Lunch with the FT: Andre Agassi
By Peter Barber
Published: December 28 2007 15:36 | Last updated: December 28 2007 15:36
I have started to think like a loser. My tennis partner has pulled to a three-game lead. I want to ask Andre Agassi what to do. Agassi is the game’s toughest fighter. He is also one of sport’s great philanthropists. He could surely give me advice.
As I am shown into his suite at the Savoy hotel in London, I am wondering how I can ease him into it. Agassi is surrounded by business associates and PRs. He is here to promote his post-tennis career as a developer of top-end property in Idaho. As he stands to greet me, smiling broadly, I see that 15 months into his retirement, he is in peak condition. The physical grace he displayed on court is still in evidence as he leads me through the suite, right up until he walks into the coffee table.
As a tennis player, Agassi had several careers. There was 1980s and early 1990s Agassi, who sported a blond mullet haircut and pastel outfits and railed against the traditionalism of tennis institutions such as Wimbledon, before going on to win there against Goran Ivanisevic in 1992. Then, after injuries took their toll and things went flat for a while, there was the Agassi who re-emerged in 1995 shorn of the hair and the attitude. This Agassi reached the number one ranking for the first time after a 26-match hardcourt winning streak before, again, things began to slide. A wrist injury resurfaced. As did reports that his first marriage, to actress Brooke Shields, was failing. By the end of 1997, Agassi had slipped to 141 in the rankings.
The following year he burst back on to the circuit yet again, a more focused, more conditioned athlete who would wear down his opponents in long, punishing rallies. By 1999, he was back at number one. When his 21-year career finally ended, Agassi had won eight Grand Slams, an Olympic gold medal at Atlanta in 1996 and 17 ATP Masters Series tournaments – more than any other player. He’d also taken more than $31m in prize money. The last time most people saw Agassi was after his defeat to the low-ranked German Benjamin Becker in the third round of the US Open on September 3 2006. Tormented by back and leg pain, he was clearly in agony. Agassi, who had announced that he would retire after the tournament, was given an eight-minute standing ovation at the end of the match.
When I mention this moment, he laughs. How could anything that followed measure up to those eight minutes, I ask. “The motivation was never to ... win,” he says. “The motivation was this process that I really connected to, and that’s why that eight minutes that you’re talking about meant so much to me, because it was a by-product of everything I’ve cared about from my career, which were these connections. If I could go back in time and ... win that tournament, I wouldn’t do it, because that would interfere with what I care for most, which was that eight minutes.”
He takes a long swig of water. Retirement from tennis must have left a gap in his life, I say. “No,” he insists. “I tell you the area where I have struggled the most: not being able to look at my year and understand it in full context of how this year is going to play out. I used to know where I was going to be 10 years in advance. Now I don’t know where I’m going to be in two weeks. And I’m used to that mindset. So that I miss.”
I pour myself tea. People from the next room are milling in the doorway to hear Agassi speak.
“Don’t misunderstand what tennis came with,” he continues. “Tennis came with a lot of drama. It came with a lot of things you don’t necessarily regard as positive.”
Such as? “Physical pain ... You know what’s worse than always having to train to be ready for something? It’s having to rest to be ready for something. Having to sit there while your kids want to go play. I thought I was a moody person until I retired and then I realised that tennis had made me like that.”
So, if winning wasn’t driving him all those years, what was he reaching for? “The worst and the best thing a person can reach for is just a little bit more,” he says. Is he still reaching for that? “Yeah,” he drawls. “But reaching for a little bit more is sometimes the greatest thing in the world and sometimes a curse, because you’re always pushing.”
If not for the injuries, would Agassi still have a shot at it today? He doesn’t hesitate. “No.” Roger Federer is better, he says. “I think he’s the best we’ve ever seen.”
It sounds like life is easier without tennis. Agassi slumps his shoulders. “Way, way easier,” he says. “You don’t have to be so consumed with one thing.”
For as long as he could remember, Agassi had been consumed by that one thing. His father Mike, a former Olympic boxer, had trained baby Andre’s eye by hanging tennis balls above his crib, tying ping-pong rackets to his hand and dangling a balloon in front of him to hit. By the time he was five, Agassi was hitting 5,000 balls a day and practising with future champion Jimmy Connors.
It doesn’t sound like much of a childhood. “Let’s look at it this way,” he says. “Let’s compare me to someone 15 or 20 years older. And their career came at the cost of their immediate family – there was the father who was always travelling and never home with the kids. That’s what I got to do before I had kids. So there is a certain amount of thankfulness that I have for that happening at a time of my life that had the least stakes.”
Agassi now has a new career. He and his second wife Steffi Graf – another of tennis’s greats – are 50-50 partners with Bayview Financial in a luxury condominium project in Tamarack, Idaho. What persuaded him to devote his new-found free time, not to mention some of that prize money, to property development? “This is about an opportunity to connect with people,” he says. “In tennis, that is what you do. You play real hard and ... you affect someone’s life for two hours – this is an opportunity to do that on a much broader scale.”
Property development was not something he had really considered before. He and his wife had initially visited Tamarack looking for a place to “share some traditions as our family grew”. They met the owners, bought a chalet, then decided to back the whole venture.
His business interests have begun in this “organic way” before. He is also a partner in 12 restaurants with San Francisco chef Michael Mina, who once organised a New Year’s eve party for him. “I’ve found myself backing into so many of these things just through relationships,” he says.
Now 37, Agassi was born and lives in Las Vegas but there is more of the California dude than the Vegas high-roller about him. His speech is languid and peppered with references to “connectedness”. Today he wears black cords and a brown casual shirt, open to reveal a leather strap strung with ivory blocks spelling out “Daddy Rocks”, made by six-year-old son Jaden.
Agassi lights up when I ask him about his philanthropic work. He started the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation in 1994 to help at-risk children in southern Nevada. It has since raised $60m and funds a charter school in one of the state’s poorest areas. “What’s the most profound way to affect a child’s life? It’s to educate them, to give them the tools, and then they’ll cope,” he says.
Agassi says the broader mission of the school is to begin a “discussion, not just in our state but in the entire country, about how we should fund national education.”
As a porter sheepishly wheels in a tea trolley, I think it’s almost time to ask Agassi the big question: how does one come back from a three-game deficit? First, I test the ground with a tricky one. How did he overcome something as painful as his divorce to Brooke Shields in 1999 to recover his number one ranking in the same year? “I think it’s the pushing of yourself,” he says after a tense pause. “You’re like, chopping on a tree and you don’t realise how far you’ve got to go, you only care about the next step, you know? I have a lot of that in my nature. Sometimes it’s hard for me to pull out and give you context because at the end of the day, I don’t think that way. I don’t think from 50,000ft. I think at street level. Very focused.”
Does that focus explain his success, then? “And my failures as well, you know. I think I could have got a lot more out of myself at times not putting myself through that pressure. To be better than I was yesterday – that’s something that doesn’t shut off.”
These days, Agassi watches the game a lot but when asked about the possibility of coaching, he says: “I will not get paid for my coaching but I will give it away for free.” Agassi’s walked right into it. He wants me to ask his advice. I explain that my slump is due to psychological factors, as my stroke-play has never been better.
There is an awkward pause. “The question is: how can you make yourself the best you can be?” he says, at last. “And then judge that against what someone else is doing ... I wouldn’t be focused on who is beating you. I’d be focused on why you are getting the least out of yourself.”
As he walks me to the door, he says he has not yet decided if he will stay overnight in London. One of the PRs suggests he should stay to catch a show. I agree. Agassi hands me his mobile phone and tells me to explain to Graf that he won’t be home tonight. I’d like to return his favour but I decline. He needs to learn to manage life without a schedule by himself.
Peter Barber is the FT’s deputy comment editor
The Savoy, Royal Opera House Suite
One pot of tea
One tall glass of water
Free for the FT
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007