Commentary

Andre Agassi's triumphs are his own

Originally Published: July 8, 2011
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

The other-directed person wants to be loved rather than esteemed.
--David Riesman, author, The Lonely Crowd

There has always been a degree of honesty to Andre Agassi that is as engaging as it is disarming. Tennis fans saw him transform from a boy to man, tennis' elder statesman. Few skeletons could emerge from his closet when he is inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame on July 9 as no tennis player in history has been more dissected or has been more willing to be explored. It is only fitting that his autobiography is titled "Open."

[+] EnlargeAndre Agassi
AP Photo/Toby TalbotThree years after turning pro, Andre Agassi finished the Volvo International in 1988 as the No. 3 ranked player in the world.

For a man who made millions in a one-on-one form of competition, Agassi possesses a rare empathy. He began life and conducted much of his tennis career as more of a lover than fighter, less attuned to the pursuit of victory and more disposed to pleasing others. In one sense, Agassi is a survivor and a student. In another, he is a chameleon, shaping himself along the contours of those who most strongly exert their gravitational pull.

Can you blame him? If certain aspects of Agassi's nature led him to hit a tennis ball extremely well, nurture took leave amid the dictatorial reign of Agassi's father, Mike -- the driven immigrant who turned tennis from a wholesome activity into what Andre has often described as forced labor. To placate Mike, young Andre complied. Thus, lesson one in the art of pleasing others. Only upon victory was the boy given a few crumbs of acknowledgment.

By 13 years old, Agassi was shipped off to what he regarded as yet another Gulag, the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. But while if at some level Agassi rebelled against the life of a tennis prodigy by trying new hairdos, painting his nails and even engaging in seemingly rebellious acts, he was compliant in carrying out his sentence.

Whether he cared to or not, Agassi was indeed on his way to a pro career. And though Bollettieri -- an ex-Marine who regarded himself as a lord of discipline -- sought to harness Agassi, once it was clear the boy was a star, Bollettieri and Agassi grabbed tennis by the throat. Colorful shirts, denim shorts and enough glitzy ad contracts to make a race car driver envious.

In the orbit of Bollettieri and other handlers, Agassi let himself be deployed in a way that was lucrative, despite it being cynical in its artifice -- all perhaps in the name of acquiring the affection from the suntanned and hearty Bollettieri that no one else could provide. If the price of love was a few ad campaigns, so be it. Rip the ball and let the chips fall where they may.

Fortunately Agassi, circa 1989-90, commenced an engagement with the man who became the central figure in his journey toward authenticity. Gil Reyes assumed the roles of trainer, security man, buddy, spiritual adviser and de facto father-brother.

In mythical terms, he is the Obi Wan Kenobi to Agassi's Luke Skywalker, as it was Reyes who kept Agassi balanced, focused and attuned. Trust your feelings. Use the force. No person has been near and dear to Agassi longer (even Perry Rogers, his best friend from childhood, vanished from Team Agassi in 2008 in the wake of a lawsuit and conflict that will likely never be cogently articulated).

So to restate the question: Has Agassi always been wise enough to find what he needs or is he some sort of cult follower, attaching himself to the apron strings and verbal constructs of his latest guru?

His 1994 union with tactical-coaching genius Brad Gilbert was an inspired hookup. No longer was Agassi simply a ball striker unleashed. Where once it had been Bollettieri cruising the periphery of the practice court urging Agassi to keep striking big, Gilbert entered Agassi into an interactive tennis seminary.

[+] EnlargeNick Bolletieri
AP Photo/Christof StacheLegendary coach Nick Bolletieri guided Agassi early in his career.

Though during this time Agassi continued his relationship with Nike, what he wore rapidly took a back seat to his new-and-improved tactical mind. He and Gilbert would commence hitting and in due time, but at first Agassi began to ape Gilbert's talk-radio patter with seasoned and clever staccato-like comments about 97 mph kick serves; how to hurt guys; and, of course, Gilbert's trademark phrase, "winning ugly." Small wonder that Agassi referred to a five-set win at the U.S. Open over Michael Chang as "my bar mitzvah in tennis, the match that made me a man."

All along there was Reyes, carefully honing Agassi's frame, but even more, shaping his heart, truly blossoming as his "bodyguard." Through the '90s, as Agassi's commitment to the sport floundered, Reyes stood loyally in his corner. Fitting also that Agassi and Reyes referred to his turnaround win at the '99 French Open as the day they at last slew the dragon.

From colorful ad campaigns to religious rituals to mythical creatures, Agassi was the biggest box-office star in the history of tennis, a magnet for the camera, the microphone and the notepad.

Steffi Graf made her way into tennis history in precisely the opposite way Agassi has. She enjoyed an epic career of conquest built on the dedication of a monk, ceaseless performance and a near Garbo-esque resistance to interviews, profiles and ad campaigns. Although Agassi hailed from the desert city, Graf was the real creature of the sand: a sphinx, a powerful monument and testimony to diligence that is concurrently compelling and unknowable.

[+] EnlargeAgassi
AP Photo/Adam StoltmanAndre Agassi made a fashion statement out of his long hair and denim shorts.

As so many had, she too shaped Agassi. As their romance blossomed and they eventually married in 2001, Agassi took on many of Graf's understated qualities. His clothes became increasingly muted in color. He became increasingly business-like in his approach to matches, utterly no-nonsense in everything from the arrangement of his courtside chair to interactions with officials to the simple and powerful construction of points with exquisite discipline to the point of, believe it or not, craftsmanship bordering on deliberate boredom -- a galaxy away from the neon-attired shot-maker from the Bollettieri era.

The truth is Agassi's triumphs are his own.

Andre Agassi has built his legacy in the way that makes sports such a genuine form of meritocracy: performance. Still, is it possible to know a man who has covered so much territory as Andre Agassi?

Perhaps the fact that we think we can understand him any place beyond the lines proves both the power and the limits of contemporary celebrity.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.