When Barbra Streisand called the 23-year-old Andre Agassi “a Zen master” and “very intelligent, very evolved, more than his linear years,” critics and cynics scoffed.
They saw an immature punk who tanked matches, a shallow character
who epitomized his “Image is Everything” camera commercial slogan. Only a few insiders, though, knew why the Las Vegas showman behaved and played so erratically.
The answers came on every page of OPEN, his poignant and inspiring autobiography that ranked No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. Agassi bared his tortured soul with brutal honesty. He survived an abusive father, a “Lord of the Flies” environment at the Bollettieri tennis academy as a teenager, his own self-destructive ways on the pro tour, a foray into drugs, and a failed marriage.
Then he finally turned his life and career around, finding his true love, Steffi Graf, and a passion for the sport he had hated for years. On his extraordinary evolution, Agassi says: “Am I glad I went through it? Absolutely. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
This candid interview reveals much more about how and why Agassi managed to change himself, and using the bittersweet lessons he learned, how he now plans to change the world.
Paul Fein: Why did you write OPEN?
Andre Agassi: The main reason is, after being on the tour and running across so many people during my journey and evolution, I’ve believed for many years that my story was inspiring to them from a distance. I’ve always wondered what kind of inspiration would really exist if people understood the depth of what I was fighting against and fighting through and overcoming. I also wanted to understand my own journey better, and that was another reason for my writing the book. Then I wanted to communicate it in a powerful way to inspire or help people for a lifetime. I knew a lot of points in my life were relevant to and related to a lot of people’s lives − whether you’re a teenager who struggles with identity issues, you’re a person who finds yourself in a marriage you don’t want to be in, you’re a parent who is trying to raise your children in a healthy environment, or a child trying to learn how to forgive your own parents.
When you and your friend J. R. Moehringer finished writing your autobiography, did you think it would be critically acclaimed and rank No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list?
That’s similar to the question I’ve been asked over the years: Did you ever think you would win Wimbledon? No, you don’t really think those things are that achievable. You get into it for different reasons and focus on different goals, and then, as you evolve, you start to realize that you’re dealing with something really powerful here. J.R. and I didn’t cut a corner for two and a half or three years while writing OPEN. And we did have a hope that OPEN would be respected as the piece of literature that we believed it was.
You wrote that Moehringer’s memoir, The Tender Bar, spoke to your heart when you read it during your final U.S. Open in 2006. What message and inspiration did that book give you?
His was a journey of trying to understand who he was through the leader he had, or rather lack of leader, his father. I recognized that journey, trying to understand myself through the life I am living. I also was taken by his tortured perfectionism, by his fear of failure. And on top of it all, what really pushed me toward J.R. was that it was the first time I read an autobiography that really made me realize exactly how profound a person’s story can be in other people’s lives. For the first time it occurred to me that if I did a book, I might be able to have a greater impact. In tennis, the thing I ultimately connected with the most is this opportunity to affect someone for a couple of hours in their day. That’s been a deep inspiration for me. The thought of impacting someone for life is overwhelming, if I could have that kind of impact. And that’s why my [college preparatory] school and education in general has been so important to me. It’s about connecting with people to make a difference in their lives.
You’ve admitted that you were late in discovering the magic and power of books. What is that magic and power? And what other books have influenced you, or even changed your life?
A number of books have left marks on me. Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s memoir, profoundly impacted me. I spent most of my life feeling very overmatched by books. With my lack of formal education, I was quite intimidated with the thought of picking up real pieces of literature and absorbing them. As a result, I haven’t read a whole lot in my life. In going through this process of writing my own book, I realized all that goes into it, the layers and the filters and the way every word gets fine tuned, and the way a paragraph gets reduced to a sentence that makes the whole page come alive. I started to really appreciate the power of words and the power of stories. As a result, I look at books with great reverence now.
You’ve said it was very difficult to write OPEN, but that it was absolutely necessary. Would you please explain both of those points.
What was difficult was understanding my story. We all know the experiences in our lives. But I don’t think a lot of us really know our story − like what decisions led to what, and why. To turn yourself inside and out and look that deep and to be willing to expose yourself to the truth is a difficult process. But if I were to accomplish the goal that I wanted to accomplish − with this book having real relevance in people’s lives − I needed to go through that process honestly and transparently. So I had to do it that way.
Ironies abound in OPEN. Why and how did you, a ninth-grade dropout who hated school, become one of America’s leading and most passionate advocates for the education of disadvantaged children?
First of all, I have profoundly felt the lack of education in my life. I also believe I was lucky in the sense that I was good at something that could give me a chance to surround myself with educators. I happen to be good at tennis. I found myself looking at the lives of other people who aren’t educated, and I realized without education you don’t have options. And when you don’t have choices, you wake up in a life you didn’t choose. For me, that meant tennis for a while. But for others, that means jail, it means gangs, it means poverty. It means waking up and seeing the devastation in your life, not to mention in the lives of others. So it was a real appreciation for how fortunate I was. But the reality of it is that I missed out on a lot.
In another irony, as part of your first wife Brooke Shields’ motivation during her rigorous pre-wedding training regimen, she taped a photo on the refrigerator door of “the perfect woman with the perfect legs − the legs Brooke wanted.” Around the photo she put a magnetic heart frame. Please tell me about how that struck you then and years later.
(Laughter). When I saw it [the photo of Steffi Graf] then, I didn’t realize its meaning. A lot of times in life the universe speaks to us. And there are other times when it screams at us. And there are times when you don’t hear it. I was in the kitchen looking at the picture, and I just treated it for what it was, that it was Brooke’s inspiration. And I just agreed with her. (Laughter). I don’t know if Steffi is the perfect person, but she definitely had the perfect legs. Looking back on it now, I realize there is a lot more going on around us than we realize at the time. So it’s part of my life that’s hard to believe. It’s one of those points in my life that if you took it to a movie producer and said, “What do you think? Should we do a movie about this?” they would say, “We have to make it believable because it’s that hard to believe.”
Since Steffi and you, the 1992 Wimbledon champions, danced at the Wimbledon Ball, is it fair to say that Steffi may have remained in the recesses of your mind as a charming, sexy woman?
Well, she was. I always had an appreciation of her aesthetically, but the question becomes: Who is this person? And I didn’t know that. But I did attempt to spend some time with her in the early ’90s, and I always held her in high esteem as I looked at her life from afar. So my interest in meeting her was great, but it wasn’t the right time in my life, so I didn’t give it much thought.
The morning after you overcame Marcos Baghdatis in a savage battle at the 2006 U.S. Open, your father saw you hobbling and urged you to quit and go home so you would not suffer any more. You replied, “I’m sorry, Pops. I can’t quit. This can’t end with me quitting.” Please tell me about this bittersweet irony.
I just had been put through so much as a result of tennis, as a result of my father, as a result of my never feeling that I chose tennis until I was 27 years old. I never gave up [tennis]. I wanted to. In some cases, I tried to. But here I was, so close to the finish line. And the one thing tennis teaches you is how to get across the finish line. You can’t just run out the clock [as in some sports]. You can’t just pass the ball. And that’s what I felt that morning when my father wanted me to quit. I felt no, this is a finish line that I deserve to feel. And I will feel this finish line snap across my chest as I go through it because I’ve come too far to not finish.
Was there also a double irony in the sense that your father never wanted you to quit throughout your career, and now all of a sudden, he is the one saying you should quit?
Well, it was a realization for me that he was not much different from me. It wasn’t that he loved tennis. He was tortured by tennis. He loved it, but he hated it. He wanted his children to have a future of their choosing, but in doing so, he did it without giving us choice. That moment made me realize that he had suffered along with me, maybe in a different way. But that bothered me. To me, that made the entire father-son relationship come full circle.
The last nine-word sentence of the book delivered a final and fitting irony. You write: “I want to play just a little while longer.” What happened when you were playing with Steffi on a public court after you had retired? And why did you want to play longer?
I think it’s my DNA with tennis. It’s been so embedded that no matter how much I’ve been through and how much it’s taken out of me at times, it’s part of my life, it’s part of my bones. And I was also at a stage where it was different for me. I used to care when I missed a shot. I didn’t care if I made it. I just didn’t want to miss it. And here I was with Steffi and realizing, gee, for the first time, it feels really good to make it, and now that I think about it, I don’t care if I miss it. That’s the way it should be with a sport that you’ve grown to own and to love. I just never had enough of that in my career.
Despite all the pain and anguish in your life, OPEN also recalls lots of fun and funny incidents. While your match with football legend Jim Brown when you were nine wasn’t funny for you, it was hilarious to read. Explain what happened.
The thing that is so funny about the story is how the same scenario can be happening to a few people and … I’m sitting there as a nine-year-old boy with sweat dripping down my arm as my father tells Jim Brown that “I’ll bet you $10,000, our life savings, that he’ll beat you.” Money was always such a big issue in our home. We didn’t know how much money our father was going to come home with from work. In one case when I was ten years old, the MGM Casino, where he worked, burned down and he was out of a job for a year. We were living on a bare minimum, which was one salary from my mother. So the thought of actually betting that kind of money came with real mixed emotions to me. It came with real fear, but it also came with a sense of pride. As hard as my dad was at times, and as hard as I represented him in the book, I also was very clear about the fact he was incredibly generous, and he was fiercely loyal. And he was also very proud of me. Those are powerful emotions. That incident with Jim Brown had all of that: the money and the struggle, the fear, the pride. It left an indelible mark on my mind.
In another funny incident, a judge gave you a most unusual sentence after you got two speeding tickets within 45 minutes.
Here I was, a 19-year-old kid, speeding around in a Corvette, And I get taken back in a police car, and I end up in a little town, Kingman, Arizona, in a little courthouse. And I was taken to see a judge in his office, and I was scared to death. I didn’t know what I was in for. But it turned out he was a big tennis fan and wanted me to drive all the way back just to meet me and ask me a few questions about tennis and ask me for an autograph. Then he sentenced me to “Give ’em hell down in Scottsdale” where I was playing that week. It speaks to how surreal my life really is.
Your Iranian grandmother was responsible for making your father angry and violent, which in turn determined your fate, at least until you were a teenager. What did your grandmother do to your father, and what lessons did you learn from her about your own parenting?
She was a mean lady. She was abusive and angry. For punishment, she would make my father wear hand-me-down girl’s clothing to school, which caused my dad to get into a lot of fights, which eventually led him to boxing. There’s no question that upbringing had a lot to do with the way my dad was, and as a result, affected me. But I never made those connections at any early age. I just kind of looked at her and thought, “God, I’m glad I had my dad and not her.”
For dark humor, there were almost predictable fireworks when your proud and pugnacious father met Stefani’s proud and pugnacious father. What happened?
Yeah, that was quite a scene. I took Peter, Steffi’s dad, to meet my dad for the first time. And he comes to Vegas, and he doesn’t want to see the Grand Canyon or Lake Mead. He wants to go see this ball machine, “the dragon” [Andre’s nickname for the souped-up machine his father created that fired 2,500 balls a day at him at 110 miles an hour when he was a boy]. So I take him over there. He’s very excited to see this machine, which basically flatters my dad. My dad takes a lot of pride in that, and he walks Peter down to the court. Neither of them speak good English, but they both love soccer, they both love tennis, they both love boxing. My dad turns on the machine and wants me to demonstrate how this machine can kick my butt and how good this machine is. As he is asking me to demonstrate, he’s trying to talk over the sound of the ball machine and Peter is not listening, and he couldn’t understand anyhow. Peter starts telling me about the shot I never learned, the backhand slice. (Laughter) So, the funny thing is, he is doing two things you never do to my father: you never not listen to him, and you never mess with his star pupil. So my dad comes over and grabs the racket from Peter and starts showing him the two-handed backhand and says, “If Steffi had a two-handed backhand, she would have won 32 Grand Slams.” So they started going back and forth, as to which is a better shot. Then my dad makes a boxing analogy, and Peter snickers and says, “Boxing! Oh, you’re a boxer. I’m a boxer, too. I think I would have knocked you out.” So, I’m turning around, trying to deflect balls from hitting both of them, as they start shadow boxing. My dad starts explaining how he was quick and how he’d get inside to punch. So I turn around and am watching my father and Steffi’s father shadow boxing each other and missing blows by mere millimeters. I’m thinking this could turn ugly so quickly. That was their first meeting and the last.
Several times during the book you related how much you hated tennis and how that admission stunned your friends and acquaintances. After the book was published, however, you explained that you had a “hate-love” relationship with tennis, not a “love-hate” relationship. Please explain the evolution of your feelings toward tennis.
Well, I hated tennis my whole life, until I was about 27 years old. Tennis also came with angst, pressure. It had some good points − obviously, money and success came with it, and from the outside that seems all well and good − but problems don’t discriminate against real struggles that people have. They don’t discriminate against wealth, they don’t discriminate against titles. So I always struggled with tennis because it was never something I chose for myself. And it wasn’t until I was 27 years old and gave myself permission to quit, to really walk away. A lot of times I didn’t walk away from tennis out of a lot of fear. I didn’t know what I would do if I walked away from the sport. At 27 I decided to quit. In a brief moment I told myself: It’s over, I can walk away, I’m [ranked] 140 in the world. The second I told myself I could quit, that was the time I asked myself: What if I chose it for the first time in my life? I remember looking out the window in the hotel room at the cars going by and wondering how many people are doing something they hate, but they’re finding reasons to do it. And I started to think: What can be my reasons for doing this? And I started to think about things I cared about. My [college preparatory] school was about to be built. I thought, finally I have my own team, and I have this school which is much larger than I but still connected to me. And, all of a sudden, I started to play for other reasons besides myself. Tennis gave me my school, and it gave me my wife. I started to get a lot more fulfillment out of it and a lot more perspective in it. And I took ownership of my life. When that happened, I started to appreciate and respect the game for what it was. And I absolutely grew to love it.
Just before the 1995 U.S. Open, you mused: “If everything goes according to Brad’s plan, I’ll face Becker in the semis. Then Pete. I think: If only, when we’re born, we could look over our draw in life, project our path to the final.” In retrospect, given a choice, would you have even wanted the anguished and confusing but ultimately fulfilling hand life dealt you?
It’s been an extraordinary life. Would I have wanted this life? It’s like asking if I have any regrets. I have all sorts of regrets. Would I change everything? I would change everything, and I would change nothing. I look at what you’re asking, and I ask myself: Am I glad I went through it? Absolutely. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
That’s a very complicated answer. It’s almost like a contradiction.
It sure is. Part of my evolution of understanding myself is realizing that in many respects we are all walking contradictions. The second you embrace that reality, it’s very liberating. I’m a conflicted, tortured, complicated person. I’ve got news for you. So are you. We all are. The question is: Do we hide from the realities of what we really feel? Do we bury them? Or do we face them and address them for what they are? I’ve looked pretty deep into myself, enough to realize, yes, it is conflicting, and I am conflicted.
George Orwell observed, “An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.” If Orwell is right, should your autobiography be trusted?
I happen to agree with Orwell because I have a hard time believing we all don’t have skeletons in our closets and parts of us we’re not proud of, whether it’s things we’ve done or things we think or things we feel. So if you’re going to give an honest account of your life, it has to have a mixture of positives and negatives. It has to be balanced to give an accurate representation of who somebody is. If you’re not seeing anything disgraceful in a book, you have to question how honest it is.
You certainly were highly self-critical in OPEN.
It was important to me to be self-critical because the book isn’t about blaming others. The book is really about blaming myself. Yes, I had some perspective about other people and things in the book. But that perspective was all coming from a distorted lens, which was me.
Is it fair to say that your mother Betty and Gil Reyes, your longtime trainer and confidant, are the heroes of OPEN in your often conflicted life and rollercoaster career?
I would say my brother Phil, Gil and Steffi are the heroes. My brother taught me how to hear the best of what my father was saying, how to feel his pride in me. Sometimes I felt that from my brother because I could see my dad’s disapproval with his [level of] success in tennis. Other times Phil just verbally helped me understand who my dad is and how I should feel about myself. Phil was always there for me. He was the balance, as well as my mom. My brother hit the road with me when I was 14, 15 years old, and he was really there during those difficult years when I was trying to fit into an adult world. Phil raised me in a lot of respects. Gil really taught me that I’m worth caring about, and he taught me with the way he cared about me. Steffi came along and showed me how to live my values. Talk about them long enough to understand them, but now you have to be doing it. She brought stability, balance, reward, perspective to my life. Those three were the heroes.
One of the most stunning revelations in OPEN is that Brooke Shields told you that every one of your friends − except for Gil Reyes − was bad for you. Did Brooke ever say why? Or was she merely being malicious?
She was never just malicious. She cared for me. We just didn’t know how to care for each other. She felt that I had people around me who were telling me what I wanted to hear and misleading me and misguiding me. She really believed that. She wasn’t trying to control or hurt. She was doing what I had done so many times to her, which is that she was trying to care, but she was failing at it.
But wasn’t Brooke factually wrong?
Yeah, she was wrong. In hindsight I can say that so many of those same people are still in my life. So it was wrong, but it doesn’t mean that it was meant to hurt or it was fabricated. She believed it at the time.
To correct what she feels are some unflattering revelations by you in your memoirs, Brooke Shields is writing a book of her own. In a recent interview about how you became jealous and angry when she licked the hands of a “Friends” TV program actor, Shields said: “With Andre it was like, ‘Please be the adult. Please take care of me.’ ” She also told Ladies Home Journal, “Does he mention I spent the next three years replicating those trophies [you smashed in anger]? He doesn’t say that, does he? Of course not. That’ll be in my book!” What are your reactions to Shields’ statements?
My reaction is that this book was never designed to shine a negative light on anybody. It was designed to show people my life and my evolutions and who I was and what I learned and how I grew. I was harder on myself than anybody. So I don’t regret anything in the book as it relates to what I communicated. As it relates to Brooke, I would love to read what she has to say. And I would wish her the best with her book and her life. Two people can come to the very same intersection and see it differently. It’s like a car accident witnessed by two different people from two different perspectives. It’s what you bring to the table that forms your lens, and that lens is crucial in determining the colors of your life. It wouldn’t shock me if she interprets our experiences together differently. And if she does, and she wants to express it, she should.
Apparently you had only one thing in common, stage parents. So, other than that one starting point, you diverged far apart as people.
Yeah, I think timing is really important in life. So I think when you don’t know yourself, I don’t think it’s easy to love or allow yourself to be loved. So, for me, I would have failed at any relationship in my life at that stage.
Losing your hair in your early 20s traumatized you and even seemed to make you feel shame. How and when did you finally come to terms with your baldness?
I came to terms with it at the end of 1994. I was 24 years old. I talk about my life not being a lie, but being a constant pursuit of the truth. I was constantly trying to understand myself. And when I did understand something finally, I’m the kind of person who had to act on it. I had to move forward and take that step. I got to a point where I felt very fraudulent with my hair. I felt like I was lying. I felt like I was a fraud. I felt like I was a hypocrite. So when it occurred to me that was the truth of it, it was something I had to do. I had to just get rid of it − regardless of any consequences that could come with that decision.
In OPEN, you revealed you were extremely worried about losing your hairpiece during the 1990 French Open final. Was that why Andres Gomez, who was 30 and had never advanced past the quarters of a major before, upset you?
I’m sure it didn’t help my cause. But the truth is, I found a lot of reasons to lose at that stage of my life. If I didn’t have a hairpiece, I have no idea if I would have won because there were a lot of tennis balls to be hit. But I do know that the last thing I was worried about was winning.
In Inside Tennis magazine, you said, “When I got rid of it [my hair], it was a step toward the truth. My life has been fighting for truth.” What did you mean by both statements?
A step toward the truth, meaning it was who I am. I’m freeing myself of this cave that I’m hiding in, this thing I’m hiding behind. So it was a step toward the truth in that respect. For me, it’s always been about understanding. I’ve internalized [things] as a kid. I’ve always thought about things a lot. I have an analytical mind by nature. And I’m hard on myself. So I continually fight for the truth. Seeing the truth is hard for all of us.
Why did you see a psychotherapist? And why didn’t psychotherapy help you?
I went to therapy at a couple stages − in 1997 and I even briefly tried it a few years earlier − because I got really frustrated with the treadmill of my emotions, and the fact that I constantly ended up back in the same spot. I’d go through these years where I thought I was doing better with tennis, and then the next year I didn’t want anything to do with it. I didn’t know what the root cause of any of these things was. Then I’d go to therapy and try to stop the madness, if you will. I found myself thinking, “Gee, I have to take backward steps right now in order to move forward.” But in a tennis career, there just is no time to handicap yourself with that. What I needed to do was walk away from the game and get myself right. But I never quite made that decision.
Why did you write so little in OPEN about your two older sisters as well as all-time great Pancho Gonzalez, who had an impact on your career?
No, he didn’t. Pancho was married to my sister Rita. Nobody’s life fits into 400 pages, so you’re constantly trying to reduce your life to the most formative things, experiences, people. And my older sister was on with her life when I was growing up in the house. She was significantly older than I. She left the house at 16 years old and tried to pursue her tennis career. So I never saw a lot of her. Then I left home when I was 13 and would go years without really seeing my sisters. With my other sister Tamee, it was the same. She just wasn’t that formative in my life. She was living a different existence than I was in my house because my father had a difficult relationship with his first daughter and then the second one could do no wrong. So I had all the focus, all the attention, and she just had her own experiences. So I just couldn’t speak about it confidently, and I ultimately concluded it wasn’t formative.
During the depth of your depression in 1997, you took crystal meth, a performance-inhibiting drug, tested positive, lied to the ATP about how it happened, and got away with it. That explosive revelation prompted Boris Becker, Roger Federer, Marat Safin and Rafael Nadal, among others, to denounce you for taking drugs, for escaping punishment, for depriving other players of ranking points and prize money when you should have been suspended, and for besmirching the sport. Why did you belatedly, after the statute of limitations had expired, admit to taking drugs? And what was your reaction to their criticisms?
First of all, my suspension would have been three months. It would have come at the end of the year, which might have made me miss the Australian Open, depending on when it was implemented. I didn’t beat anyone [of note] in 1997. There were no results at all to speak of. I fell to No. 141 in the world. It wasn’t the case that I deprived other players of anything. I had a simple choice to make in writing this book. First, do I write it? Second, if I write it, am I going to tell the truth? Let me restate that. I had a choice to write this book for my motivations and reasons, or to not write it. But I didn’t have the choice to write the book and then not tell you the truth. So, my reaction to the reaction is: read the book. Because if you conclude after reading the book that I should not have lied [about taking drugs], I agree absolutely. Should I have been suspended? Absolutely. Should I talk about it now? When is the best time to tell the truth? Immediately. When is the next best time? The next day. The next day. And the next day. Every day is the next best time to tell the freaking truth! So I was at a point in my life where I couldn’t understand what I had been through until I started to look at my life. As I did that, I was faced with a simple decision: either write this book or don’t.
Some observers, like Martina Navratilova, criticized you for the opposite reason − for revealing that you took drugs. What about that criticism?
I don’t understand that criticism. For me, it’s not about the sensationalizing of taking drugs. It’s about something much deeper and more meaningful. Can I inspire people’s lives with my story? So the criticism that I shouldn’t come out with it [drug revelations] to save my face isn’t valid. I can take the criticism as long as what I am doing is actually making a difference. And that’s the way I felt about it. I felt that this is going to make a difference. There are a lot of people who are struggling with their own identity, and as a result, they find themselves tempted to take drugs, they find themselves in a battle with drugs. It’s a harsh truth in our society. And it’s getting worse and worse. So, for me to take a few hits to really help people’s lives is a fair shake.
In a recent 10sballs.com interview, super-agent Donald Dell, said: “He’s phenomenal. Andre is brilliant in that he’s built a brand − and obviously being married to Steffi Graf helps − and all the good things he’s done after tennis. I’ve been to their school in Las Vegas and seen the kids and the rules he has established and it’s something right out of a movie − it’s so good. No question, Andre has really created a brand. You compare Agassi to Sampras as players and Sampras may have been a better player, but look what Andre has done with his life after tennis.” What is your reaction to that praise? And have you set an example for other pro tennis players to follow?
I hope that everybody feels a responsibility to make a positive impact on the environment around them as much as they can. I had to take ownership of my own life, and I have to live with it every day, and I’ve chosen to do it. Those words are flattering, uplifting, and I certainly appreciate them. But I fight every day for my peace. I fight every day to make a difference. I’m proud not of what I’ve done, but I’m proud of the way I go about my life. I’m proud of what I’m focused on. I’m proud of what I care about. And I hope that that’s something that motivates others. We can only pick up our load and then some.
In Europe and Asia, billboards and posters of you with various products appear in airports and other public places. What are your biggest and newest product endorsements as well as business ventures?
I’m with Adidas, Longines, Genworth. I’ve stayed with the same companies since my retirement. It’s continued, and we’re doing a lot of stuff in the world of education. As far as my business goes, I’m pretty darn blessed in my life and can say I don’t have to do anything for the sake of economics. So, most of my focus has been on spreading education to children who don’t have the opportunity. I’m figuring out ways that you’ll be seeing here shortly to have a national impact on education in inner cities in America.
Specifically, do you have a national blueprint to replicate your own schools?
Yeah, but I also have regulations that keep me from talking about it in a media forum. It’s not something I can discuss specifically. What I can say is that I do care about education, and I believe in coming years I’m going to be able to provide a lot of schools across this country. My college preparatory school has received a lot of recognition for what it has accomplished because of the target child that it helps. They are the [disadvantaged] children that society has written off the quickest. So we’ve been educating them here for 12 years. The question is: how do we scale it? And that’s what I had to get my arms around. And that’s what I’m close to being able to talk about. You’ll be hearing about it very soon. I am trying to educate [children] because it’s the only chance for a future. Education is where it’s at. If we fail our generation of children, we have failed our future.
Would you please tell me about the exhibition matches Pete Sampras and you will be playing this year.
We’re scheduled to play a few places after the first exhibition in Atlantic City. A few people have reached out to get me down to South America and a few places where I haven’t spent much time over the years. Being on the court with Pete has always been a positive experience. It’s added to my life in many ways. He’s cost me a lot of titles, but he’s also given me a lot as well. It’s fun to get out there and remind yourself of what you used to do and have some fun doing it. It’s part of who I am. I have to stay connected to the game.
Which countries will the exhibitions be staged in?
They will be in Chile, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Bogota [Colombia]. In Asia, we’ll quite possibly play in Tashkent and Kuala Lumpur. I want to go play some tennis if I can squeeze it in and not be away from the family too long.
You have reportedly been approached to run for a political office. Would you please tell who approached you and what was the office? Do politics and being a politician interest you?
I don’t know what you are referring to. I’ve never really seriously considered politics. But I’ve enjoyed rolling up my sleeves and doing my work. If there is ever a time later on in my life where I could take a one-term position and actually get aggressive about significant change, I suppose I could never say never.
In OPEN you often leveled criticism at sportswriters. Nothing infuriated and haunted you more in the early 1990s than the memorable “Image is everything” Canon camera commercial that the sports media twisted to taint you. When your Wimbledon victory forced them to change their tune, you wrote, “After two years of calling me a fraud, a choke artist, a rebel without a cause, they lionize me.” Specifically, which sportswriters have treated you the best and most fairly? And who are the worst?
I won’t mention names here because the truth is there were some sportswriters I opened up myself more to on a personal level and others who judged me for my actions, which, in many respects, was the right thing to do. It’s not about a journalist making the mistake of being critical or not critical. It’s about living a life that is on a stage and in a spotlight that you have to live with accountability and responsibility. OPEN is written in the present tense, so it’s telling you what I’m feeling as I’m feeling it. It’s not looking back and judging it.
In OPEN you were most critical of Boris Becker, Michael Chang, Thomas Muster, Jim Courier, Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras. Interestingly, three were the other members of America’s “Greatest Generation” in the 1990s. Have you spoken face to face, or even on the phone, with any of these six Grand Slam champions since the book was released? And, if you happened to see them, what would you say to them?
Pete, I have. We saw each other in our “Hit for Haiti” exhibition. We had plenty of time to talk before and some time after it. Listen, this isn’t any surprise. The only difference between this book being written as it relates to them is the fact that it’s being told − not the fact that all of a sudden it has changed any dynamic. Boris knows our history. Over beers at the Oktoberfest, he even laughed about what he said to me and told me I should say the same thing about Pete to try to get in his head. What I wrote won’t surprise Connors about the relationship that we had when I was 18 years old. Connors and I have spent seven minutes talking to each other our whole lives, and most of those minutes came when I was seven years old. Again, this book was written in the present tense. I guess Chang could be surprised at the offense I’ve taken to his thanking God for every time he won a point. But the truth is, this was written as I was living it as I was feeling it, and these were formative times in my life. And if anybody was honest about what they thought and how they felt during any of their experiences in life, they are going to possibly offend somebody.
Although you praised longtime archrival Sampras, you also called him dull, robotic and cheap. Sampras said he didn’t read OPEN, but he responded to press reports by saying, “I always felt like Andre and I had risen above taking shots at one another. When I did my book (A Champion’s Mind), it wasn’t my way of settling scores or taking shots.” Does Sampras, who wanted to meet “man to man” with you, have a point, or did he miss the point of your book?
If you have a comment about my book and you haven’t read it, you’re missing the point. You can’t comment on what you don’t know. It’s okay to have an opinion about it once you’ve read it. It’s okay to say, “This is how you characterized me.” On the same page that I was talking about Pete’s lack of inspiration, I was very clear that there were times that I envied it, times that I was confused by it, and times that I resented it. But I was very clear about the fact that he had something that I didn’t have. You go through all sorts of emotions when you travel the journey that I’ve traveled. Again, in telling my story in the present tense speaks to how I was feeling at different times. It doesn’t speak to who somebody is.
Was jealousy one of those emotions you had toward Sampras?
I think it was envy. There were times I envied him. I listened to him keep reporters at bay. And I would constantly find myself sticking my foot in my mouth or revealing too much about myself. As a result, I felt exposed and even more vulnerable. I watched him wake up every day for six years and be No. 1 in the world. You don’t do that because inspiration is necessarily motivating you because you can’t be inspired every day for six years. You do it because regardless of what you’re feeling you are able to go to work and be focused. I envied that at times. Other times I resented it.
One of the hallmarks of your autobiography is your honesty. Do you have any regrets about your role in the unnecessary incident with Sampras at the “Hit for Haiti” fundraiser doubles exhibition featuring Federer, Nadal, Sampras and you at Indian Wells?
I feel horrible about that. I feel horrible about the fact that you’re out there on the court for an hour with a microphone − it’s like stand-up comedy − and you’re trying to say a lot of things, and you’re succeeding on nine out of ten, and one [comment] falls flat. I highly regretted it. It was inappropriate. It was out of line. It crossed the line. And I’m regretful for it. Under normal circumstance, if you’re on a stage doing a comedy act, you can just move on. But Pete got hung up on it, too, and it made things escalate. And I’m sure he has regrets, whether he’d admit it or not. But I know that I can only control what I say and do, and I was out of line.
One of the most poignant anecdotes in OPEN is about Frankie, the hard-working manager of Campagnola, a favorite Manhattan restaurant for Brooke and you. You wrote: “Remember this. Hold on to this. This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others.” Please relate what happened and why it proved so important in his life and your life.
Frankie is someone I had seen quite often and that I cared about deeply. He was explaining his own fears in life, which was not being able to educate his children. It just never occurred to me how important education is until you see its importance in a friend’s eyes about his children. When I was able to put away some Nike stock to help the future of his kids, I saw the joy and the peace and the relief that came to him. At that moment you sort of feel your purpose. It’s not about your life and changing your life. It’s about changing the experiences of others. That’s where I find real perfection, real joy and real fulfillment.
Specifically, how do you think your autobiography will teach and inspire people who read it?
I think it will help people who are trying to find and discover who they are. It will help teenagers by not allowing people to label them and to not allow themselves to feel labeled. It will help adults not to label children and treat them like an end product when in fact they are a work in progress. It will help people who are in marriages that they don’t want to be in. It will give them the strength to move on with their lives, and one way or another, to fix their lives and take ownership of their lives. I think OPEN is about forgiveness of parents, of yourself. I think there are a lot of human stories that it will help and inspire.
How did your wife Steffi react when you told her that you planned to write your autobiography? And what are her opinions of the book?
Obviously, she is a more private person than I am. She’s not quite as quick to open herself up publicly as I’ve been in the past. But her trust of me overwhelmed that, and she knew that unless I was proud of the book, I wouldn’t turn it over. I didn’t just sign a contract and say, “Give me a date and I’ll have the book done.” I said that when I am done with this book, I will decide if I’m going to turn it over or not. So she trusted me with that. And when she read it, I think she was moved. I think she was proud of it.
Never in tennis history have American men players been so unsuccessful. Andy Roddick was our last Grand Slam champion, way back in 2003. Roddick, No. 8, is our only top 15-ranked player. We recently lost to Serbia in the Davis Cup first round. If you were in charge of U.S. Player Development, what steps would you take to help America regain its former stature as a tennis power? And do we have any young prospects with the potential to become champions, or even top 10 players?
Yes, we do. You have to get a racket in as many kids’ hands as possible at the grassroots level. The fact is, more people who start playing tennis stay with tennis than with other sports, like soccer or baseball. We have to identify the talent so that we can nurture it. The USTA has come up with a really creative program, regional training centers, where they’re going to each section of our country and trickle down their knowledge of the game.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery. You were the first player to acknowledge spectators after every victory by bowing and blowing a kiss to all four sides of the stadium. Are you pleased that many players do that today?
The fans are everything in our sport. They make our sport, they make our lives as pros. So acknowledging the fact that you appreciate them, win or lose, is crucial. I just think it’s the right thing to do. I’m glad when I see today’s players show respect for the fans.
You never played Roger Federer while you were in your prime and completely healthy, but what were the differences between playing Federer and Sampras, who are generally recognized as the two greatest players in history?
Federer would be no. 1, and Pete would be No. 2. Federer brings something to the game that nobody’s brought before. You cannot deny his skill sets. You take his game, and you realize he has three or four departments at his prime that were arguably the best in the world. That is a lot to fall back on. I said it when I lost to Fed in the final of the  U.S. Open. I said it in my book. I said it a number of times since. He is certainly the best I’ve ever played.
What are those three or four departments?
His forehand absolutely is the best. His [service] return is terrific, he got more balls in the court than anyone. He would play three matches a year when someone would out-ace him. If you think about how amazing that is, that’s not because he’s hitting 35 aces a match. His movement and his anticipation and his versatility and his feel, his hands at net. The guy had the whole game covered.
Your family and college preparatory academy take up most of your time. But do you have the tennis itch to pull a comeback on the Champion’s Tour, coach talented youngsters, or become a TV tennis analyst?
I love talking about the game. I love teaching the game. I can’t coach because coaching is about a life commitment. I don’t have all the time and energy required for that. I love talking about the game, but being a commentator requires travel for weeks at a time. And I have no desire to compete anymore.
You captured eight Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal during a 20-year career, had an extraordinary evolution from a teenage punk with a haircut and a forehand to a highly respected elder statesman on the tour, became a renowned philanthropist who created a highly successful college preparatory school for disadvantaged students, and wrote a courageous and wise autobiography. What will you ultimately be most remembered for?
I don’t know what I’ll be remembered for. But I hope I’ll be remembered for giving opportunities to kids that society was quickest to say do not have a chance and was quickest to write off. My hope is to educate those children and take one of those success stories and watch one of those children change the world. That’s what I hope happens. I hope somebody who changes the world can say it was because of a chance that somehow I was a part of.
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