Andre Agassi Was The World’s Tennis Number One, But He Was Harboring A Dark Secret

It’s the summer of 1992 and Andre Agassi sits on top of the world. The tennis player has just won the most prestigious title in the men’s game: Wimbledon. Within three years, Agassi would go on to scale an even bigger peak in his sport by becoming the world’s number one ranked player. Yet through all this, the American was harboring a dark secret.

Not that anyone on the outside would have known. That’s the thing about secrets: the world keeps turning with most people unaware that something is amiss. Agassi’s glittering career continued until the Las Vegas native hung up his tennis shoes for good in 2006. In that time there was arguably nothing that he hadn’t achieved in his sport.

First the prizes. As well as that Wimbledon title in 1992, Agassi claimed the other three highly prestigious Grand Slam tournaments of the professional game. He won his ‘home’ tournament — the U.S. Open — in 1995, and then again in 1999. In 1995 Agassi claimed the Australian Open, a tournament he would win again in 2000, 2001 and 2003. 

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In 1999 Agassi completed the ‘career Grand Slam’ by claiming the French Open title. That victory elevated him into the pantheon of tennis titans. Modern greats Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Agassi himself are among a list of only eight men to have achieved the feat. At the age of 29, Agassi was the oldest of those men to secure that accolade. 

But Agassi achieved so much more besides. In 1996, at his ‘home’ Olympics in Atlanta, Agassi won the gold medal in the men’s singles tournament. He also won the Davis Cup — the most prestigious team event in the men’s game — with the U.S. squad in 1990, 1992 and 1995. And by also becoming world number one, Agassi arguably pocketed every major prize available in the game. It was an extraordinary career. 

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Tennis glory looked likely for Agassi from a young age. At 13, Agassi was sent to the prestigious Nick Bollettieri tennis school in Florida. It was a place synonymous with tennis success. Agassi’s father could only afford to send his son for three months, but the boy ended up staying rather longer than that.

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As the story goes, Bollettieri only needed 10 minutes of watching the young Agassi to decide that the boy had something special. “Take your check back. He’s here for free,” the coach reportedly told Agassi’s father, Mike, on the phone after watching the boy play. A future champion had been discovered. 

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Bollettieri was excited. According to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the prolific coach believed Agassi to have more natural talent that any player he had ever seen. Agassi embarked on his professional tennis career in 1986 at the age of 15. Indeed, the young man won his first ever match on the professional tour, against John Austin in the La Quinta tournament in California. 

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Something special had been unleashed on the men’s tour. In 1987 Agassi really started to make an impression on the top players, the pundits and the tennis public alike. He ended that season ranked as the world number 25. However, it was 1988 that he really broke through, claiming six major tournament wins and passing the $1 million mark for career earnings from just 43 competitions. It was the fastest any player had reached that milestone.  

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1988 brought other notable achievements. Agassi claimed the most consecutive match wins on the men’s tour for a teenager and he finished the year ranked number three in the world behind Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander. Agassi was still only 18 years old by the time the season ended. A tennis star had been born.

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However, there was more to Agassi than tennis. He was a rock ’n’ roll athlete. He was good-looking and boasted an impressive flowing mane. When he changed his shirt during matches he attracted wolf whistles from the watching crowd. His game was exciting to watch. Unsurprisingly, the sponsors clamored for his signature and he soon signed a lucrative deal with Nike. 

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Off the court Agassi was also turning heads. A high-profile relationship with actor and singer Barbra Streisand — 28 years his senior — brought even more press attention. Agassi then met and subsequently married actor and model Brooke Shields. Closer in age — Shields was only five years older than Agassi — they were the type of young, glamorous couple that regularly adorned the pages of magazines. 

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Sadly the Agassi-Shields marriage broke up after two years. But then, just two years later in 2001, Agassi entered into another high-profile marriage, this time with someone who had an intricate understanding of what it takes to be a professional tennis player. For Agassi married arguably one of the greatest female tennis players ever — 22-time Grand Slam champion Steffi Graf. 

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Agassi and Graf remain happily married to this day. The couple have two children and reside in Agassi’s hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada. They are a powerhouse of a couple with many major investments and charitable organizations in their name. It’s a relationship that has endured the end of Agassi’s high-profile playing career. 

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Agassi’s tennis career can be defined by two distinct periods: pre and post-1997. For it was that year that Agassi hit his lowest ebb. Injury had taken its toll — in that 1997 season a wrist complaint meant the player was only able to feature in 14 tournaments. That left plenty of time on the treatment table, not to mention plenty of time to get into trouble. 

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Agassi later admitted in his 2009 autobiography, Open, that 1997 was the year that he started using crystal methamphetamine. It was a shocking admission. No less shocking was Agassi’s revelation that he lied to the Association of Tennis Professional (ATP) in order to avoid a ban from the game. His approach worked. 

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Agassi writes in Open about the first drug-taking event. He is at home with his assistant, called only ‘Slim’. “Slim is stressed too… He says, ‘You want to get high with me?’ ‘On what?’ ‘Gack.’ ‘What the hell’s gack?’ ‘Crystal meth.’ ‘Why do they call it gack?’ ‘Because that’s the sound you make when you’re high… Make you feel like Superman, dude,’” Agassi recalls the conversation.

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Agassi further describes events in his book. “Slim dumps a small pile of powder on the coffee table. He cuts it, snorts it. He cuts it again. I snort some. I ease back on the couch and consider the Rubicon I’ve just crossed,” the former tennis star writes. These are quite considerable revelations for a then professional athlete — and a world-famous one at that. 

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Agassi then goes on to describe the feeling he experiences. “There is a moment of regret, followed by vast sadness. Then comes a tidal wave of euphoria that sweeps away every negative thought in my head. I’ve never felt so alive, so hopeful — and I’ve never felt such energy,” the eight-time Grand Slam champion recalls.

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Then came the fall. “But the physical aftermath is hideous,” Agassi writes of crystal meth. “After two days of being high, of not sleeping, I’m an alien. I have the audacity to wonder why I feel so rotten. I’m an athlete, my body should be able to handle this,” he adds.

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Why was a star athlete even doing this? “Apart from the buzz of getting high, I get an undeniable satisfaction from harming myself and shortening my career,” Agassi writes in Open. It is a shocking revelation. Why would he want to throw his glittering career away like that? And throw it away he very nearly did.

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Agassi experienced an incredible career turnaround after 1997. Towards the end of that year he had sunk in the rankings to well outside the top-100 men’s players. Yet 1998 was a year of redemption: hard-work and a renewed focus saw Agassi climb back up the rankings and by the following year he had achieved the career Grand Slam. Many more great years on the tennis circuit were to follow for the hugely popular player.

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Yet that crystal meth episode is insightful. Far from just a single moment of lunacy, the decision to take hard drugs was systematic of a far deeper malaise that Agassi was suffering. But what was it that was eating away at this tennis champion? It was a secret that was to haunt Agassi for the entirety of his sparking career. 

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But what was it that Agassi had been hiding all this time? Well, it was nothing salacious about his private life — apart from the drug-taking, of course. Nor was Agassi harboring any dark ambitions to take over the world. It was the relatively simple fact that, despite a near 20-year career in tennis that had seen his scale the heights, Agassi had hated the very sport that had made him.

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Yes. Agassi hated tennis — and he always had. “I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have,” confesses Agassi in Open. It was a remarkable revelation from someone who had won so much from the sport: titles, adulation, fame, and money. 

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But why? How could Agassi really hate something that he had obviously devoted his life to? You don’t become a champion — the world number one — without dedication, commitment and thousands of hours practicing. But, you see, that was exactly the point. Agassi was just sick of the grind. Tennis had been shoved down his throat since before he could remember. 

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In Open Agassi speaks candidly about the moment he became world number one for the first time. This was in April 1995. “I’ve knocked Pete [Sampras] off the mountaintop. The next person who phones is a reporter. I tell him that I’m happy about the ranking, that it feels good to be the best that I can be,” Agassi recalls. But it wasn’t the truth.

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“It’s a lie,” Agassi continues. “This isn’t at all what I feel. It’s what I want to feel. It’s what I expected to feel, what I tell myself to feel. But in fact I feel nothing,” the tennis superstar admitted. It was a moment of shocking realization even to the man himself. For readers, it’s a stunning admission.

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But what lay at the heart of Agassi’s disaffection with the game that had made him? It seems that, with tennis — despite all his success — he had just never had a choice. His father made him play. And it is that lack of autonomy over his decisions that appears to have ended up with Agassi hating the game that had given him so much. 

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Emmanuel “Mike” Agassi — Andre’s father — is a complex character. Originally from Iran, Mike boxed for his country in both the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. He then settled in the United Stated and became a tennis pro at the Tropicana resort in Las Vegas, subsequently building a court in his backyard to train his children, including youngest son Andre.  

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Agassi junior was made to live tennis. “He practiced every afternoon, all afternoon. He practiced every weekend, all weekend. He practiced every holiday that I can recall. It was just what they did,” recalled Perry Rogers, a family friend. “Mr. Agassi was very domineering… Tennis. Tennis. Tennis. Tennis. He had the ball machines out in the back. They had the ball machines in every room,” remembered Bollettieri, Agassi’s former coach. 

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In Open Agassi gives a glimpse into what life was like as a seven-year-old tennis prodigy under the tutelage of his domineering father. “My father yells everything twice, sometimes three times, sometimes 10. ‘Harder,’ he says, ‘harder. Hit earlier. Damn it Andre, hit earlier, Crowd the ball, crowd the ball.’ Now he’s crowding me. He’s yelling,” Agassi writes. It is difficult not to feel sorry for the youngster in this anecdote. 

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Agassi continues. “Nothing sends my father into a rage like hitting a ball into the net. He foams at the mouth… My arm feels like it’s going to fall off. I want to ask: ‘How much longer, Pops?’ But I don’t ask. I hit as hard as I can, then slightly harder,” the former champion adds.

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In a 1995 interview with Sports Illustrated Agassi hinted at how he was misunderstood by the world at large, a further source of frustration. “I don’t think the public has ever had any concept of who I am,” he said. “They see the cars and the plane, and if they don’t try, they stop there,” he added. This was just two years before his career went off the rails. 

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Agassi became lonely in his world: a world constructed by his father. Indeed, speaking years later, even Mike Agassi admitted he was to blame for what occurred. “The real sacrifice was Andre’s childhood,” Agassi senior said, referring to what the family had to give up to get Agassi to the top of the game. Mike’s daughter Rita — Andre’s sister — has even described her father as a “sober drunk.”

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Yet Agassi found his savior in the form of his off-the-court ventures. “I found a life next to tennis. I made a dream come true, to be able to help other people who are not doing so well,” Agassi said of his foundation which helps with the building of schools in his hometown of Las Vegas. 

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And something else gave Agassi meaning. Or someone else. His wife: Steffi Graf. Agassi describes his match with the former female number one tennis player as a “wonderful marriage.” He also describes her as “the woman who fits me as perfectly as you can fit together perfectly.” Agassi has not only found purpose in his life, but also the perfect person to share it with. 

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Fortunately, Agassi was able to turn it around. He has even been able to reconcile with what his father did to him. “My dad is the reason I’m in education now,” Agassi told the Guardian. “My lack of education, a lack of choice, had a huge impact. The question always remains: what might you have done? But I don’t have any deep regrets.” 

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Agassi also admitted that his father isn’t all bad, despite the image that has been painted of Agassi senior in the media at large. “When people didn’t have my nuanced take on him they just represented him as abusive,” Agassi told the Guardian. The former tennis star has also described his father as “passionate” as well as “loyal”. Father-son relationships are rarely straightforward.

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Agassi also spoke of a conversation that he had with his father while out driving. “If I could do everything all over again I would change only one thing — I wouldn’t let you play tennis,” Mike Agassi told his son. Shocked, Agassi pulled the car over and asked why that was. “Because I’d make you play baseball or golf so you can do it longer and make more money.” And what was Agassi’s reaction? “I got back on the freeway with a chuckle.”

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