Growing up as a young, hyperactive kid, playing a sport like tennis did not immediately appeal to me. That is, until I went racket shopping and found the flashy orange-and-black T.I. Radical, the signature model of Andre Agassi. I began to get interested in professional tennis entirely due to my fascination with a man that would call his racket “The Radical.” Within weeks, I had the Agassi shoes, a matching Agassi shirt and shorts combo, and while I was forbidden from piercing my ears or growing a mullet at that age, I did everything I could to imitate him. To me, Agassi represented the pinnacle of professional athletes; here was a guy who had his own wild style in a traditionally conservative sport, a player who used this radical energy to overpower taller players with more weapons on the biggest stages.
I did not notice when he dropped in the rankings, but you can’t accuse a 10 year-old of being a fair-weather fan. When Agassi reappeared at the top of the tennis world, this time bald and noticeably more reserved (but still toting that Radical) he only won me over further. No one cheered for Andre louder than I did, until I tearfully watched him retire in 2006 (I was 17 at that time).
He had enjoyed relative anonymity since that emotional farewell (and I’ve instead begun worshipping King Lebron James, although I can’t afford his shoes), until news concerning information included in his upcoming autobiography leaked early last week.
In “Open,” released Monday, Agassi admits, among other shocking revelations, to having used crystal meth for the better part of a year during his professional career. With this admission comes the truth about a dark period in the professional athlete’s life; deep dissatisfaction during his marriage to Brook Shields, the use of a hairpiece to hide his balding, and most surprisingly, that for most of his life, he hated tennis.
In the wake of admitting such surprising and unsettling facts about his life, Agassi has been criticized publicly for his drug use by members of the tennis community. In an interview with the Associated Press, former women’s tennis standout Martina Navratilova called Agassi’s drug use “shocking.”
“Not as much shock that he did it as shock that he lied about it and didn’t own up to it,” she added. “He’s up there with Roger Clemens, as far as I’m concerned. He owned up to it [in the book], but it doesn’t help now.”
Additionally, Agassi’s former opponent Marat Safin called for the eight-time Grand Slam winner to return his prize money and give back all of his titles (60 of them) in an interview published by the French sports magazine L’Equipe.
These professionals are understandably upset that one of their peers violated the ATP’s drug use policy and suffered no repercussions, and more importantly, undermined the values of competitive athletics. While Agassi was certainly wrong, he is deeply remorseful that he turned to drugs in an extremely dark time in his life, which he explains in his book and expressed emotionally in a “60 Minutes” interview with Katie Couric that aired on Sunday.
Safin accused Agassi of sensationalizing his life and drug use at this time to make money. Navratilova, meanwhile, equates him to a man who repeatedly used and lied about the use of performance-enhancing drugs (although crystal meth is on the ATP’s list of banned substances, I would imagine that it is by no means a performance-enhancer).
So naturally, one might imagine that a kid who exalted Andre Agassi like I did would be crushed to find out his deep faults.
Throughout this ordeal, however, my respect for him has only increased.
Andre Agassi was never given a choice to become one of tennis’s most decorated players of all time; from the time he was five years old, his father had made this decision for him. He was not living his own life; he was stuck in an unhappy marriage and an unfulfilling professional career, which ultimately led him to recreational drug use. On the court he had to contend with Pete Sampras’s serve and Patrick Rafter’s net play, but off the court, he was simply a man dealing with life’s most significant challenges.
Agassi emerged from his dark times to win the career Grand Slam, an honor he shares with only five others. More impressively, since his retirement, he has devoted his life to the establishment of a private school for under-privileged youth in his hometown of Las Vegas.
Despite these tremendous successes, I am touting “Open” as Agassi’s most significant triumph.
From Andre, I learn that even our greatest heroes are human, capable of incalculable error and victim to even greater pressure and anxiety than we can imagine. He crumbled under the pressure, and that is a match that he will never get back.
What he has done instead, is given the world the truth about his life, perhaps for catharsis, perhaps, as Safin might suggest, to fund the purchase of computers for the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy.
Maybe I have idealized him too much, but I suggest that Andre is showing us the man behind the mullet because he knows that at the end of the day, a man has to live with himself. In the interview Agassi said he hoped his story would invoke compassion rather than condemnation. Maybe that’s a lot to ask, but I think it’s pretty radical.
Sam Goldsmith is a junior in Branford College.