Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

James Lawton: The agony and ecstasy of Andre Agassi's life less ordinary

His former lover, Barbra Streisand, sent him flowers and called him her Zen Buddha, but that was when Andre Agassi was a young and apparently uncomplicated god of sport.

Now, at 39, he recalls the agonies that came with doing something he didn't like, the tyranny of his bullying tennis father and a moment of breakdown when he took the often lethally addictive drug crystal methamphetamine.

Millions of fans who loved the panache of the quirky Las Vegan, who won Wimbledon as a 22-year-old and declared that henceforth he would consider the Centre Court his first home, will be further shocked by the revelation in his autobiography that he lied to the tennis authorities when he failed a drugs test in 1997. He produced the classic explanation — his drink had been spiked.

The truth was that the pressures of his life had become impossible to manage. It is also true that when you re-visit the young Agassi who seemed to have the world at his feet, there is some evidence that he was in the early stages of a crisis that has afflicted so many of the greatest achievers in sport, not least, in the superficially glamorous world of tennis.

My first encounters with the star came in Florida and Germany in the spring and early summer of 1993 when injury was threatening his defence of the Wimbledon crown.

He agreed to a lengthy interview, but bizarrely, only if I agreed to drive his golf buggy while he played a round that he had been aching for during long sessions of work and rehabilitation in Nick Bollettieri's tennis camp, an early clue, perhaps, that the boundaries of the game in which he had achieved fame were already pressing in.

In between shots, he released a stream of consciousness that was relentlessly and, on reflection, suspiciously upbeat.

He talked of his close relationship with John McEnroe, and of how he had spent hours on the telephone drawing out the secrets of a great competitor. He spoke of his special relationship with the great diva Streisand, one that went so much deeper than passing romance. Most obsessively he talked of the ‘high’ that came with winning Wimbledon.

Yes, the high.

He packed the private plane that flew him home to Vegas with newspapers containing accounts of his defeat of Ivanisevic at Wimbledon: “I read them all and then re-read them all over again repeatedly, because I wanted to confirm in my mind what had happened. It went on for weeks, my mind was still stuck on what happened at Wimbledon, what it meant to me and how it might affect the rest of my life.”

We know now that it meant the building up of demands which ultimately became impossible to meet, at least without some chemical assistance. In his autobiography he is candid about the weight of his father's presence and the rage he knew would follow if ever he whispered his hatred of the game which dominated his life.

Agassi goes all the way back to the age of seven and his desire to just walk off court and have a sense of heaven.

“But I couldn't,” he reports now, “because if I did my father Mike (a former wrestler) would have chased me around the house with a racquet.”

Tennis is, of course, littered with such stories of unbridled demands on children, and perhaps the only surprise in the Agassi case is that he avoided any suspicions about his own traumas for so long.

The authors of a new book on pressures in sport, Winning At All Costs: Sporting Gods and their Demons, devote a whole chapter to ‘The Svengali Syndrome — Fathers Stalking the Tennis Courts’.

The victims are known well enough. Jennifer Capriati was rushed into professional tennis at the age of 13 and, soon enough, was arrested in a motel after a drugs episode.

She fought her way back with some distinction, an epic performance when you consider her father had gone on record with his strategy. It was to get his daughter into the professional game early enough to win some big money before the onset of ‘burn-out’.

At one of Capriati's first tournaments, Martina Navratilova also expressed reservations about the pressure on her namesake, Martina Hingis, whose career was interrupted by charges that she had resorted to cocaine. So it goes, case after case.

Now, Agassi tells us that all those lost and bewildered little girls had companions on the other side of the gender net.

I saw Agassi a little later in that summer of 1993. He was competing at the Halle championships in Germany, one of the main sources of preparation for Wimbledon, but still under the cloud of injury. His face was strained and his mood much less buoyant.

He said: “It's just unbelievable how down you get when you fear that something has gone wrong with your body.

“That's what it comes down to in the end. You take certain things for granted and then, so soon after I won Wimbledon and believed I had made this great breakthrough, I was going through something very close to despair. One minute you are the king of the world and then you are wondering if you are going to survive.

“You have all these business commitments, this life mapped out ahead of you, all built on the premise that you are going to carry on being a tennis star. And then you wake up one day and have some really serious problems and wonder will you ever be able to play in the old way again?”

In view of his revelations this week, it is maybe reasonable to speculate there was something else at the heart of his questioning. He must have wondered if he would ever again get the rush that came when he won Wimbledon.

If that was the case, he was not the first nor the last to ask the question.

When the Bath rugby player Matt Stevens recently confessed to cocaine use and the collapse of |a brilliantly unfolding career, |he talked of both a void and an |illness.

Diego Maradona would have understood this only too well. After his astonishing displays in the World Cup of 1986, Maradona returned to club football in Naples, but by then there were other fires burning in the life of the great star, and soon enough he was one of the Camorra's best cocaine customers.

In the case of Agassi, though, perhaps those who feel betrayed by his confessions might better reflect on the fact that he appears to have survived some the worst of the pain that came to him at such an early age.

After his meths and his lies, two years later he won two more Grand Slam titles, the French and the US Opens, and after winning in Paris he danced the victory waltz with the women's champion, Steffi Graf. When they married soon after, they were hailed as tennis's perfect couple.

It is an image they have maintained impeccably until this |revelation and even now it is, surely, not so hard to understand, at least a little, the severity of the wounds so long hidden by their A-list smiles.

Open: An Autobiography by |Andre Agassi, HarperCollins £20

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