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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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He fought his way out with his fists, all the way to the 1948 and '52 Olympics as a boxer for Iran, but when he arrived in the U.S. at age 22 with a couple of bucks, a couple of words of English and a new first name--Mike--he didn't choose his Olympic sport, the immigrants' sport, as his ticket into the big tent. He chose tennis. All his life he had been an outsider, a Christian Armenian in a Muslim Persian city. In his new land he was going to walk his yet-to-be-born children right up to the elite and hit 'em where they lived, where they played--in their country clubs.

He settled in Vegas and set to work. His eldest child, Rita, had the gift, but she hit puberty and hit the road, middle finger raised to her old man's relentless tennis regimen as she ran off with, of all people, tennis legend Pancho Gonzalez. His next child, Phillip, didn't quite have the foot speed or audacity that it took to play with the pros. His third, Tami, bumped her ceiling playing at Texas A&M.

That left Andre. Last child. Last chance.

Meet the future Number 1 tennis player in the world! Mike crows as he takes his four-year-old around the casino showroom where he serves as a host.

He builds a tennis court in his backyard. Andre enters a tunnel. As long as he remains inside it and never comes up to see the big picture--how vast the world is, how rife with challengers, how monstrous the odds stacked against him--he can go about the task of fulfilling his father's vision.

Dad plucks him from school a half hour early to get him on the court before Mike leaves for his night job at the casino. Weekends and summer days, Mike wakes up on a few hours' sleep and herds Andre onto the court where the 32 garbage cans await--each filled with 300 balls--along with the 11 machines that Dad has custom-welded to spit balls with different spins from different angles, one every two to three seconds ... for the first of Andre's three-a-day workouts. Thousands of balls struck each day, 365 days a year, including Christmas and the day after a surgeon reattaches the piece of finger sliced off by a kid's blade when the 10-year-old Andre goes ice skating, which, dammit, he never should've done. Day off to heal? Kid can rip a forehand with a cast on his left hand. Don't pull the racket that far back, son--shorter the backswing, bigger the pop, like a boxer's straight right. C'mon, step inside the baseline, hit the ball early, crush it--lower, deeper, closer, farther, more topspin, more--go for broke on every shot!

Now Andre's hands are as fast as those phenomenal eyes, so swift that 20 years later he will enter a cage with a pitching machine set to throw 90-mph fastballs and hit them with a bat while running toward the machine. But what about the fire that he'll need to dominate the world, the desperation that drove Mike to the Olympics and America? There are four bedrooms and two bathrooms in his house, plumbing, electricity--and no Muslim bullies in sight. Well, then, Mike will be the bully. Mike will be the fire. Mike will snarl at Andre when his game goes sour during junior tournaments in Utah, Nevada and California. Mike will bring a hammer to a tennis match and bang on the railing in disgust. Mike will scream at officials and get thrown off the grounds. Mike will drive home, obsessing over each shot no matter how good it was because it could've been better. That's when Andre wins, which is virtually always. When he loses....

He races off the court and hides behind a tree at age nine, sobbing in anticipation of the fire, after he drops the deciding tiebreaker in the final of the 12-and-under nationals. Runner-up trophies get left on the table at awards ceremonies or heaved in the trash.

What's a kid to do? Appeal to Mom? She's a peach, but tennis issues she leaves to her husband. Confront Dad? Sure, Andre is scared to, but it's more complicated than that. He loves his dad. Dad goes to war if anyone tries to take advantage of his son, gives Andre all his soul and heart, and his heart is as big as all Persia. In the middle of the night, if a friend has lost his job, Mike will go shopping and leave a heap of groceries on the friend's front step. He'll tip five bucks on a 50-cent cup of coffee, give people cars, nurse injured birds back to health, hard-boil eggs for them to sit on, end up with a half-dozen pigeons living in his house. But Andre can't, for the life of him, figure out why a game means so much to this man, why it feels as if it's his responsibility to keep his father and his father's home happy.

Puberty lurks. Mike grows anxious. He knows there's no player in Vegas good enough to compel his kid to keep improving. He knows, after his experience with his first daughter, that fathers and teenagers and tennis courts with 32 bins of balls are Vesuvius waiting to happen. Something has to give. Someone has to go.

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