Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Andre Agassi hit his lowest lows in the mid-1990s. Could he redeem himself?

This is part 3 of my series on Andre Agassi's Open: An Autobiography, a must-read for tennis fans. Part 1 covered his epic 5-setter at the 2006 U.S. Open against Marcos Baghdatis, his upbringing by a violent father, an incident in Washington D.C.'s Rock Creek Park, and his rise in the junior ranks. Part 2 covered his rise to sports greatness and falling in love with celebrity Brooke Shields.

The second half of tennis legend Andre Agassi’s brilliant bio Open begins with him finally ascending to number-1 in the world, taking the place of Pete Sampras, who has held the honor for the previous 82 weeks. That said, Agassi didn’t feel anything. He wanted to feel something, but he didn't. To have something to keep going for, he set a goal to win the French Open, which would give him championships at all four of the major tournaments. 

Agassi also read in the papers that Boris Becker was trash talking him to reporters, and 1995 became "the Summer of Revenge" as the two will inevitably play each other. Agassi won tournaments by beating Stefan Edberg in D.C., Sampras in Montreal, and Michael Chang in Cincinnati, but he wanted Becker. At that year’s U.S. Open, he finally got his chance - in the semis, with the winner to play Sampras in the final. Agassi told the security guard in the tunnel to keep him and Boris apart. Down by two sets, Becker wanted to rattle Andre and began blowing kisses to Andre's girlfriend, Brooke Shields, in the stands. Agassi ended up winning the match in three sets but would he be completely spent 18 hours later for the final? It turned out he wasn't spent. He had injured a rib, but played Pete anyway, losing in four sets.

The loss semeed to slowly destroy Agassi. As he failed to secure the number-1 spot above Sampras, Shields rocketed to further stardom and landed a plum supporting role on Friends - the number-1 TV show in the world. They went to L.A. together and Andre met the whole Friends crew but something irritated him while watching Brooke lick Joey’s hand in a scene. He walked out, drove all the way back to Vegas, and smashed all his tennis trophies and rackets. Brooke was incensed that he left, which she said destroyed her concentration for the rest of her scenes on set. They made up, but the writing already seemed to be on the wall for their eventual demise as a couple. Regardless, Agassi proposed to her on the beach one night and she accepted while he instantly had the thought that they were moving too fast. 

In 1996, Agassi appeared to be losing his mind to everyone watching him on the court. He knew it was happening as well. At one point, he gave a bunch of money for college to someone who worked at his favorite restaurant in New York City and it seemed to click that he felt much better about helping other people than he did about helping himself. This is underlined by how he won the gold medal for his country that year in the Olympics (and also had an unmatched record in Davis Cup team play) but then he returned immediately to the tennis tour in Cincinnati where he was “playing for myself again … smashing my racket in a fit of rage.” 

Back home in Vegas at his bachelor pad, one afternoon he was sitting around with his assistant Slim, who talked him into trying crystal meth. Andre continued to struggle on the court. Meanwhile, Brooke became obsessed with wedding planning and taped a photo onto the fridge of how she wanted her body to reach perfection for when the time came to put on the wedding dress. The photo: Steffi Graf.

Andre and Brooke two got married in a swelteringly hot - with sweat dripping down Andre’s forehead - church in Monterey in April 1997. He was stressed, miserable, and mortified about his sweat outbreak throughout the weekend’s festivities. The capper was when he hurt his wrist shooting bow and arrows and would have to pull out of the French Open, adding that clay is the toughest surface for a tender wrist

Andre continued being miserable, doing drugs in Vegas while Brooke was in L.A., helping friends who has child-medical emergencies, and then coach Brad Gilbert talked him into coming back for Cincinnati, where he was beaten by one of my favorite players ever, Gustavo Kuerten, in 46 minutes. Andre made it that fall into the round of 16 at the U.S. Open, losing to the red-hot Patrick Rafter. After yet another first-round loss, at Stuttgart, Gilbert had a heart-to-heart with Andre, telling him he needed to completely start over - get back in shape and then start playing lowly challenger matches. 

Then a doctor called to tell him he would be suspended for three months because the USTA found the crystal meth in his system. Andre lied in his letter that he didn’t intentionally take the drugs. Regardless, his trainer Gil, dealing with his daughter’s recent broken neck, jumped in with his usual gusto to get 27-year-old Andre back in shape for the first time in years. Gilbert got him ready for his first challenger tournament, which Andre lost in the final. The coach needed to start researching some technique for his fallen player. “Every shot is an educated guess. You need to retrain that muscle with which a tennis player decides in the heat of battle that this shot is the right one and this shot is the wrong one.” 

This comeback - if that’s what it was - was keeping Agassi busy. He hardly ever saw Shields, who was working 12-hour days on her new hit TV show Suddenly Susan. She didn’t watch his tennis and he didn’t ask about her show. He did however take the time to start a foundation for kids at risk, which included a 25,000 square-foot Boys and Girls Club. It started as tennis courts and a computer lab, but Andre wanted to do more and he caught wind of how forming a charter school could align with his vision. 

Fresh back from a visit in South Africa with Nelson Mandela, Andre woke up on New Year’s Day and decided 1998 would be his year. He made it to the fourth round of the Australian Open. Next he beat Sampras in the final of the San Jose Open. He won Scottsdale but not Indian Wells. The main thing was that he started to feel like he really wanted to win again, especially for his new team at the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. He also received a call that the USTA had accepted his explanation and would not suspend him for the crystal meth, but karma for that lie may have come in the form of a hurt shoulder at the French Open. He missed two weeks and actually, during that time, unusually missed tennis. After a loss at Wimbledon, he and Brooke finally took their honeymoon to a private island in the Caribbean. Brooke wanted to keep busy with things like scuba diving and Andre wanted to relax in the room; they headed back home three days early, never getting in synch. 

At Legg Mason in D.C., Andre started a process of waking up early and writing out his goals for the day. He won the final in 50 minutes 6-2, 6-0, for his fourth D.C. title. He kept winning and again beat Sampras, knocking him out of the number-1 ranking and placing himself all the way up to number 9. He failed to win the U.S. Open but got back to work building the Academy in the worst neighborhood of West Las Vegas. Andre didn’t even really notice when Brooke didn’t show up for the groundbreaking. They decide to separate for three weeks, but when Andre suggested they go to therapy together instead of separately, it became clear that Brooke didn’t want to try to help Andre with all his struggles. He sold his wedding band at a pawn shop and donated the money in Brooke’s name to his Academy. And he said he wanted the “fastest divorce in the history of divorce.”

This book has it all, and I'm looking forward to reading how much Andre can redeem himself in the end. Stay tuned for my final report.

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