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Coming Into Focus
GARY SMITH
July 17, 2006
It took startling transformations--from callow prodigy to thoughtful champion, from punk to philanthropist, from conflicted son to devoted father--for Andre Agassi to finally see the big picture, and he's still searching for answers
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July 17, 2006

Coming Into Focus

It took startling transformations--from callow prodigy to thoughtful champion, from punk to philanthropist, from conflicted son to devoted father--for Andre Agassi to finally see the big picture, and he's still searching for answers

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Suddenly it opens wide. All that losing has shredded all those expectations for the long-haired hotshot out of Nick's academy. Suddenly he's got something to prove to himself instead of something to live up to: He's got purpose. He wins six tournaments in 1988 and rockets, at age 18, to No. 3 in the world. He still guns for white lines and glory on every shot, but he's just two steps from becoming what his father told everyone he'd be before he could tie his shoes, when....

The question drops like a snake from a tree.

Are you playing tennis for you ... or for someone else's image of you? Number 1 in the world--did you sign up for that?

His thoughts, during matches, start darting here and there, a flock of startled birds. He falls behind, overwhelmed by the mind flutter, and does the one thing that would cut Dad's heart deepest: goes numb, caves in, folds, accepts losing. Big strokes, small heart, the lads in the locker room start saying.

Then the oddest thing of all occurs. He comes upon the pot of gold. Millions in endorsement dollars and appearance fees. No need to show up for Wimbledon or the Australian Open. No need to lay off that Coke, burger and fries 45 minutes before taking the court. Just keep the hair long, the threads flashy, the bandanna flapping, the earring glinting, the jaw unshaven, the emotions bared. Just be the rock 'n' roll racket-rippin' rebel, the sassy foil for staid Pete Sampras. Just let Madison Avenue use that rebellion against a father that's never actually occurred, by a champion who's never actually won a major championship, by a rock 'n' roller who actually listens to Barry Manilow--to tap into a desire that every consumer has felt to tell his father or boss to go to hell.

So now he's living someone else's image of someone else's image of him. He gets the Lamborghini, the Ferrari, the Vector, the Corvette, the three Porsches, the JetStar airplane, the 727. He gets the Lamborghini girlfriend, Brooke. Nothing holds his interest. He sells the cars, sheds the airplanes, shears off all the hair. Blows off tennis, then feels lost without it. Sends himself on missions--brewing the world's best cup of coffee, procuring the planet's finest hair clippers, pouring the ultimate margarita--narrowing the world to one thing, tunneling to its bottom, then moving to the next. A second dream crowds his sleep: the dream of his tongue rubbing relentlessly against his teeth, pushing until one tumbles out. Even teeth don't last.

Canon asks him to say three words. He thinks they pertain to a camera--literally--not to a philosophy or to anything to do with him. He still has tunnel eyes, can't see the big picture: that Madison Avenue's calculation will come off as his calculation. Three words tied in a nice neat noose, just what everyone suspected of the Slamless Wonder: Image is everything.

Maybe some of the calculation is his. But the cynics don't see the multimillionaire sitting for hours on a weight bench in the ramshackle garage of Gil Reyes--the trainer who has turned his life into a study of body and spirit--wringing truth from the wise old soul as if his life depends on it. They don't see the rebel flying home from tournaments, driving straight from the airport to the home of a songwriting minister named John Parenti and driving circles around the glitter of Vegas all night, questioning, trying to find a gentler God, a comprehensible father, a reliable Andre.

One day Perry, his oldest friend and new manager, suggests that Andre enter the thorniest place: psychotherapy. Because nothing has ever been resolved between Andre and his father. Andre's first phone call after he finally wins that first Slam at Wimbledon? Dad. Dad's first words? Should've won in four sets.

But everything he has comes from his father. Who knows where therapy might take Andre or what it might demand that he do? Besides, he explains to Perry, it feels like a shortcut. I'm bound and determined to eat experience, he says. If you give me an option to cut a corner, I take more than I should. But if I make it hard, if I face it at its worst, then I stay focused and driven and it only gets better from there. I need to be in the thick of process. So I can't let myself have shortcuts.

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