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Andre Agassi on love, hate, life and tennis

By Jenn Horton, Oprah.com
Tennis superstar Andre Agassi shares his battle with tennis, depression and how his wife helped him.
Tennis superstar Andre Agassi shares his battle with tennis, depression and how his wife helped him.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tennis great Andre Agassi reveals the good and bad about his life in new book
  • "Pain of losing was always worse than the joy of winning for me"
  • He hated tennis, felt imprisoned at tennis camp, used crystal meth
  • Says starting Andre Agassi College Prep Academy is better than tennis

(OPRAH.com) -- In his powerful autobiography, "Open," tennis legend Andre Agassi shows us that the language of tennis is much akin to the language of life -- advantage, service, fault, love. With unflinching honesty, Agassi reveals that his seemingly charmed life as a tennis giant was one he deeply hated. He talks to Oprah.com's Jenn Horton about looking back at his journey, facing his demons and finding empowerment and love through family, philanthropy and even tennis.

Jenn Horton: Tell me a little bit about why you wanted to do the autobiography now and how that choice came to be. Why now? Why at all?

Andre Agassi: I've lived a public life, and I feel like things were said about me, things I said about myself, both good and bad, that were just not accurate.

You can't communicate yourself when you don't know yourself. I spent a lot of my life not knowing myself as a result of the whirlwind that I lived. So when I retired and I started this sort of new life, I really wanted to understand my story. I think if we all looked at ourselves, we would find a lot of contradictions that ultimately haven't been reconciled.

I wanted to understand that narrative. In looking at it, I believed there was real power in it. I really believe that my story will impact so many people I'll never meet and give them the tools to take ownership of their life -- the tools to figure out how to avoid or get through some of the pitfalls I've been through.

I think there are millions of people in marriages they don't want to be in and millions of people that hate what they do [Andre was married to actress Brooke Shields from 1997 to 1999]. I think that if they found inspiration from me going from the number 141 [tennis ranking] in the world to number one and really knew my story, it would be that much more inspirational.

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JH: How did you prepare yourself to be okay with putting it all out there? Were you worried about anyone's reaction?

AA: I worry about reaction, but I'm more interested in people's response. It took me a long time to process my life; I don't expect anyone else to do it through headlines.

Ultimately, I think calmer heads rule the day, and people will read my book in the context of the body of work that it is -- which is my life. Assuming I've done this book the way I hoped to do it, I think this will live a lot longer than me. I think if the downside is a few [negative] reactions, that is a price I'm willing to pay.

JH: The first breaking story out of the book was your use of crystal meth in 1997. But to many fans, the biggest shock was hearing that you hated tennis so deeply, that this life wasn't your choice.

AA: That's why I hated it. Tennis interfered with my relationship with my father, and it interfered with the relationship with myself. I think when somebody doesn't have a choice, they never feel connected to their life. It doesn't matter if they're good at it or not.

As a little boy, I internalized and did what I needed to do because that's what Pops wanted. I got sent away to a tennis academy when I was 13 years old. I called it a glorified prison camp and refer to it as Lord of the Flies with forehands.

It was a bunch of these teenagers raising themselves, deciding the pecking order. It was primal and primitive. I found myself having to play and succeed to get out of there. I was conducting a normal teenage rebellion, and suddenly I'm doing it on the world stage, being labeled and told who I was. I finally was doing what I was supposed to be doing my whole life [playing professional tennis], even though what I was doing, I didn't want to do.

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JH: You worked with Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer, author of "The Tender Bar," on Open. The tennis match writing in the book is so engaging, and it also sets the stage for one of the biggest themes of your journey -- contradiction. Explain the pull of how you can hate something so much but yet still crave winning so desperately?

AA: A lot of times I felt like I was craving not losing. The pain of losing was always worse than the joy of winning for me. Winning felt meaningless; it felt like I had dodged a bullet for the day.

Losing made me feel less about myself. That's why many times you could always see so much fear in my eyes. My eyes so often betrayed me on the court. Internally, I'm playing scared and in fear of losing. You're so exposed out there, so you discover parts of yourself that are pretty shocking. You realize where you're fallible, where you're capable, and also can understand the strength you have just to put yourself through it.

JH: You call a time in 1995 as your "Summer of Revenge" against Boris Becker. [At Wimbledon that year, Becker accused Agassi of getting special treatment and being reclusive]. You succeeded by beating him in the semis at the U.S. Open. You're on this emotional high, but then you lose in the final to Pete Sampras and feel devastated. Was that the event that triggered the start of the serious depression?

AA: That summer, I tried to use all this energy and emotion, channel it into anger and tried to use that. I actually resented that feeling even though it was successful. It just wasn't me; it wasn't my spirit.

Then I get to the final of the U.S. Open, I'm 26-0, I lose to Pete. I kind of conclude you can win 26 matches, lose one and still feel like a loser. It just heightens the point of pointlessness. It made me think: "I've never liked this, now I like it less. Why am I doing this? I'm miserable for it."

That started my disengagement. I kind of sleepwalked through the next year. I won some titles. I got up for the Olympics in 1996 because I needed some inspiration, and inspiration was easy there. I felt like I was doing it for my father, a bigger team being from the United States. But I really sleepwalked through the rest of that year. Then when I hit 1997, everything just started to spiral quickly.

JH: How did you reconcile with crossing that line into the drug use? Did you believe you had an addiction?

AA: You cross the line because you wake up and you're disengaged with your friends and even your wife. You're depressed and you don't know it. Nobody talks about depression.

Somebody came along and offered me an escape. I didn't like tennis, and I liked myself even less. I just basically said, "Why not?" It was convenient, and I don't think you understand what you're doing. It takes along time to realize that you do have an addiction, so I can't speak to whether or not I had an addiction or not.

I did turn my back on it and walk toward a life I wanted a number of months later. I just think it's easy to underestimate the reality of how drugs tempt you. I think I wanted to deal with the truth that they do appear to offer you something. Depression is a serious thing. Two out of three people in this world have at least one bout of depression in their life.

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JH: By the end of that year, your friend and coach at the time, Brad Gilbert, offered you a "quit or start over deal." Why did you make the choice to continue with tennis despite it being something that has pained you your entire life?

AA: I was at my lowest point, had never hated tennis more, and I thought I was about to walk away. It was something really strange that hit me like an epiphany. I'm looking out the window of my hotel, and I see all these people in traffic in Stuttgart, Germany, and I was wondering how many of them are going to a job they hate and have found reasons or need to find reasons.

I don't need to play tennis -- I have everything I need -- but what if for the first time in my life I actually chose it? What if I tried to find new meanings to old tasks and changed my attitude? If you change attitude and change meaning, you set powerful forces in motion.

Sure enough, I started to get traction in my life as a result of that. All of a sudden, tennis gave me my school, it gave me my wife [Steffi Graf]. I started to feel like the scales got balanced. But it was a fight every day from that epiphany.

JH: When you told people you hated tennis, they'd always respond, "You don't really hate it, hate it." The only person that seemed to understand how you felt right off the bat was your now-wife. What was it about her that pulled you in from the beginning?

AA: It was something from the outside -- I think it's one of the things people do. They gravitate toward people that have something they don't have. I've always gravitated toward people like that in my life. I looked at Stefanie and saw someone who dealt with the same pressures that I did in many respects from the outside, and she did it with an unspeakable grace.

She was so understated and seemed to be a lot better at life than I was. She seemed to be everything I wished that I was. When I told her I hated tennis she basically said, "Don't we all?" Of course there are things to hate. Somehow that wasn't the point. She found a way to push through, find the joy in it -- things that it can give and to find ways to connect to it. It inspired me. And there was no push back on I shouldn't, it was just: "Of course. Now let's talk about what really matters."

JH: What's your relationship with tennis now?

AA: I call it a hate-love relationship. I started with hate, but now, it's giving me my life. I made peace with it when I was 27 years old and every day thereafter. I think because of that, I have a real love for it.

JH: You've said the Andre Agassi College Prep Academy is your life's work. For someone that hated school about as much as he did tennis, how did you come to decide education was going to be your philanthropic focus?

AA: I felt the result of lack of education in my life. With no education, I had no choices. Without that, you find yourself in a life that's not yours. It felt like a crime to me -- to see these kids out there in a broken educational system.

These children without education have no hope or options. Without options, they have no hope -- that's a pretty horrifying thought as to where they would end up. My lack of education led to a lack of choices. I wanted to provide them with a life of their choosing.

JH: This past June, you had the first class graduate. What did that feel like? What is your hope for these kids?

AA: It feels better than anything I've ever accomplished on a tennis court. My hope is they go away to college and they find themselves in a life they want to be in and have committed to. I hope they come back to their community and give back to the next generation, connect, be grateful, have empathy and make a difference.

JH: You dedicate part of the book to your own children, Jaden and Jaz. When they're old enough, what do you hope they gain from reading Open?

AA: People make mistakes. The power of tomorrow is what I want them to feel. I want them to feel like they can take ownership of their life at any juncture in their life. I want them to feel that empowerment. I want them to know that any point in our life can be a turning point -- it can be our darkest or our finest. It's up to us to what we do with it.

JH: Now that you've gone through the process of looking back at your life, telling your story through Open, what do you know for sure?

AA: I know for sure that there's pain in life. We have to fight through our pain and find a way to get through it. Life is about fighting through that pain and, when you can, easing the pain of others.

By Jenn Horton from Oprah.com © 2009

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