Monthly Archives: November 2009

Questions About Agassi’s Late Career Success

Andre Agassi Book Signing

When Martina Navratilova learned that Andre Agassi tested positive for crystal meth and got away with it by lying, she compared Andre to U.S. baseball player Roger Clemens. Martina was referring to Clemens’ lies about using steroids in the face of evidence to the contrary. Whether it was intentional or not, by comparing Andre to Clemens she put the focus squarely on both players’ suspicious late career success.

Clemens resurrected his flagging career and won four of his seven Cy Young awards and both of his World Series rings after the age of 30. Andre won five of his eight slams after the age of 29.

Clemens explained his success in magazine articles detailing a brutal workout regimen with his trainer Brian McNamee. The articles extolled Clemens’ work ethic as he pushed himself to new heights on the stationary cycle and endured hours of medicine ball torture with McNamee.

Replace McNamee with Gil Reyes and you have a similar scenario. Agassi met Reyes in 1989 but it was 1999 when Andre says the two of them agreed to retool his workouts. Now the magazine articles described interminable sprints up a 320 yard paved hill on Christmas morning. Andre turned 29 in 1999 and that year he won both the French Open and The US Open – the first and only time he won multiple slams in one year.

Retooled workouts are a plausible explanation for Andre’s later success but suspicion now comes with the territory after getting duped by Clemens. And then there’s baseball player Barry Bonds who set the record for home runs when he was 36 years old and also attributed his late career success to hard training.

There’s evidence that Clemens cheated. His trainer covered his own butt by keeping tainted needles he used to inject steroids into Clemens’ butt. Gil Reyes would never in a million years out Andre. And the ATP – nor it’s pre-WADA independent drug organization or whatever it was the ATP blamed for swallowing Andre’s lie for the crystal meth postive – clearly wasn’t interested in disclosing drug use by its players.

We’re not supposed to taint legends without evidence. But we should at least be rolling our eyes at Andre’s late career success with as much cynicism as we showed at the French kiss defense Richard Gasquet used for his positive cocaine test.

Others rolled their eyes too. Gasquet is currently defending himself in front of the Court of Appeal for Sport (CAS). The CAS is appealing the decision by an independent tribunal called by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) which gave Gasquet a two and half month suspension. The ITF and the World Anti-Doping Agency think he should have been banned for at least a year.

Major League Baseball protected baseball players before the league was pressured into starting a drug testing program. The ATP protected tennis players before the ATP accepted Olympic drug testing standards. That protection helped players at the time but now it leaves them under permanent suspicion without much hope of resolution.

Then Andre comes out with the most revealing sports autobiography I’ve ever read and I wonder if part of it is a cover; a way of distracting us by highlighting his crystal meth escapades so we’ll bemoan his recreational drug use instead of wonder about his late career resurrection.

The Andre Agassi Open

I started writing about Andre Agassi’s new autobiography Open last week. In excerpts of the book released at the time, we learned that Andre had done crystal meth and gotten away with it and his multicolored ‘do depended on a wig. While those revelations were surprising, they didn’t change my opinion of Andre all that much. He’s always been outrageous relative to the rest of the rather staid tennis world.

But that was before I took off on a cruise to the Caribbean and found myself restricted to my bed as our ship tossed and turned and banged into waves on its circuitous path around hurricane Ida. By the time I re-emerged, new excerpts of Andre’s book had been released and now my feelings towards Andre have changed.

First, let’s credit the publisher of the book with p.r. genius for releasing excerpts with increasingly titillating revelations. Second, let’s credit Andre for being the showman he’s always been. His father really missed the boat considering his longtime employment in Las Vegas casinos. He had a performer on his hands in Andre and he diverted him into tennis instead.

This, actually, is the essence of the book. Andre has hated tennis ever since his father cobbled together a hulking ball machine that loomed over 3 year old Andre like a videogame monster. The book is nothing if not a sharp portrait of the ways we spend our lives negotiating our relationships with our parents.

According to Andre’s father, Mike Agassi, he made his son hit a million balls during the year he was 7 years old. In response, Andre figured out that hitting the ball off the frame of the racket sent the ball over the fence and gave him a short reprieve while his father retrieved the ball. When his father gave him speed before a junior nationals final, Andre figured out that keeping the match close before finally winning it would tell his father that giving him speed didn’t make that much difference and might dissuade him from doing it in the future.

Fast forward to Andre’s adult activity with crystal meth and two marriages with women who had overbearing fathers, and you can see that the process of processing our parents is a never ending trip. Steffi Graf is his current wife and her father Peter Graf is one of the few tennis fathers on earth who compares to Andre’s father in the race for overbearing tennis parent. This is amply illustrated in the book when a meeting in Las Vegas between the two fathers results in a confrontation that Andre has to break up.

I know this world on a much smaller scale. My mother treated me like Cinderella. I was the one cleaning the house and ironing my mother’s darling son’s clothes while he was out being a juvenile delinquent. I got back at her by accidentally breaking off most of the rays on her prized sun clock and outperforming her darling son in every aspect of my life.

You can feel that same kind of bitterness and jealousy in Andre’s voice. And not just towards his father. He trashes Pete Sampras for being a one-dimensional player and a bad tipper. Andre is hardly in a position to slam Pete for being one-dimensional considering how much time he spent in the middle of the baseline and the bad tipper thing is just silly.

Andre’s stated reason for writing the book is to unburden himself, but this book is just one more example of the acting out he describes in the book and that’s why he’s getting so much grief from the sports community. The tennis community wants to know why such a great champion would wound them by saying he hates tennis and always has, and the rest of the sports world is mocking Andre for being an adult who’s still crying about his father.

But the sports world is used to reading sports books not memoirs. Sports books about champions focus on adulation and overcoming odds while memoirs are often records of screwed up family relationships and people’s screwed reactions to those relationships. Memoirists know they’ll look bad.

Andre does too and I appreciate him all the more for it.