Interview with Andre Agassi
John McMurtrie, Chronicle Book Editor
Saturday, November 28, 2009
What does a star athlete do after he retires, with boatloads of money in the bank, before age 40?
Golf every day? Lounge by the pool? Record the requisite album of lousy rap songs with celebrity friends?
Not if you're Andre Agassi.
Agassi, who even before leaving professional tennis in 2006 founded an educational academy for at-risk kids in his native Las Vegas, has now published one of the best autobiographies ever written by an athlete.
"Open" (Alfred A. Knopf; 386 pages; $28.95), unlike so many run-of-the-mill, paint-by-number memoirs churned out by sports figures, is a thoughtful, self-effacing, often funny and always absorbing examination of a young man's struggles with himself and his sport, and his ultimate development into a mature, happy adult.
In the book, written with J.R. Moehringer, author of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning coming-of-age memoir "The Tender Bar," Agassi recounts how tennis was forced upon him at a very young age by his overbearing, rage-filled father. Agassi rebelled as a teenager and more or less lived a lie through much of his 20s and 30s, trapped in a sport he says he always hated (reading the book, one has no reason to doubt him) and married, for a time, to a woman (Brooke Shields) whom he knew from his wedding day was not an ideal partner for him. At his lowest moment, as has been widely reported, Agassi succumbed to an alleged friend's invitation to snort crystal meth. (Despite critics' recent outbursts, as Agassi points out, the drug is anything but a performance enhancer.)
Thanks, in the end, to the tremendous support of Gil Reyes, a trainer who became a mentor and father figure, and also to Steffi Graf, the fellow tennis great who became his wife, Agassi was able to take stock of his life and learn to be at peace with himself. And he began to play some of the best tennis in his career.
As with any great tennis match, Agassi's story has its shocking setbacks, its spectacular comebacks and, finally, a result to cheer.
Agassi, dressed sleekly in dark designer jeans, a black V-neck shirt and black boots, and radiating the good cheer and calm of a Buddhist monk (the shaved head also helps), sat down on a visit to San Francisco last week to chat about his book.
Q: Now that you've been on this busy tour, doing all these readings and interviews, signing all these books, do you long for the tranquil days of the professional tennis tournament circuit?
A: No, not really (laughs). Because the thing that's different, as hard as it is to do both, I feel like this tour, unlike the other, has real, deep relevance. This book will live past me, this book will live for people I've never met.
Q: You read J.R. Moehringer's memoir "The Tender Bar" in 2006 while on the road, playing tennis. How did you hear about it?
A: A friend of mine who's a character in the book, J.P., sent it to me because he knew what I was going through, pressure-wise, and he thought I'd love it, thought it'd be a great escape for me. And it turns out it was. I rationed these pages through the end of my career, and as a result found myself feeling like, what if my story could impact somebody the way his has impacted me? Which was pretty much the impetus for me not only deciding to do a book but specifically reaching out to him.
Q: You began keeping a diary of your thoughts after your son Jaden was born. How much of your memoir grew out of that?
A: I wanted my son to know me during the years when, if something happened to me, he wouldn't know me. But beyond that, I think this book is a love letter to the people in my life, especially my wife and my kids and those who have helped form who I am.
Q: Do you know if Pete Sampras has read your book?
A: I don't know. I haven't heard from him. (Laughs.) I hope he does, I hope he does. I give him a lot of credit and I highlight a lot of our differences. You know, we gibe each other a lot, it's our dynamic. He makes fun of the way I walk; if he's not making fun of that, he's making fun of how many times he's beaten me in big matches. So the same page and a half that I'm talking about his tipping skills (Agassi writes about Sampras once tipping a valet driver $1), I'm also celebrating his dominance.
Q: What about your parents? What has their reaction been to the book?
A: My father told me he's not going to read the book because he knows what he did to make me a champion. Then he said to me as I called him to make sure that he was OK with the sensationalizing of him over the last number of weeks, he said 'If I could do everything over again, I would do the same thing, except I wouldn't let you play tennis - it would be baseball or golf because you can play longer and you can make more money.' So he's 80 years old and not confused about who he is. And my mom, on the other hand, she read it, she said it was hard for her to read it, but she really appreciated understanding me more and at least how I look at things. She's a reader, so she was really proud of it.
Q: And so now it's on to your next book?
A: I'm choosing sleep first. I've been exhausted. This process, since I retired, has been full-on for me. And I just want to take some time to recalibrate my life and think about what I'm going to do.
E-mail John McMurtrie at email@example.com
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle