Former tennis champ Andre Agassi

Originally aired on September 8, 2010
Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

Tennis champion and author of Open talks about whether the risks of writing his autobiography were worth taking, the impact on his family and the legacy of his playing days.


Tavis: Always pleased to have Andre Agassi on this program. During his stand-out career in tennis he became the only man in history to win all four Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal. He is out in paperback now with his number one best-selling autobiography, “Open.” Andre, good to have you back, man.
Andre Agassi: (Laughs) It’s a pleasure, Tavis, thank you.
Tavis: Didn’t take long for this to get back on the list as well.
Agassi: Well, I guess not. It’s having quite a year.
Tavis: When you say “quite a year,” what do you mean by that?
Agassi: Well, I mean the feedback and what this has done to people’s lives, because this certainly came with some risk and it came with a few shots that I had to endure. But my hope was that those that did choose to read it would not only learn a little bit more about my inspirational story, because that was an important part of it, but that they’d maybe learn a little bit more about themselves, and that’s been the feedback I’ve been getting.
Tavis: What were the risks that you referenced a moment ago, and now, a year later, were the risks worth taking?
Agassi: Oh, yeah, no question it was. My life story wasn’t a question to me as it relates to what I had to put in the book and what I had to talk about, real-life issues. Writing the book or not was my choice, and the risk is just blowing the illusion – the illusion that everything appears as it seems. We all go through some pretty difficult places in our life and I’m certainly no exception.
Tavis: Anything that you wrote, best seller status notwithstanding, that you have thought a second time about, regret, wish you hadn’t said that, or?
Agassi: No. Nothing that’s in there do I regret. There’s a few things that I wish – 400 pages doesn’t sort of contain any man’s life, so there’s other things I wish that –
Tavis: Especially yours.
Agassi: Well, it’s (unintelligible).
Tavis: You’ve had a full life. (Laughs)
Agassi: But I don’t regret it, because again, I really prioritized what I wanted to communicate. We all know our experiences, but what’s really the story of your life? You’re talking about a book that has to do with forgiveness – forgiveness of yourself, forgiveness of your parents, that has to do with identity issues, fighting to understand your identity.
It has to do with waking up in a life you find yourself in. It has to do with taking ownership of your life. These are all realities that we can all identify with one way or another. I hated what I did for a lot of years and found a way to choose it for myself, and that’s the journey that I wanted to share, because when people saw me go from number one to 141 back to number one in the world, it wasn’t – it was a lot harder than it even sounds.
Tavis: I’m reading the cover of the book. It’s been said by a number of people that this is one of the best sports autobiographies of all time, one of the better memoirs out there, period – so says “Time” magazine. Wonderful compliment; I think true of the book, for those who’ve had a chance to read it, as I have.
But it’s not just a sports autobiography. This is about your life, as you said earlier. It’s not just about playing the game of tennis. So when you’re this open about your life, how does this impact your family?
Agassi: I considered everybody in writing this book – even those that aren’t part of my family that are included in it, starting with my children, most important for me. What are they going to think of this, knowing their dad?
For the most part, I believe that read in full context they understand that I describe these relationships in present tense. So I’m seven years old, describing what a powerful figure my father is in my life and how tough he is. The truth is my dad’s about five foot six. He’s not that big of a guy. (Laughter)
He was an Olympic boxer and all that, but he looks taller there because he was standing on a step. I’m actually 5’11”. (Laughter) Just to set the record straight.
Tavis: Yeah, you better explain that again, yeah. Your dad’s on a stool there, yeah.
Agassi: But I talked to my dad beforehand about it. He goes, “You know, Andre, do you think I care what anybody thinks about me? I’m 80 years old. I came here not speaking a word of English. I raised four kids, I put myself through two jobs most of my life,” he says, “And got my kid the fastest way to the American dream.
“If I did it all over again, there would be only one thing I’d change – it wouldn’t be tennis, it would be baseball or golf, because you can play longer and you can make more money.” (Laughter) So there you have it. I think everybody has their own perspective on it.
But my wife was very supportive. She knew my motivations as it relates to my dreams and my hopes and my ability to connect with people, and tennis gave me an opportunity to impact somebody for two hours. This book has given me an opportunity to impact hopefully people generationally.
So I believe my next career, so I believe my next stage of life has a canvas that can do a lot more than just distract people from their own.
Tavis: You’re clear about what that is, that next phase?
Agassi: I am, yeah. The school I built in Las Vegas, I’ve now been trying to figure out ways where this can actually get scaled more nationally, and I’ve partnered with a few great people who have given me the opportunity and given – we have the opportunity sitting in front of us to scale this school across the country over the next three to five years in a way that’s going to just be extraordinary. So that, I’m thrilled about.
Tavis: I assume you never get tired of talking about it, so here’s another opportunity. For those who don’t know about the school – I love hearing this story, so tell the story again about the school.
Agassi: Well, I started my foundation focused on kids. I wanted to help children and I found myself real tired of always feeling like I was reacting to their needs, reacting to their problems, and I wasn’t being proactive. How do you really make systemic change?
I always felt the lack of education in my own life. I’ve always felt what that would have meant, had I not had tennis and no education, the desperation I would have felt. I’ve felt desperate at times even being pretty decent at tennis. So I said the only way to really make systemic change is to educate a child, to give them the tools to look out after their own future.
So I set about building a K through 12 public charter school in the poorest neighborhood of Las Vegas, because my goal was pretty simple – I wanted to give resources, I wanted to provide those resources, I want to have accountability with it and I wanted to give that opportunity to the children that society are so darn quick to write off.
I wanted to treat it like a laboratory. In our state of Nevada we’re 50th in kids we put into college. We’re 48th in our per-pupil allocation. So we fund at the lowest and we get the worst results. So I said if we can actually prove that it can be done here, isn’t that a case for the way education can and should be throughout our country?
Tavis: I mentioned at the top of the conversation that you’ve had your first graduating class.
Agassi: We’ve had two now, yeah.
Tavis: Two now, exactly. Every kid who graduates has gone on to college. I see you grinning already. (Laughter) I was about to ask how that makes you feel. I think your face tells the answer.
Agassi: Yeah. Nothing I ever accomplished on the tennis court hits me like it does when I walk into that school and I see that child having a future of their choosing. When you see them walk across that symbolic bridge that we built, representing that this school is a bridge in these children’s lives, and you see the smile on their face and you see them being the first in their family to ever go to college, and to realize that they’re going to come back to this community, they’re going to change the next generation.
You’re talking about – a ripple effect is one thing, but ripples get smaller. This is like a tsunami. You change a child’s life now and what happens on the other end can be so powerful. So to watch them go off into the world and pray that they come back is just thrilling.
Tavis: I don’t want to over-speak this or put too much on it, but I do want to pick up on something you said a moment ago, Andre, which is this notion of feeling – and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but feeling intellectually or educationally inferior while at the same time you were so athletically superior. How do you balance that?
Agassi: Yeah, that was odd for me. I grew up in a small town in the desert, went to academy when I was 13 in Bradenton, Florida, in a southern state, and then I found myself in cities like London and Paris and New York and traveling the world. I always felt so over-matched by the cultures and other people’s experiences and knowledge, and I felt so over-matched by books. How ironic that I eventually end up writing one. (Laughter)
Tavis: A best seller, no less.
Agassi: But again, I was also blessed to be able to take my professors with me on the road. It’s like I was good at something and so I surrounded myself with real mentors. My trainer, Gil Reyes, who’s like my surrogate father, he has led me and guided me and helped me navigate some difficult times and waters, and I learned so much from him.
But there are children out there that don’t have that opportunity. I did, so that’s where education came in for me. If I look back and talk about any regret in my life, my regret is that I didn’t have an education, because with education comes choice. With choice comes ownership. And that’s one thing I’ve fought for my whole life – I always felt so disconnected from my own life until I was 27 years old.
Tavis: One of the greatest ways, it seems to me, and you know better than I because you’ve been a few more places than I’ve been, I suspect – one of the greatest ways to be educated is to travel. To your earlier point, you have traveled the world, so two questions.
One, what did you learn in all that travel, if you can put that in a statement or so, and secondly, as you look back on your career now, did you really get a chance to take in enough? Because I’m assuming that when you’re as famous as you are and you’re traveling and you’re traveling not for any other purpose than to play in these tournaments, you don’t even get a chance to take all that in anyway.
Agassi: Well, I’m an absolutely expert on airports, hotels (laughter) and tennis courts.
Tavis: Okay, so you learned that.
Agassi: Yeah, I can tell you. (Laughter) No, I never got a chance to embrace and really get out. Preparing for tennis is a full-time job and I think what I did learn, though, one of the things I learned, I think I learned how similar all our journeys are in life, regardless of what your circumstances are.
We all have fears, we all have dreams, we all have hopes. It’s not my children in Las Vegas, it’s our children. So we’re all so connected, and it’s one of the lenses I wanted to turn on my own life, to take what I’ve been through and all the experiences I’ve been through and look at it through a literary lens and say how does this really apply to all of our lives? I think the subject matters that I cover are a certain testament to that lesson that I learned.
Tavis: I’m so fascinated, as you know, by the work you’re doing with this school, and it occurs to me to ask, and so I will, how it is or why it is that you think in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever we do, in fact, continue to write off the kids that you love and serve every day in Nevada.
I see why you want to scale this. But I’m just trying to – this is a new America. It’s multicultural, it’s multiracial, it’s multiethnic, and we keep writing off these very kids. How do we get from here to there, where we want to go, if we’re going to write off these kids?
Agassi: Yeah, it’s just a bad business model. I think our educational system is broken. I think it’s fair to say that. It’s fair to say we’re failing our children. We have a million dropouts a year. We’re 19th in the world in standardized testing; we used to be number one in the world.
We spend three times more to incarcerate a person than we do to educate a child. It’s one of the only industries in the world, when you look at it, we have – teacher tenure, for example. You have a job for two years; you have a job for life, regardless of how good you do your job.
You’re talking about our children. You’re not talking about – if you treated that like a commodity, you would say that’s a failing business model. We need to figure out how to put the best leaders in front of those kids, in the front of that classroom, and we’ve got to do it in a hurry.
Is best in class charter school operators the answer to education? Absolutely not. Is it absolutely a part of the answer to education? One hundred percent.
Tavis: So what troubles you the most, what most bothers you about the education debate in this country?
Agassi: What bothers me the most is there’s no children’s union. That’s what bothers me the most. We’re talking about a lot of issues and we’re forgetting that these kids are our future. So when you have, again, teacher tenure, and you have an environment where you’ve got 45, 50 kids in a classroom, you’ve got something that’s just failing at a rapid rate.
You’ve got schools closing all over America, and the oddest thing to me is it’s one of these industries where we have the software. It’s not like we don’t know how to educate. KIP, the Knowledge is Power program, 83 unbelievable successful charter schools throughout the country. Green Dot, right here in California, done a fantastic job, and they’re even part of the teachers union contract.
We have the software. We’ve got to figure out how to facilitate the growth of the best-in-class charter school operators. That’s where I sort of come in to this educational world, because I did say to myself, where do I really fit in it? Am I an educator? No. Am I an operator? Not really. But just maybe, with my voice and platform, I can really connect enough people to figure out how to make this growth for what we know how to do happen at a much faster rate.
Tavis: I recorded a radio conversation today that’s airing on my public radio program this weekend, and I had a conversation with the head of the NFL players union. Give me a second to set this up, because I want to ask you a question about this. It’s all connected to sports.
So I had a conversation with the head of the NFL players union earlier today and I asked him a question about the fact that the average playing career of an NFL guy is 3.6 years – 3.6 years average playing time. I was asking him to juxtapose that number with this number, which is that within two to five years of being out of the league, 78 percent of the guys who played the game are broke. Three point six average time playing, within two to five years after being gone, they’re broke.
So it’s not just a question about money, it’s a question about the fact that so many of these guys don’t know what the next step is once they leave the game, which is a long way of asking you how fortunate you feel, and maybe fortunate’s the wrong word.
What do you make of the fact that beyond your playing days you already – during your playing days, in fact, you knew where you were taking your life, your career, your legacy next?
Agassi: Yeah, I think my life has been blessed. It’s led me, in certain cases. I’ve followed my heart during my career. A lot of people were giving me the advice not to start my foundation at that early stage in my career. But truth be told, I never lived and died inside the lines. It was never – I never really wanted it for most of my career. It came with a lot of angst to me, a lot of pressure.
But the one thing I did connect to is the ability to impact somebody. It was always my goal to get out there and to find that extra bit, as scared as I was, as nervous as I was, as tired as I was, as injured as I was. To say that maybe I can provide an escape to somebody else’s life who came here today to watch me.
So again, I chose to look at the platform of shifting from tennis into my next career as a heck of an opportunity, and I’ve been blessed enough not to have to panic about it.
Tavis: How do you become great at something that you don’t love?
Agassi: I was really talented, but I didn’t truly become great at it in my own mind until I took ownership of it. When I walked away from the game at 27 years old I gave myself the permission to quit. I’d just been off a dark period of my life, depressed, dabbled in self-destruction – drugs, the crystal meth I took, and I was just absolutely on a tailspin in my life.
I literally said to myself, “At that moment I never hated tennis any more than this. This is the most I’ve ever hated this sport is right now, because of what I feel like it’s done to me, not having any clear perspective on it,” and I gave myself, finally, for the first time, the permission to walk away.
I said, “You know what? This isn’t you, so stop pretending and just walk away.” The second I gave myself that permission, I said, “Well, now that I know I can quit and that I actually feel that liberation of saying I can quit, I don’t feel like a quitter. What if I chose it? What if I chose it and I found reasons to do it?”
So many people go to a job, go to a life that they may hate but they find their reasons to get through and they have ownership of what it is they’re doing and why it is they’re doing it. So that’s what happened to me in an epiphany, and then I chose it for the first time and then that’s when the school started to get developed.
I started to say I can use tennis as a vehicle to really push the buttons in me that I believe fuel me, and I felt like all of a sudden I was in a team sport and I was playing for something that was connected to me, yet much larger than me. And I started to have this whole different relationship with the sport and I started to become at peace with it, and then the sport gave me my wife.
Then I started to really say hey, these scales are quite balanced, and then I was old enough, I had enough context, enough perspective, to appreciate the moments that were happening out there. I won more Grand Slams after 29 years old than I did all the way up until then because I wasn’t truly successful until it was mine.
Tavis: So you did make peace with it before you stepped away for good?
Agassi: Oh, I made more than peace with it. I owe a great deal to that sport.
Tavis: How did this book, speaking of the sport, how did the book – because you’re so honest and so frank in the book, and so open, no pun intended – how did this impact your standing, your relationships in the world of tennis? Did it change anything?
Agassi: I think it strengthened a lot those that read it. I think I got those that didn’t, I think on some level – there’s two buckets people fit in; the people that are responding and the people that are reacting. The people that reacted to the book was pretty negative, and I expected that. I was pretty disappointed with myself as I wrote about my life, but I wanted to turn a harder lens on me than I did anything.
I believe it broadened the tent for the sport, I think it starts to stimulate dialogue about relationships with parents and kids and sports. I think it shows how hard it is to do it as we do. I think ultimately players reading this, peers reading this, would feel respected in their own discipline and their own accomplishments. Overall, I think it’s been a good thing.
Tavis: That’s what it’s done; the litany you just offered now explains what it did for everybody else. What has being this open done for Andre a year later?
Agassi: It’s helped me to figure things out. It’s such a whirlwind, this life, and my life has never been a lie. It’s always been this constant pursuit for the truth, and every time I made a decision or if I got my arms or hands around something that was true, it’s like it was like water to the thirsty, I needed it.
So to actually take the time, thousands of hours, look back at my life, look at all the contradictions that have existed over the years and piece it together in a narrative that explains myself to me, it’s given me the tools to move forward with full confidence, with full belief and full knowledge of what I’m capable of, who I am. It’s been a gift to me.
Tavis: I’ve been following you on the tour so I noticed that you went back to New York and signed some copies at the U.S. Open, which is under way as we speak. How does it feel when you step back into those environs?
Agassi: It feels great. I’m hit with a flood of emotion, but I think one of the first emotions I have driving up to the stadium is it doest matter how I feel, like physically. (Laughter) I used to pull up to the stadium and my God, if I was a little bit tired or if I was a little bit sore or if I was a little bit cranky, it was going to have such an impact on my day.
Now I go there and if I’m a little bit off my program I’m still enjoying myself, I’m still looking around, I’m still engaging with people, I’m still watching and enjoying watching tennis more now than ever. But I’m hit with a flood of memories inside the lines. It is a place where I, I think, had my most powerful moment on the tennis court, which was me saying goodbye.
Tavis: It’s actually fascinating, I thought – you open the book, in fact, at your last U.S. Open appearance as a –
Agassi: The book starts with the end.
Tavis: Exactly. (Laughs) Nicely put. That’s why you’re the author and I’m not. So speaking of New York, as I said, I’ve been following you, so I was just reading the other day – what was I reading? Oh, a big story about Ivan Lendl. So in the story I discover that Lendl is going to play McEnroe, an old rematch. They’ve sold out (stammers) Madison Square Garden, selling out the Garden for Lendl to play McEnroe, and lo and behold in the article Agassi is going to play Sampras – is that true?
Agassi: Yeah, that’s true.
Tavis: Wow. (Laughter) So you guys are going to do it again at the Garden.
Agassi: Yeah, I guess I haven’t had enough of him in my career. (Laughter) Usually when we’re playing it’s a Sunday and there’s a blimp in the sky. This time I don’t think that’ll be the case.
Tavis: What’s it like, getting back out? Have you done this before? Have you played some of these celebrity tournaments?
Agassi: Yeah, I have, for charity I’ve done a few exhibitions around and gone to a few places that I haven’t been to before, and it’s an interesting experience for me. I’m really at peace with it. I enjoy it. I don’t enjoy it physically, how I feel the next day, but overall I’ve had a great deal of fun kind of reconnecting with the game. It’s been a long time now since I retired; it’s already been four years. It’s just flown by.
Getting out there against Pete also brings back and stimulates memories – more bad ones than good ones (laughter) because I got the worst end of it most times.
Tavis: You ain’t done bad, Andre Agassi.
Agassi: Well, I can’t – I’m not complaining.
Tavis: When you guys are out doing this kind of stuff, are you going full bore? You’re going – you’re playing with everything you have, or is it kind of –
Agassi: Well, I go out there with the intention of really not, but then there’s Pete, you know? (Laughter) He doesn’t leave you much choice, so you try to do everything you can to try to make it real competitive, all the while not taking it overly seriously, because the truth is we used to be good. (Laughter)
Now we’re out there, but when you get out there it’s amazing how you can take all the good you ever felt from the sport and leave away all the bad. It’s like there used to be so much pressure, you used to care about every shot you miss and not care about the ones you make. Now it’s completely the opposite. If I miss it, it doesn’t bother me, and if I make it, I kind of smile.
Tavis: You have lived and are living a wonderful life, and it’s a blessing and a thing of beauty to see you at this point in your life as happy as you can be and doing the kind of work that is a blessing to other people, so I’m always glad to talk to you.
Agassi: Yeah, you’re such a pleasure, Tavis.
Tavis: Oh, I’m glad to have you on. Andre Agassi’s book is out in paperback. It’s called “Open.” Took all of one week to put it back on the best-seller list in paperback, just like it was in hardcover. He deserves it, it’s a great read. If you missed it in hardback, get it in paperback – you will not be disappointed when you read “Open” by Agassi. Andre, good to have you on.
Agassi: Thank you, sir.
Tavis: Any time.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm