Tennis is the loneliest game. Even long-distance runners have competitors beside them, almost breathing in sync, and boxers have someone literally in their corner, touching their shoulders when they need to feel someone’s there. But lonely as it is, you can’t play tennis alone. You need someone to play against.
No one loves tennis in 1940s Iran. No one except Emmanuel Aghassian, who learns to love the sport from British and American servicemen occupying his country. Having no one to play with leads Emmanuel to become a bantamweight boxer. And he’s fine at it, or at least OK enough to box on behalf of his country in the London Olympics in ’48 and the Helsinki games in ’52. Being allowed to go abroad plants a seed; he doctors a passport, and sneaks out of Iran. In America he goes by Mike Agassi. Mike works in hotel elevators in Chicago, then on the floor at a Las Vegas casino, all while boxing at night. Once, he almost fights in Madison Square Garden, but instead crawls out a window when he realizes his opponent is way out of his weight class. He continues to love tennis more fiercely than boxing, even though he can’t play, not to compete anyway.
Eventually Mike forces his beloved sport into the lives of all four of his children. The first three are early casualties, but the youngest has a crazy knack for returns. At seven years old, he just hits ball after ball after ball. He’s so good, he can even hit bad balls on purpose, which Mike hates. Named after Mike’s boss at the casino, Andre is the most talented and the most willing to please, yet Mike is rarely wild about his son’s successes, no matter who he beats or how many trophies he wins. Andre is just doing what he is meant to do; this is no reason in Mike’s mind for fanfare.
Later, Andre will tell the press that he’s never allowed himself “the luxury of going, ‘Where do I want to be?'” It’s true—Andre goes where Mike wants him to be. Mike’s con at the local tennis courts is typical: Make eight-year-old Andre ask bystanders to play, and tell his son to hit softies, let lobs drop, hand over the first match to the adult; then have the kid beg and plead for a second chance, like his last meal was a week ago; then, once everyone around has bet their money on the grownup, take the leash off the child’s game, let him do his thing; finally, as the audience gawks and whoops and can’t believe their eyes, cash in. It works every time, although Andre suspects people don’t mind being played by freaks as long as they get a show.
Young Andre plays everyone he can until it’s clear he has nowhere left to go but up. He attends a prestigious tennis academy, and Mike steps aside as coach, perhaps because he can’t stand to lose to his own kid in practice matches, no matter how happy the talent makes him. And it does make him happy, even if it doesn’t matter now that Andre has internalized all of Mike’s loathing, all of his disappointment. Parents with frustrated dreams must be terrible at poker.
“My son,” Mike says to Andre once, when talking up his boxing losses in London and Helsinki, “maybe they will make tennis an Olympic sport again, and my son will win a gold medal, and that will make up for it.” Tennis stopped being an Olympic sport in the 1920s; two years before it comes back to the games, Andre goes pro, at the age of 16. At 26, he’ll win that gold. You can’t make timelines this tidy up—people will tell you to go to hell.
This is what you already know: Andre Agassi, a pretty boy from Vegas, ascends to notoriety in the late 80s, early 90s, refusing to play Wimbledon at first because he doesn’t want to wear all white. Sports media has a strong love-hate-need relationship with him, with an emphasis on need because everyone leans toward a bad boy, and Agassi racks up the accomplishments that make a star rise. He’s world no. 3 by the age of 18; in 1992, at 22, he wins Wimbledon (in white, with no trace of neon) and helps the U.S. win their first Davis Cup in eight years. He plays and often beats the big boys of a previous generation, like Lendl, Wilander, Connors, and Courier; he finds a rival in basic-by-comparison Pete Sampras, whom emotional Andre really doesn’t get; and he lands a major ad campaign that follows him around like bad cologne.
“Image,” he claims in those Canon ads, “is everything.” He does a proto-Ryan Lochte turn on Mad About You; the joke is that he’s so sexy, he appears in Helen Hunt’s dreams. Agassi’s mane (a wig that he mostly worries will fall off) makes him look not unlike renderings of Samson or Fabio. His roots show.
While he never does what he really wants, i.e., stop playing tennis altogether, Agassi is right about what he can and can’t do. At one point, he tells his trainer Gil Reyes, “I think I can do… things. But I can only do them with your help.” His coach in those years is Brad Gilbert, who talks like he has a side hustle selling downmarket Jolt. Brad advises him: “Quit going for the knockout.” This is the year Agassi starts dating model-actress Brooke Shields; in a lot of ways, this advice is tough love. Gilbert asks, knowing full well that he will have to answer himself: “When you chase perfection, do you know what you’re doing?”
Gilbert doesn’t wait for Andre to catch up. “You’re chasing something that doesn’t exist. You’re making everyone around you miserable.”
That said, 1995 is Andre’s most perfect year, stats-wise. He wins 73 matches, 26 of those in a row, and he only loses 9. He is the world no. 1 for most of the year, only dropping in November to the inescapable Sampras. He shaves his head, and there’s one less thing to worry about, even though he seems unrecognizable to himself in the mirror.
He says he won’t play in the 1996 Davis Cup if missing it means he can win the gold medal in Atlanta that summer. But he doesn’t play that year like a winner. In the French, he loses in an early round; at Wimbledon, he meets the same fate. He’s not in the finals of any of the ’96 slams, actually. He’s feeling a lot of pressure, not just from his game but from dating an actress—turns out he can’t handle watching her kiss another guy, even if he knows it’s pretend. In the important ways, Brooke isn’t on the same page. When Brooke does well on Broadway, she feels hungry for more. But when Andre finally gets that number one ranking, he feels empty. She doesn’t get that her boyfriend hates what he’s best at.
In Agassi’s memoir, Open, he describes a lot of things with the candor promised in the title, including the Olympics. He runs over the facts of that milestone quickly, almost insultingly. This is not his medal. This is his father’s medal, even Gil Reyes’ medal, more than it is his own.
Before his comeback in 1998—which changes, as comebacks do, the whole meaning of his story—the most persistent quality of Agassi’s career is a lack of clarity. That’s not a knock on his game, which is a thing of beauty despite his pigeon-toed walk. This will sound like faint praise, but trust me, it isn’t: His groundstrokes are charming like snakes are charming. He lulls spectators into feeling like it has to be the cocky young dude from Vegas who’s going to miss. Way more often than not, it isn’t. After whipping his opponent back and forth, to the baseline and the net, Agassi places the ball exactly where a showman would.
He’s beyond good and smart—he’s entertaining. But I’m not talking about his game, which is clear; I’m talking about his career. What’s in the fog is his reason for playing at all.
Before the Olympics final, the match to determine that gold, there’s a weather delay. His priorities are not where you think they should be: He eats a Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich while it thunderstorms in Georgia. But the clouds clear, and he goes on to hit some of the best points of his life, some real screamers, against Sergi Bruguera of Spain.
Joyfully, he wins. He wins for Gil, he wins for his dad, he wins for America. But he doesn’t win for himself.
Without knowing the future, tennis fans in 1997 see the gold as a last gasp. Agassi’s ranking belly-flops to the 140s after he loses the number one seed to Sampras, because he only plays 24 matches the whole year. He plays them like shit, because an old wrist injury has come back for blood. He starts doing hard drugs, seemingly in response to Gil’s daughter getting into a debilitating car crash, but maybe he’s into crystal meth just because he hates himself. He almost gets suspended from the ATP. He marries Brooke mistakenly. It all seems like the end of something.
But something changes. In Open, he credits his meeting Nelson Mandela and his reading James Agee’s A Death in the Family as catalysts for his reframe, and maybe that’s all true. It’s kind of absurd, but then so are most brushes with gravity. He decides something for himself, about himself and other people, when reading Agee’s words about suffering: She thought she had never before had a chance to realize the strength human beings have, to endure. For Andre, I like a different famous line from that book: You’ve got to bear in mind that nobody ever lived is specially privileged.
In 1998, Andre Agassi jumps from being world no. 110 to world no. 6, which remains the highest jump a player has made into the top 10 in a calendar year. In 1999, he wins all four grand slams, being the fifth male player ever to do so (Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic eventually join him). He ends his marriage with Brooke, and he marries Steffi Graf, the woman he has more or less pined for his entire life, knowing from the first time he saw her that she understands what it means to hit ball after ball after ball.
In 2016 he is still the only male player to have won a) a gold medal, b) on all court surfaces, and c) a year-end championship. The gold medal isn’t the high point of his career. It’s maybe fourth or fifth on a list of high points.
At Wimbledon in 1998, I see Andre Agassi play Tommy Haas live in the second round. He loses, but I have never seen Agassi play in person before; as a fan, it is essentializing. Watching Agassi, I understand what he describes with mixed emotions in Open: This is a game between two people who are thinking in ways most of us can’t, because they have to. There is no escape when you’re on the court; there is no sneaking out. And there’s no pleasing anyone. Sure, there are exciting points that make the ref hush the crowd, and there is always a winner of the match, but the larger satisfaction that players chase isn’t in the score. Sometimes it’s in the result, but, for Agassi, it isn’t really in there either.
Agassi was a freak. He played like a great against them all. He played both Chang and Nadal, both Federer and Becker, both Bjorg (albeit at eight years old) and the young guns who modeled their game after him. Forget his rivalry with Sampras—Agassi’s best tennis was always against the others. He found a way to come out on top of nearly every one of them, no matter how lonely and strapped down he felt.
And isn’t that the ultimate cliched Olympics story? Someone who perseveres for a really long time, longer than he wants, and pushes through. Someone who does it all, even when he wants to quit. If you look at Andre as a person, not just at what he left on the court, and you think about what the Olympics represented to him—not his own glory, but a piece of life he wanted to give to someone else—you feel in your bones how complicated victory is. Maybe that’s how one person can process so many wins and so many losses: Some of them aren’t his. And even if he hates it, that’s the way he’s found. That’s how he can continue to be himself.