From André Agassi's "Open: An Autobiography" Chapter 21
WE START FROM THE BEGINNING, as if I’m a teenager, as if I’ve never worked out, because that’s how I look. I’m slow, fat, frail as a kitten. I haven’t picked up a dumbbell in a year. The heaviest thing I’ve lifted is Kacey’s air conditioner. I need to rediscover my body, add gingerly and gradually to its strength.
But first: We’re in Gil’s gym. I’m sitting on the free bench, he’s leaning against the leg extension. I tell him what I’ve done to my body. The drugs. I tell him about the pending suspension. I can’t ask him to lead me out of the depths unless he knows how deep I’ve fallen. He looks as crushed as he looked in his daughter’s hospital room. To me, Gil has always resembled that statue of Atlas, but now he looks as if he literally shoulders the weight of the world, as if he’s bench-pressing the problems of six billion. His voice chokes.
I’ve never been so disgusted with myself.
I tell him I’m done with drugs, I’ll never touch them again, but it goes without saying. He knows this as well as I do. He clears his throat, thanks me for being honest, then pushes it all aside. Where you’ve been, he says, doesn’t matter. From now on, we’re all about where you’re going.
Where we’re going, I say. Right.
He draws up a plan. He outlines a proper diet. And no more Mr. Nice Guy, he says. No more lapses, no more fast food, no more shortcuts.
You’ll even have to cut back on the booze, he says.
Above all, he’s going to keep me on a strict schedule. Eat, exercise, lift, hit, at precise times of day.
As part of my new ascetic lifestyle, I’ll be seeing less of my wife. I wonder if she’ll notice.
I PUT IN A FIERCE, rugged month with Gil, every bit as rugged as our mini boot camp in early 1995, and then I go to a challenger, the bottom of the pro tennis ladder. The winner’s check is $3,500. The crowd is smaller than the crowd at a typical high school football game.
The venue is UNLV. Familiar territory for such an unfamiliar moment. As Gil and I pull into the parking lot, I think of how far I’ve come, and how far I haven’t. These are the same courts I played on when I was seven. This is where I came the day Gil quit his job to work with me. I stood right over there, outside his office, hopping on one foot because I was so excited about the road that lay before us. Now, just a three wood from that spot, I’m playing hackers and has-beens.
In other words, my peers.
A challenger is the definition of small-time, and nowhere is this more evident than in the players’ lounge. The pre-match meal is airplane food: rubber chicken, limp veggies, flat soda. Once upon a time, at slams, I would walk up and down the endless buffet line, chatting with white-hatted chefs while they made me feathery omelets and homemade pasta. All gone.
The indignities don’t stop there. At a challenger, there are fewer ball boys. It makes sense, since there are practically no balls. You get only three per match. On either side of your court are rows of courts with other matches taking place simultaneously. As you toss a ball to serve, you see the players to your left and right. You hear them arguing. They don’t care if they’re interrupting your concentration. Fuck you and your concentration. Now and then a ball comes dribbling past your feet from another court, and you hear, A little help! You need to stop whatever you’re doing and throw the ball back. Now you’re the ball boy. Again.
You also operate your own scoreboard. Manually. During the changeover, I flip the little plastic numbers, which feel like part of a children’s game. Fans laugh and yell things. How the mighty have fallen! Image Is Everything, eh, buddy? A high-ranking official says publicly that Andre Agassi playing a challenger is like Bruce Springsteen playing a corner bar.
So what’s wrong with Springsteen playing a corner bar? I think it would be cool if Springsteen played a corner bar now and then.
I’m ranked number 141 in the world, the lowest I’ve been ranked in my adult life, the lowest I’ve dreamed of being ranked. Sportswriters say I’m humbled. They love saying this. They couldn’t be more wrong. I was humbled in the hotel room with Brad. I was humbled smoking meth with Slim. Now I’m just glad to be out here.
Brad feels the same way. He doesn’t find anything demeaning about the challenger. He’s reenergized, rededicated, and I love him for it. He’s excited for this challenger, coaching me as if we’re at Wimbledon. He doesn’t doubt that this is step one on the road all the way back to number one. Inevitably, I put his faith to the test right away. I’m a shadow of my former self. My legs and arms might be on the mend, but my mind is still grossly out of shape. I reach the final, and then my mind gives out. Shaking from the pressure, the strangeness, the ridicule from the stands, I lose.
Brad is undiscouraged. Some technique will need relearning, he says. Shot selection, for instance. You need to retrain that muscle with which a tennis player decides in the heat of battle that this shot is the right one and that shot is the wrong one. You need to remember that it doesn’t matter if you hit the best shot in the world—remember? If it’s the wrong moment, it’s the wrong shot.
Every shot is an educated guess, and I’m no longer educated. I’m as green as I was in juniors. It took me twenty-two years to discover my talent, to win my first slam—and only two years to lose it.
ONE WEEK AFTER VEGAS I play a challenger in Burbank. The venue is a public park. Center court has a large tree on one side that casts a twenty-foot shadow. I’ve played on thousands of courts in my career, and this is the sorriest one of all. In the distance I hear kids playing kickball and dodgeball, cars backfiring, boom boxes blaring.
The tournament runs through Thanksgiving weekend, and I reach the third round, which falls on Thanksgiving Day. Rather than eating turkey at home, I’m scuffling in a Burbank public park, ranked 120 spots lower than I was two Thanksgivings ago. Meanwhile, in Göteborg, Davis Cup is under way. Chang and Sampras versus Sweden. It’s sad, but appropriate, that I’m not there. I don’t belong there. I belong here, under the ridiculous courtside tree. Unless I can accept that I’m where I’m supposed to be, I’ll never belong there again.
Warming up before my match, I realize that I’m only four minutes from the studio where Brooke shoots Suddenly Susan, on which Perry is now a producer. The show has become a smash hit, and Brooke’s busy, working twelve hours a day. Still, it seems odd that she doesn’t pop over, watch a few points. Even when I get home she doesn’t ask about the match.
Then again, I don’t ask about Suddenly Susan either.
We talk about things. We talk about nothing. · · ·
THE ONLY TIME I BREAK TRAINING is to meet with Perry and lay the groundwork for my charitable foundation. This is what we talked about fifteen years ago, two idealistic teenagers with their mouths full of Chipwiches. We wanted to reach a plateau from which we could give back, and we’ve finally arrived. I’ve negotiated a long-term deal with Nike, which will pay me tens of millions over the next decade. I’ve bought my parents a house. I’ve taken care of everyone on my team. Now I’m financially able to think larger, to widen my lens, and in 1997, though I’ve hit rock bottom, or because I’ve hit rock bottom, I’m ready.
My primary concern is children at risk. Adults can always ask for help, but children are voiceless, powerless. So the first project my foundation undertakes is a shelter for abused and neglected children who’ve been placed in the protective custody of the courts....