The Tennis Week Interview: Mike Agassi (Andre's father)
By Richard Pagliaro
It's been said one man's trash is another man's treasure, but garbage was more than a gold mine for the future Grand Slam champion. Andre Agassi and his father and first coach, Mike Agassi, dug down deep daily into green garbage cans to form greatness from the roots of refuse receptacles.
In the backyard tennis court built by Mike Agassi with local help behind the family home in Las Vegas, father and son took the court for daily training sessions that would commence with Mike Agassi loading one of the 60 green garbage cans containing about 300 tennis balls into the ball machine. As the ball machine spit out shots at varying speeds and spins the young boy, barely tall enough to peer over the net, boldly stood on the baseline blasting everything right back with the defiance of one refusing to relinquish ground to the tireless tennis machine that showed no signs of slowing down on the other side of the net.
No shot was a throwaway.
In those backyard practice sessions, Agassi struck thousands of shots every day, sharpening his strokes, taking the ball early on the rise and refining the short back swing that made his shots so difficult to read while producing the punishing, penetrating deliveries darting deep into the corners.
He has evolved into one of the hardest-working men in tennis — a player who spends holidays sprinting up hills and his labor days patiently pounding penetrating groundstrokes to break down opponents with the force of a jackhammer jabbing jarring holes in pavement. Andre Agassi constructs points with a purpose, but the foundation for his world-class work ethic was formed in a city chiming with the sound of silver dollars streaming from slot machines and attracting tourists seeking to strike it rich with a single roll of the dice, while the boy paid his dues with old-fashioned fervor on the backyard court.
"Vegas has been the fastest-growing city in America for more than 30 years," Agassi once said. "It's a city of great vision. It's a city where the community believes that if you actually believe in something enough, you can create it and make it happen. It gets a tough rap because it's perceived as an adult Disneyland. But the community of people who actually live here is strong. It is a community that bonds together and looks out for each other. It's an incredibly inspirational city."
As a child, the eight-time Grand Slam champion found a lifetime of inspiration in his own living room. Both of Agassi's parents set an example with the work ethic he would emulate as a tennis player. His father, Mike, who grew up from an impoverished childhood in Tehren and grew into an Olympic boxer for Iran, arrived in New York at the age of 22 with $26 in his pocket and a more meager English vocabulary. He was the type of man whose idea of settling a dispute was pounding his fist in your face. Spending $22 on a bus ticket to Chicago, Mike Agassi began his journey with $4 in his pocket and a wealth of dreams in his head. Six years after arriving in Chicago, Agassi met and a shy, blue-eyed beauty, Elizabeth "Betty" Dudley and the couple soon married and moved to Las Vegas where they raised four children.
Mike Agassi worked a 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift at the Jubilee showroom at the MGM Grand Hotel and hired local workers to help him build a tennis court in the Agassi family backyard where he taught tennis to his children. Elizabeth Agassi worked at an unemployment office in the city, instilling her compassionate character in her children.
The youngest Agassi child also had the challenge of dealing with a domineering dad who drove his sensitive son relentlessly to reach his own expectations of excellence. Mike Agassi admits he was a demanding father in his autobiography, The Agassi Story, which was released in the summer.
"I know I have a reputation," Mike Agassi says. "People say I’m abrasive. Domineering. Fanatical. Overbearing. Obnoxious. Temperamental. Aggressive…People say I pushed my kids too hard, that I nearly destroyed them. And you know what? They’re right. I was too hard on them. I made them feel like what they did was never good enough. But after the childhood I had, fighting for every scrap in Iran, I was determined to give my kids a better life. I pushed my kids because I loved them."
In addition to learning the importance of hard work, Andre Agassi's experience growing up in the city of neon gave him an innate sense of showmanship he would bring to the court as a professional.
"A lot of times when I was with my mom, whether we were going to go get dinner or go shopping, we needed some money from dad, who was working," Agassi once said. "So we would pull into the old MGM Grand Hotel, and at like eight years old, I would go running through the casino to the Jubilee showroom where they had all the naked dancing ladies, the follies kind of chorus line type stuff...to just wait for my dad to come through his little turn there in the office. He would give us some money and I'd go running back out, go to the grocery store and go home. As a little boy, it felt strangely normal."
The casino culture put food on Agassi's table and the boy who grew into a Grand Slam star continues to contribute to his native city through the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, which has raised more than $35 million for charity and the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, his charter school that offers education to 250 students.
Agassi actively promotes the city where he lives with wife Steffi Graf and their children Jaden Gil and Jaz Elle and spends some of his off season time training right next door to the house where his parents live.
The boy whose game was created in the backyard has brought his skills to the biggest courts around the world at age 34 he shows no signs of slowing down. Agassi, who beat a trio of former top-ranked players in succession — Carlos Moya, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt — to capture his record 17th Tennis Masters Series title at Cincinnati in August is committed to playing the 2005 season and may well play a year or two more.
The Agassi Story has all the elements of a Hollywood movie and someday it might just make it to the big screen.
Mike Agassi's co-author, Montreal resident Dominic Cobello — a former concert impresario who produced rock concerts by bands ranging from The Who to Cream to Steppenwolf in the late 1960s and can be heard singing background vocals on the John Lennon classic "Give Peace a Chance" — is shopping the book around to Hollywood studios. Though no studio has optioned the rights yet, Cobello believes the recent resurgence of sports movies, both studio releases and made-for-television movies, bodes well for a future Agassi film that already boasts a built-in audience of avid Agassi fans all over the world. The author already has cast the leading roles in his head: Al Pacino as Mike Agassi and Colin Farrell as Andre Agassi.
"Andre Agassi is one of the most well-known and well respected athletes in the world and Mike Agassi's story of coming from such a tough life in Iran where they didn't have an indoor bathroom in his house and where he fought his way out of poverty to the Olympics and came to America where he raised his kids to reach their dream — that's the ultimate American success story," Cobello told Tennis Week. "I would love to see Al Pacino in the role of Mike Agassi because both are expressive, look you right in the eye and talk with their hands a lot. And Colin Farrell, if you see photos of him with his head shaved, he looks very much like Andre Agassi and has a bit of the presence Andre has. People have loved the book and I think the interest will be there for this project."
Shortly after publishing his life story, Mike Agassi sat down with Tennis Week in the shadow of Arthur Ashe Stadium during the U.S. Open for an extensive interview. Reader response to the first Mike Agassi interview was positive, with many readers requesting another interview with Mr. Agassi.
In this second interview, Mike Agassi discusses why he believes Andre may play two more years, what former No. 1 player most reminds him of his son's style, coaching advice he would offer to Andy Roddick and the Williams sisters and changes he advocates for improving tennis. To read the interview, please click this link: The Tennis Week Interview: Mike Agassi, December 2004.
Andre Agassi forever