and it’s gonna give Andre a longer reach.". And his answer was: "Yeah, he’s gonna have a better serve, but he’s gonna lose seven and a half percent of his forehand and nine and a half percent on his backhand." And once you listen to someone and believe in him, then you believe in him. That’s the way it works.
Tennis Week: Roddick’s still number two in the world, so it's not like he's had a dramatic drop in results, but if you could coach Roddick what would you tell him?
Mike Agassi: If you talk to him, let me tell you what you say to him: forget about the 150 mile an hour serve, forget about the 140 mile an hour serve. Serve 130 mile an hour first serve on the corners and serve a 122, 123, 124 mile an hour second serve hitting the corners and I’ll bet you if he served 130 mile an hour first serve a lot more are going to go in, but he can place it better. People are acing each other with 115, 120 mile an hour serve so you need to use your placement and not just go for the fast serve all the time.
Tennis Week: Do you see anyone out there who can challenge Roger Federer, long-term, for No. 1?
Mike Agassi: There is a (player) who needs to be able to serve and volley, not necessarily serve and volley together, but they need to serve and be able to come in and put away the volley during the point. For instance, if someone out there had the game Sampras used to have, he had the first and second serve almost the same speed and he placed them so well in both corners. And his first volley was very effective, so if someone had that game they could do it (challenge Federer). But the way it goes, everybody knows he’s gonna lose before they play Federer so it’s like they give up before they go play the guy. He only loses when he doesn’t play his best and the other guy plays over his head.
Tennis Week: The last time you and I spoke you said Federer was proving something you always said: that a champion doesn’t need a coach to be successful. Do you believe Federer can continue to dominate the game without a coach?
Mike Agassi: Can I ask you a question?
Tennis Week: Sure.
Mike Agassi: What is your job?
Tennis Week: Journalist.
Mike Agassi: Do you need a coach to do your journalist job?
Tennis Week: No, but I get a lot of unwanted coaching at home anyway.
Mike Agassi: Let me say one thing: if a person does not have a coach then he needs to have enough time to study the tapes himself. You follow me? He has to study his game and other people’s games. When I learned tennis, I didn’t learn tennis because someone told me how to hit the ball. I watched and I took one point from this player, one point from that player and one point from the other player and I put that together and I made a package gift for Andre. You follow me?
Tennis Week: Yes, you took the best quality from each player you saw and passed it on to Andre.
Mike Agassi: I taught Andre to take the ball on the rise because I saw Boris Becker once do that. I taught Andre to hit swing volleys because I once saw Lendl do that. He did that once in a year or two years, it was very rare, but he did do that. I saw players hit the inside out forehand and I did that with Andre. Play inside the court, I did that with Andre. Go to the ball and pick up the ball on the rise, I did that with Andre. Get on the guy’s serve with a short back swing on your return, I did that with Andre. Once in a while, players will do something that they don’t know they just did. They don’t realize it. And if you’re outside the court and you can study the game and see that and you can work on it the kid becomes a hell of a player.
Tennis Week: Do you see any player out there whose style reminds you of Andre? You know, who can take the ball early, take command from the baseline, punish returns?
Mike Agassi: Rios was like that. He reminds me of Andre and in one way he was something better than Andre: you couldn’t read his contact point and direction of the ball. Do you know the beauty of a mirror? If you throw light at a mirror at five degrees, then the light comes back five degrees the other side, correct? Now if the ball comes at your hand and if you meet the ball with an angle on the racquet then they cannot read your shot and where the ball is coming. Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you understand?
Tennis Week: Yeah, I understand what you’re saying. You’re saying the angle of the racquet face can be deceptive to the opponent and make it tougher to read the shot?
Mike Agassi: Yes, you can change the angle of the racquet head, some players. But if Roddick hits the ball crosscourt, before he hits, you know he’s hitting crosscourt. If you have the same swing and you meet the ball with the angle, then the guy crosscourt cannot read if you’re going to his backhand or forehand.
Tennis Week: Yeah, but that takes incredible timing and technique to do that.
Mike Agassi: Yeah, listen the guys who can do it are making a hell of a lot of money. You wanna do that? Go work on it. That’s what you have to work on it. My practice was the ball machine. I couldn’t give him 5,000 balls like that. I would put the ball machine on serve and ask Andre to change the direction on his return without telegraphing where the ball was going.
Tennis Week: How many balls would Andre hit a every day when he was growing up, training with you in the backyard?
Mike Agassi: I had somewhere around 60 garbage cans and there were around 300 balls in each garbage can and he would go through many of those garbage cans each day. Maybe 3,000 to sometimes 5,000 balls he used to hit.
Tennis Week: When did you know "My son is going to be something special. He’s going to be one of the best in the world?"
Mike Agassi: When he was two or three years old. When he was three and a half years old he gave a hell of an exhibition with Bobby Riggs. Then when he was four or five years old, he was playing with Jimmy Connors, Roscoe Tanner, Brian Gottfried, Vitas Gerulaitis, Panatta. You name it, he probably played with them. All those pros, when they used to come through Las Vegas, they’d say "Where is Andre? Where is Andre?"
Tennis Week: Andre is such a popular presence in tennis, probably one of the most popular players in the history of the sport, with that in mind would you like to see him keep playing as long as he can? His presence generates interest in tennis.
Mike Agassi: It’s not what I like, you follow me? As long as he’s happy, that’s the main thing. I’ll tell you something: the key of his drive is his wife (Steffi Graf). Because she understands the game of tennis, she knows what a tennis player goes through and she makes his life comfortable for him. Because he has to live from suitcases and she knows how it is and what that life is.
Tennis Week: Remember when Andre won the Australian Open and there was talk of Andre and Steffi playing mixed doubles? Will that ever happen at any point?
Mike Agassi: Steffi’s knees — she’s had three times knee surgery — and now that she has the kids and (pain in) her knees I don’t know if that will happen. Maybe some exhibitions, you know what I mean. Some exhibitions to play Andre and Steffi against Hewitt and his girlfriend if they hadn’t broken up. It could be, yes, but as far as playing together on tour, I doubt it.
Tennis Week: Steffi has told us their son, Jaden, loves sports. Would you like to see your grandchildren get into tennis in the future?
Mike Agassi: The little kid is already hitting balls, follow me? But very few great players have had their kids become great tennis players. Very few, like Taylor Dent is one, and a couple other people. But anybody else, like Pancho (Gonzalez) had five or six boys and none of them played tournament tennis. They played OK tennis. May I say something?
Tennis Week: Sure.
Mike Agassi: Behind the success of all the children are parents. If the father spends time with the kids, takes them to practice, take them here and there and show the kid to like the game, then the kid becomes a good player. But like if a pro's son plays tennis, big deal? So do my neighbor's son. These kids grow up and some live off the name of the parents, you follow me?
Tennis Week: Yes, and I'm sure there's a lot of pressure on the kids of accomplished athletes, there's a lot to live up to when you carry that name.
Mike Agassi: Well imagine if you're the son of a famous player saying "My father did this, he did that." Well what the hell did you do? Nothing. That's the problem.
Tennis Week: For his fans, Andre's character and charisma may be as much of an appeal as his tennis. Why do you think Andre has been able to connect with so many people around the world and emerge as such an influential person, not just in terms of tennis, but in terms of his work with charitable causes, education and children?
Mike Agassi: The story goes back to the childhood. I didn't send him to school, I took him to school. I drove him to school. I brought him home. I took him to church. Spend time with your kids, that's number one. Second of all, he brought the game of tennis a unique style of game, which people started copying him. He used to have a few thousand people following him around the world to see him play. You follow me?
Tennis Week: Yes. He's an attraction.
Mike Agassi: Yes. Mentally, you develop a unique personality and then whatever you do, they see it. Now you have to think: I can do good and they (will) see that and think good about you or you just don't give a damn.
Tennis Week: Your co-author, Dominic Cobello, told me he's interested in turning your book into a movie with Colin Farrell cast as Andre. What do you think about that?
Mike Agassi: I don't know that. I tell you the truth, I don't know if he has read the book yet.
Tennis Week: Would you like to see the book become a movie of your family story?
Mike Agassi: I don't care. Listen, I'll be 75 this December 25th.
Tennis Week: Wow. I thought you were in your 60s?
Mike Agassi: No, I'll be 75. My book is not yet complete. If I knew I would write the book two years ago, I would have just kept taking notes every day. There is more to the story.
Tennis Week: Andre has had some of his greatest success at the Australian Open, winning four titles including three of the last four years he's played there. How do you think Andre will do in Australia in January and will you go to watch him there?
Mike Agassi: There is a chance I will go with a lawyer we have in town. I may go with him and his son for a few days, there's a very good chance.
Tennis Week: You've been in tennis — either as a player, student of the game or coach — for six decades now. You've seen and studied some of the greatest players of the game, including your son. If there is anything you could change about tennis to make it better, more popular, more enjoyable for players and fans, what would you change?
Mike Agassi: I am so happy you asked me that question. I am so grateful you asked me that question. Thank you. I have talked to several presidents of the USTA and a lot of tennis pros about that question. The first thing I would do is bring the service line a foot and a half in closer to the net. You follow me?
Tennis Week: Right. You want to create a shorter service box to theoretically reduce the impact of the big serve?
Mike Agassi: Yes. Doing that, you see, you're not changing the game. The people that are watching cannot see that the service box is smaller so they don't even know or notice. Players like Roddick and someone else may not like it, but a lot of players did not like the tiebreaker when they started it. But they had no choice: take it or leave it. You have to have the service box shorter because the tennis game is becoming too much serving and people are losing their interest. The sponsors (are losing interest), on television, not too many people are watching it. If you are going to have the game just bang! — you hit the big serve to win, I can set the ball machine that serves 175 miles an hour and whoever returns more serves is the world champion.
Tennis Week: Right, but that's not playing tennis. That's a serving contest.
Mike Agassi: That is the truth. This is why women's tennis is more interesting now than the men's to many people because they enjoy seeing the ball going back and forth like they see in the women's game. But when you're serving so hard and the ball is out and they call it in because no one can see it, then you have lost the glory of the game, the excitement of the game, you have lost a lot. That's the one thing people want to see. Then some people say "how about we make the net higher?" Then still the short man has no advantage, you know? Plus you are changing the game. But bringing the service line in would help and everything is still symmetrical. Why not make it all equal for everyone? It took the British people years to go from the white ball to the yellow ball. Why are we so stubborn? Let's bring the service line in and let's have tennis be tennis again.
Tennis Week: If you were coaching Venus and Serena what would you do? I believe in Serena's game; what would you do to help her get back to the top?
Mike Agassi: I would love to have them both over my house. Let me ask you a question: why is the depth of men's tennis so great? The guy who is 112 in the world can beat the guy who is number 3 in the world, right?
Tennis Week: Right. Federer's losses were all to guys outside the top 10 this year.
Mike Agassi: Why? Because they always practice against men and they hit the championship ball the men hit and therefore they are used to the pace of the top 10 men and they can return their ball. I was talking with Serena's father and I said: "the reason your daughters are losing is because they are practicing with men." With the men, they hit the big shot that would be the winner against the women, but the men return it. You hit the big serve and the man returns, hit bigger and the men still returns it. You try to hit bigger and bigger until the ball goes out. Then you lose your serve and you lose your confidence. You hit crosscourt big ball and the man is going to return it, you hit another big ball and the man returns it again and the third ball you try to hit even bigger and it goes out. Why? Because you are muscling it. That's the way your game goes down. Their game has gone down. They hit, once in a while, great balls, but their game has gone down a bit. The Russian girls compete against each other and you see Russian girls win three of the four Grand Slams this year. They are absolutely not half of the talent of Serena Williams and Venus Williams. Serena Williams and Venus Williams don't have their confidence on their shots anymore.
Tennis Week: But doesn't that confidence come from success on the court? Winning matches gives you confidence, right? So what's the solution?
Mike Agassi: Stop practicing with the men. Serena and Venus, stop practicing with the men. Most of our American girls think if they practice with the men, he's a better player, then I'll get better. In some ways, yes, you get better playing with the better player. But you have to hit the ball — not just the big ball, but other shots (angles) — to see if the women can return it or not. I would like to see them play one women, Serena or Venus, against too good players on the other side in practice. Practice against two of them and if you can make the point against two good women then you can make the point against any of these girls in the world. I have told Andre and Brad Gilbert a hundred times: play one against two to improve your volley, but no, Brad Gilbert goes there and hits against Andre. I said: "Brad, if you were good enough to play against Andre, you would go on the tour and make more money." He always had answers. He hit one ball, he talks 10 minutes. He hit one ball, he talks 10 minutes. Then in two hours, Andre has only hit 30 balls.
Tennis Week: Last question: is there anything you want to share with the readers we haven't covered? Anything about your life or your book?
Mike Agassi: The book is easy reading. It's honest. It's very honest and whatever I get out of the book, my share, goes to charity.
Tennis Week: Has Andre read your book yet? If so, what does he think?
Mike Agassi: I believe he has read it, but we have never sat and talked about it.
Tennis Week: Maybe around Christmas — it's the holiday, it's your birthday — it's a time to be together and celebrate family.
Mike Agassi: Yeah, I would like to (talk), but I don't know.
Tennis Week: Listen, I really appreciate you taking this time to talk to me. It's always a pleasure to talk to you and I appreciate your honesty and your willingness to share your thoughts.
Mike Agassi: Thank you. Good luck to you.
Related story: The Tennis Week Interview: Mike Agassi September, 2004
Andre Agassi forever