Friday, October 30, 2009

Discussing Andre Agassi

In the last couple of days I have been asked repeatedly about Andre Agassi’s revelation that he used crystal meth back in 1997 when his tennis career was spiraling downward. I’m not completely sure why this story doesn’t interest me more. It might be because the revelation is clearly an attempt to hype Agassi’s memoir (not that I would ever knock someone for trying to sell books) or it might be because I don’t find it that shocking.

I’m not downplaying the dangers of crystal meth. I know a little about methamphetamines because that’s the drug Paul Goydos’s wife Wendy got hooked on years ago that was almost undoubtedly responsible for her death earlier this year. From what I’ve heard and read there are few--if any--drugs more addictive. Agassi apparently got lucky because he never got hooked. He is part of a very small minority.

What DID jump out at me in reading Agassi’s version of all this, was his tale of testing positive for the crystal-meth during an ATP Tour drug test. He describes making up a lie—that he had accidentally gotten it into his system because his assistant frequently spiked his sodas with the stuff—and the tour buying the story.

This is the kind of story that ranks up there with the dog ate my homework or I was kidnapped by gypsies as an excuse. And yet, the tour apparently accepted it without any follow up questions and Agassi (and his image) skated.

To me this is far more an indictment of the people at The ATP Tour than it is of Agassi. When a drug-user gets caught, especially if he is a public figure, the first thing he does is think up a lie. If the people in charge are paying any attention at all they should know he’s going to lie. First question: Have you fired the assistant yet? Second question: Clearly you must have understood you had been drugged when this happened, did you see a doctor? Did you think to tell us about this before your drug test?

Oh well, that’s tennis. If Martina Hingis had still been a big star when she tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon a couple years ago my guess is the powers-that-be would have found a way to accept her explanation too.

To be honest, I was never a big Agassi fan. Part of that, no doubt, is that I first encountered him early in his career when he was still a coddled, immature, jerk. I’ve told the story here about the incident in Vienna in 1990 when he first tried to embarrass Bud Collins by getting him to hit with him after a pre-Davis Cup practice session and then, when it became apparent that Bud, even giving away 40 years, could keep the ball in play quite comfortably, he tried to hit a ball right at Bud’s head.

There was also the spitting incident in New York during the 1990 U.S. Open, when Agassi spit at an umpire, then denied it to the supervisor and somehow avoided a default. When the supervisor, Ken Farrar, later saw the tape he was embarrassed that he had bought Agassi’s story.

And then there was the Wimbledon-ducking. For three straight years when he was a ranked, rising star, Agassi skipped Wimbledon so he could take a break before returning to Europe post-Wimbledon to play on clay for big appearance fees. His list of excuses—and that of the yes-men he was surrounded with—was comical. I remember him playing an exhibition here in Washington in 1990 with John McEnroe, one of those deals where they agreed to split sets and then Agassi won the third. After the match, Harold Solomon, who had organized the event, interviewed both players on court. At one point he said, “So Andre, when are we going to see you play Wimbledon again. (Agassi had played it once, losing in the first round).

 “Let me answer that this way,” Agassi said. “How many here think Wimbledon is the most important tournament?” Quite a few fans cheered. Then he added,  “okay now, FOR AMERICA, how many think the U.S. Open is the most important?” Some cheers, hardly overwhelming. “You see,” Agassi said, turning to Solomon. “I told you.”

I was standing at that moment with McEnroe, who shook his head and said, “that may be the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. Does he really think anyone is buying that crap?”

No one was. Agassi took big guarantees overseas, then often tanked matches and flew home. He blatantly gave up in a Davis Cup match in 1989 against Carl Uwe-Steeb (yeah, THAT Carl Uwe-Steeb) and became kind of a joke in the locker room in spite of his remarkable talent. He did finally go and play Wimbledon and won it in 1992, creating the famous scene where Nick Bollitieri, his long-time coach could be seen signaling him from the friends box to “stay down,” on his knees to play to the crowd.

After the 1997 flameout when his marriage to Brooke Shields fell apart and he got completely out of shape and dropped to No. 141 in the world, Agassi made a remarkable comeback. He worked himself back into shape, became No. 1 in the world again, completed the career Grand Slam and became—remarkably—a beloved figure in tennis.

I wasn’t around the sport much during the last few years of his career but people I respect like Mary Carillo and Sally Jenkins said he did mature a good bit. Marrying Steffi Graf was clearly good for him, he got far more involved in his charity work and acted like an adult, especially (as often happens) when he became a father. That said, when he broke down after his final match at the U.S. Open in 2006, someone who knows him well said to me, “It’s written in the script—‘cry now.’” Okay, so the guy was always a showman, I’ll give him that one.

The crystal meth admission may seem strange to some because it could affect his new-found, ‘good guy,’ image. I don’t think it will. I think people will say, ‘that was a while ago, he made a mistake, he’s fessed up to it.’

And maybe that’s as it should be. He’s certainly not the first athlete to cover up drug-usage and if that was the only drug he used, as dangerous and dumb as it was, he wasn’t trying to cheat his sport like all the steroid users, many of whom are still lying about what they did.

So, I’m not going to buy Agassi’s book because I don’t have much interest in reading it. And I don’t expect my autographed copy to arrive in the mail anytime soon. That’s fine too.

I’ll end this on a story I told in, "Hard Courts,” the tennis book I wrote in 1991. In August of 1990 Agassi and his entourage—which in those days consisted of his agent, his agent’s assistant, his masseuse, his racquet stringer, his religious guru (who he once fired after losing a match) his workout guru, his equipment rep and his brother, who was apparently paid to be his brother—flew into the Cincinnati airport late one night for the tournament played there.

The airport, as anyone who has been there knows, is actually across the river in Covington, Kentucky. A woman from the tournament had been sent to greet Agassi and entourage and direct them to limos that would take them to their hotel. As soon as Agassi got off the plane, he found the woman and said, “Look, you better get security out here right away. If you don’t, I’m going to be MOBBED by all my fans trying to get through the airport.”

The woman, who told me the story later that week, looked at Agassi and said: “Andre, it’s 11:30 at night. We’re in Kentucky. Unless you’ve been on Hee Haw lately, no one here is going to mob you.”

There are some stories you just can’t make up.


Anonymous said...

It is possible, and the cynic in me says probable, that the whole Meth thing is made up. Other than selling books what is the reason? He never was accused of drug use and there was never any ATP announcement that he had failed a drug test. This so called revelation is new to everybody.

Andre has always been about image. He had an entire ad campaign based on "Image is everything". Isn't just possible that in an effort to sell books he needed an issue that would provide support for his mid-life image makeover? Moreover, an issue that would reinforce what a great man, husband and father he had become.

Agassi has never been an honest person about who is or what he is about. Why is now any different. His whole like has been scripted. Why should this be any different.

Gordon in Tampa

Freddy said...

Godon - you know, I was thinking the same thing. But what an ambitious lie it would be, as SOMEONE will track down someone at the ATP Tour at the time to come out and discuss it. Or say it never happened. I read where the president of the tour at the time said he can't discuss whether it did or didn't occur, because of a confidentiality agreement he had in general when he let his post (sounds like the ATP may have had a LOT to hide).

Someone will talk, if reporters care enough to dig.

JDM said...

I agree and also think all this is to sell books. I hope it doesn't work

gunnar said...

If the ATP looked the other way on this issue, what is the point of having any rules? Would Andre have stopped taking drugs sooner if he had been outed? Why even have lines on the court?


Joel Drucker said...

John -- the fact that you've been away from the sport a while adds a thoughtful and refreshing perspective to all this.

As you can imagine, I'm up to my eyeballs in this Agassi story... three different stories for three different outlets... quite a melange ...

A shame to me how the sport I love so much is filled with these bewildering characters. Maybe that's the nature of an individual sport, where there are no teammates to keep folks in line. Then again, as you told me back in '91, other sports are more and more becoming like tennis (Kobe, Vick, Bonds)...

Nice column.

Joel Drucker

Anonymous said...

Why would you not read Agassi's book? You are one who has never been afraid to tackle any subject, personality, situation, security guard, etc. so why avoid Agassi's book? It's an excellent book that gives insight into a complicated person who honestly lays it out there. That's what you've done your whole career, and that's what you've always wanted from those you've interviewed. Agassi has been through a lot and has changed a lot. Not reading his book feels like you want to keep your old view of him intact, regardless of the facts/new information...and isn't that something you've always been against?