Andre Agassi 'Opens' Up About Life, Tennis Widely considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Andre Agassi admitted in his autobiography that he hates tennis, "with a dark and secret passion." Always has. He spoke to Terry Gross last November about what he calls the "contradictions" at the core of his life.
NPR logo

Andre Agassi 'Opens' Up About Life, Tennis

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Andre Agassi 'Opens' Up About Life, Tennis

Andre Agassi 'Opens' Up About Life, Tennis

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

The U.S. Open tennis tournament begins Monday, and the memoir by Andre Agassi, one of the most electrifying players to compete there, is now out in paperback.

Those are two good reason to revisit Terry's 2009 interview with Agassi, recorded when his surprise-filled memoir, "Open," was first published.

Although he won 869 matches, eight grand slam titles, an Olympic gold medal and was fifth on the all-time list, Agassi says he hated tennis with a dark and secret passion. He confesses that he used crystal meth and that, when his urine tested positive for the drug, he lied about how he ingested it. Then there's the confession that his famous long mullet, which helped define his image, was part hairpiece.

But Agassi's memoir is also filled with insights about the game: what it's like to win and to lose and the physical toll being a professional tennis player took on his body, forcing him to retire at age 36 after the 2006 U.S. Open.

The memoir is written with the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer J.R. Moehringer. Agassi says he asked Moehringer to collaborate with him because he loved Moehringer's memoir, "The Tender Bar."


Andre Agassi, welcome to FRESH AIR. I have to tell you, I really love the opening of your book. There's so many memoirs, sports memoirs included, that start with, like, the moment of triumph and then tell you how they got there. And your memoir starts with you in incredible pain...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...on the way to what will be your final match. And you're 36 at this point, it's in the year 2006, you feel like you're 96 physically. It's just before the U.S. Open. Why were you in such pain then?

Mr. ANDRE AGASSI (Former Professional Tennis Player; Author, "Open"): Well, physically speaking I was in pain on a lot of different levels, emotionally trying to come to terms with the real rollercoaster of a whirl of a life that I lived and trying to understand myself through that process.

But physically, I was in a lot of pain because I had just been through, you know, over nearly three decades of just a lot of wear and tear on my body. And my spine was kind of seizing up on me as moments continued on the tennis court. And to physically be so limited and to be out there competing in the U.S. Open was traumatizing.

GROSS: When you play with pain, how does that alter your game?

Mr. AGASSI: It alters your decision-making. You know, you understand what your limitations are, so if you can't quite bend as low or reach as far, you know, it forces you to be in better position for the ball, which forces you to make more educated guesses out there. You have to start leaning more. You have to start guessing more.

Part of the reason why I got aced a lot on the tennis court is because I didn't have the lateral coverage. And so, as a result, I would have to take these educational guesses and start leaning so I can be close enough to the ball to hit it with the purpose that, you know, that you want to hit it with.

GROSS: So, you know, in your opening chapter you describe, you know, at the U.S. Open, your final U.S. Open, you're playing against Marcos Baghdatis and he's a young tennis player at this point, he's like 21.

He grew up with pictures of you on his bedroom wall. He patterned his game after yours. He's at the beginning of his career, you're at the very end of your career. What was it like playing against him at that point?

Mr. AGASSI: Well, it was brutal. You know, it was - beyond the physical limitations that I felt, and beyond the fact that his game was a game that was designed like mine, which means we were going to play basically the most brutal form of the sport, which is going to be toe to toe, pounding on each other.

And we knew there's going to be long rallies since neither one of us really had an overpowering serve. So, I knew I was going to be in for a physical battle unless everything went absolutely perfectly.

But beyond that, you know, stepping onto a court and not knowing if this is the last time you're ever going to do this, thinking quite possibly this is the last time - I sort of challenge any industry, any person in any industry to imagine what it's like to get to a point of your life where you say, you know, I've done this my whole life, and today will be the last time I do it - the last article I write, the last radio show I host, the last, you know, interview I give. It is daunting. So, emotionally, I was going through quite a rollercoaster.

GROSS: And to make that match particularly more incredible, your opponent was having physical problems, too. Marcos Baghdatis was having, let's see...

Mr. AGASSI: Cramps.

GROSS: Yeah. He had problems with a strained quad?

Mr. AGASSI: His problems I earned that day, to be quite honest, you know, it physically, it turned into a huge battle. And I was actually getting him quite fatigued.

And early in the fifth set, when he had seized momentum of the match, and we had been out there for a number of hours, he called a trainer out to help with his quad because his quad was starting to cramp. And I knew he was running on a clock just like I was.

GROSS: And when the game is over, you're both lying on a table in pain, alone in a room together. So, at that point, is he like your opponent, your rival, or do you feel this connection because, I mean, he's this young guy who patterned himself on you. He's going through pain like you're going through pain, like you're so connected and so opposed to each other at this moment.

Mr. AGASSI: Yeah. And also on the court, you know, I mean that net strangely connects you. You're so connected to somebody for many hours out there on a tennis court in front of the world and on that stage.

And when both of you physically push yourself to places you never thought you can go, and he's cramping on the tennis court, and your back is starting to seize up, and you're walking to the locker room, and he can hardly walk, and your backs contorting the closer you get to the locker room.

And the next thing you know, you just drop your bag and you can't walk any further, and he can't walk any further. And you have people that come around and help lift you onto this table and lay me on a bag of ice, and people start stretching him out. And every time they stretch one part of his body, you know, you flex the other. It's the way our body works. You stretch your quad, your hamstring flexes, and you stretch your hamstring, your quad flexes.

And every time a muscle would flex, it cramps. And he's screaming in pain, I'm screaming in pain because I can't breathe. The muscle's into spasm so much, that it kind of pulled against my diaphragm, and I was having a hard time breathing. And we just begged everybody to leave the room and let us be because there's nothing to do but wait for the doctors.

And while we are doing this, were looking at this TV above our heads. At two o'clock in the morning, you're lying under Arthur Ashe Stadium with an opponent that you just bludgeoned, and he had done the same to you, and, you know, you're watching yourself run around this court, accomplishing a level of tennis that you've never - that you very rarely get to experience.

And I see the hand move out to the left of me and I look over and, in pain, he's holding his hand out. And in pain, I hold mine out and we kind of hold hands watching the fierce battle that we had kind of just gone through. And, you know, it was a crazy moment for me and it's just I'll remember it the rest of my life.

GROSS: We should mention you won that particular match.

Mr. AGASSI: I got over the finish line, you know, I won a lot that day. He gave me one of the greatest memories I think I've ever had on a tennis court.

GROSS: But this was, like, your last big tournament, the last U.S. Open. So as you were entering all of this, you write that you were thinking: Let this be over. And you were also thinking: I'm not ready for it to be over.

You wanted to retire; at the same time, you wanted to continue. I think this is not an uncommon conflict for people who are facing the end of something and they have to decide if it's over yet. Can you talk about how that conflict - what that conflict was like for you?

Mr. AGASSI: Well, that conflict started when I was a young boy. You know, I never chose tennis. My father certainly pushed it on me in a very disciplined way. It was what we did as kids in our house. You wake up, you play tennis, you brush your teeth, in that order.

And I was always introduced as the future number one player in the world. And we would go out on the tennis court every day and hit balls, and hit balls endlessly and tirelessly. And I just, I resented how it changed the mood of our house when I either won or lost or I either practiced well or didn't.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andre Agassi, the tennis star who was ranked number one during part of his career and he's written a memoir called "Open: An Autobiography."

You say you never really chose to play tennis. It was kind of forced on you by your father who was, among other things, a tennis fanatic. And he kind of worked you to the bone, and talk about, like, your father's obsession with tennis and how that played out through him trying to train you.

Mr. AGASSI: Yeah. Well, my father is from - is an Armenian immigrant who was raised in Tehran. He's a Christian Armenian raised in Muslim Tehran and spent much of his young youth fighting on the streets.

His mother was rather abusive and as a punishment would make him wear sometimes hand-me-down girls' clothes to school, which caused boys to, you know, tease.

And he fought since he was - as long as I've played tennis, he's fought and he finally turned that into a formal form of fighting and became a boxer in Golden Gloves and won the Golden Gloves a couple times - boxed in two Olympics.

But he came to America not speaking English, putting himself through school and feeling like the world was always against him. And there's one thing he wanted for his children - was the American dream - was really the quickest way to the American dream, and tennis was the one sport that he really connected to with boxing because it was like boxing except without the gloves and without the contact.

And he was a good boxer, but he used to break his hands a lot. So I think he responded to tennis because it was like you can beat somebody up but you don't have to get hurt.

And you know, so he had this real passion for tennis and believed that it was going to be what brings us success, and he didn't have choice in his life, and he was convinced the American dream would give us choice in our lives.

And that passion was relentless, not just towards tennis but just who he is. It's in his bones to work. It's in his bones to not cut corners. It's in his bones - repetition, repetition, repetition. And it's in his bones to fight the world, and that's one thing my dad definitely did.

GROSS: Describe his ball machine, the Dragon, that he drilled you with.

Mr. AGASSI: It was fierce. It stood many feet tall, many feet taller than me. It had a black base to it, and it had a long aluminum, tubular neck that stretched up. You know, it was probably seven or eight feet, and then it had a long tubular nose that sort of shot towards you, kind of angling down.

And this ball would kind of get sucked into this base of this machine, and it would build up pressure. It was one of these early ball machines that sort of needed to block the air around the ball before the air would eventually just push that thing through the narrow aluminum tubing, and it would make really sick sounds as it kind of sucked this ball into its gut.

But he would push this thing as close to the net as possible. And then he would stand behind me and kind of push me as close to the baseline as possible, and then he would crank this thing up. And when that thing finally shot off - I make an analogy: it's like how a bullet gets shot out of a gun.

And sure enough, when that ball came out, it was coming out about 110 miles an hour and coming out at a trajectory that was nearly impossible to deal with in the sea of tennis balls that were around me.

GROSS: And but - how many balls would you have to hit a day, about?

Mr. AGASSI: You know, it was into the thousands. It was into the thousands. It was hours upon hours. And my father, he's a mathematician. He was always a genius at math - came easy for him.

He was a guy that believed in numbers. He believed in percentages. He believed in angles and geometry and was fascinated by the game for those reasons, as well.

But the one thing he definitely believed about numbers is if you hit 2,500 balls a day you'll hit a - he had it figured, you're going to hit a million balls over a certain period of time, which is about a year, and he just figured anybody that hits a million balls a year cannot be beat.

And one day you're get to enjoy what it is I saw at the local professional tournament that used to come to town: a wheelbarrow full of silver dollars getting wheeled out with Caesar and Cleopatra on hand as well. It was an image I think that he never forgot, certainly I haven't.

BIANCULLI: Tennis star Andre Agassi, speaking to Terry Gross in 2009. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2009 interview with tennis star Andre Agassi. His memoir, called "Open," is now out in paperback.

GROSS: Now you went to a tennis camp in Florida. You grew up in Las Vegas, but your father sent you to this tennis camp, and then you also had to go to a school-school. So you went to an academy that you hated. You hated the tennis camp. You describe it as a glorified prison camp. Why, because you were drilled so incessantly and also the food was so bad?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AGASSI: Well, those were two of many reasons, really. It was built on an old tomato farm, and it just had rows of tennis courts. And, you know, more than anything, the prison of it was the prison of having tennis start to really come with a huge cost to my life, which is not even being able to be home, which is, you know, having your kind of life taken away, having to raise yourself at 13 years old, so that - a lot my perspectives then were just built through that fear.

But there were hard reasons why. I mean we lived in rickety bunks in buildings that were named like prison blocks. It was C building and A building. And, you know, we had a strict schedule with strict rules, and we had to be up and go to a cafeteria with horrible food.

You're fighting to get to the cafeteria first from other boys and girls. You're fighting to get to the shower before your bunkmates get to it because the hot water lasts for about 12 minutes. You know, you're fighting to get a seat on the school bus that was a little bit nicer than the other one.

You go to school for four hours a day, and you play tennis for six or seven hours a day, and that inverse ratio of time in school and tennis made you end up having to give up on school. And it was just an endless kind of intensity to it.

GROSS: And this contributes to why you've often thought of yourself as hating tennis.

Mr. AGASSI: Well, you know, I played tennis for all the wrong reasons throughout my life, and different reasons throughout it but all the wrong ones. You know, at first it was my father, then it was me. In order to get out of this tennis camp, the only way out was to really succeed. And I...

GROSS: To say that you really wanted to play tennis full time, be on the tennis circuit and not be stuck in school.

Mr. AGASSI: Yes. And I wanted out of that academy. And I wanted to quit school because I was intimidated by it, because I was overmatched by it, because I was too tired for it most of the time, and succeeding on the court was my way out.

Little did I know I was jumping from the frying pan into the fire because I succeeded only to find myself on a world stage rebelling in front of the world.

GROSS: Okay. Speaking of rebelling, let me read something that you write in your book. And I'm talking to Andre Agassi, the tennis star who was ranked number one during part of his career, and he's written a new memoir called "Open."

So during the period when you're in this, like, tennis camp, and you write about how you rebelled, and you write: I've mutilated my hair, grown my nails, including one pinky nail that's two inches long and painted fire-engine red.

I've pierced my body, broken rules, busted curfew, picked fistfights, thrown tantrums, cut classes, even slipped into the girls' barracks after hours. I've consumed gallons of whiskey, often while sitting brazenly atop my bunk. And you say: What more can I do? No one seems to notice my antics anymore.

So looking back, why do you think you were doing all of that? Was it a fashion statement or more than that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AGASSI: It was, you know, it's easy to think it was an attempt for me to stand out when, truly in hindsight, it was an attempt for me to hide.

You know, there's nothing - there's no better way to hide than to wear a mullet or a Mohawk or attract attention somewhere else. And I was hiding. I was rebelling, and I was fighting the world. I was making a choice to be a fighter.

GROSS: There's a really, like, funny-dash-scary part...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: the book having to do with your hair, and this is during the French Open in 1990. You were starting to lose your hair, which was a thing in the family.

You know, your brother had lost his hair, had started to lose his hair at a very young age, and he found it very upsetting. And now that you were known for this mullet, you are known for your hair, and you're starting to lose it, it's like there goes part of your identity.

So you got a hairpiece. You actually got a hairpiece for the top of your head. And then what happened to hairpiece?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AGASSI: I did. You know, I was terrorized watching my brother lose his hair at an early age. It left an impression on me. Combine that with the fact that my livelihood and my image was so connected to it, I didn't - I just couldn't bear the thought of the world knowing my dark secret, that I was actually losing my hair.

So I wore a hairpiece in the French Open during that time, and everything was great the whole tournament except the night before the finals.

I guess I used the wrong conditioner on my hair, and as a result, the weave started to slip loose, and 80 percent of the hairpiece was kind of flapping in the wind.

And I was panicking the night before the finals: What am I going to do? What am I going to do? And we found a bunch of bobby pins. My brother went out in Paris ,and we stuck all these bobby pins in it to kind of clamp it to my real hair and to make sure it holds down.

And I was just dreading the possibility that it wouldn't. And I asked my brother, what do you think? Is it going to hold? And he basically tells me well, yeah, I think it will if you just don't move around too much. And so that...

GROSS: Oh, very funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AGASSI: So we had kind of a dark laugh about that as I go out to play my first Grand Slam final, and it was the only time in my life I ever prayed for a result and the result wasn't a win. The result was for my hair to stay on because I didn't know what I would do if that thing came flying off on center court.

GROSS: So at what point did you decide to cut it off?

Mr. AGASSI: I decided to cut it off...

GROSS: Actually, let me back up and ask you something else.

Mr. AGASSI: Yeah.

GROSS: How did you keep it on? I mean just forgetting that night even -but just in general, everyone has seen hairpieces that kind of came loose and got a little twisted and looked a little foolish, and the person wearing it didn't know. And, like, you're sweating like crazy when you're on the court, so how do you keep on a hairpiece?

Mr. AGASSI: That's why God invented hats and headbands.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AGASSI: You know, I - first of all, I had some hair. It wasn't like I was this bald guy who was just having this fake hair. I think that looks a bit more extreme.

But, you know, I had hair that I could kind of hide around it, and it helped in concealing it to a certain degree. But I always played in -from that day forward I was playing in headbands. I could somehow push, you know, hide the base of it.

I always went out at night most of the time wearing baseball caps. And, you know, I eventually started to play in just a hat because I got tired of worrying about, you know, its malfunctions and the fact that you have hundreds of photographers taking thousands of pictures through the course of one match. So I did it with hats and a lot of hope that the hat wouldn't come flying off.

GROSS: So when you cut it off at the suggestion of Brooke Shields, who became your first wife, how did it change your sense of yourself? Did it make a difference?

Mr. AGASSI: It liberated me. You know, I felt like I was free, and I felt like it was just a great step forward in my life.

GROSS: And now you have a shaved head, right?

Mr. AGASSI: I shave it every other day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It looks good.

Mr. AGASSI: Thank you. That's very...

GROSS: It's a nice look.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Andre Agassi, speaking to Terry Gross in 2009. We'll have more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2009 interview with tennis icon Andre Agassi. He retired in 2006 after winning eight Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal. His memoir, called "Open," now out in paperback, has some big surprises, like his confession that he hates tennis and that he briefly used crystal meth. The memoir is also filled with insights about the game and the physical toll it took on his body, forcing him to retire at the age of 36.

GROSS: I'd like you to talk a little bit about your longtime coach, Gil, who you met at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, UNLV. And the first time you met him before he actually started working with you, he gave you some really great advice. Would you describe the advice he gave you?

Mr. AGASSI: Well, first of all to clarify, coach in tennis is kind of the word used for the person that helps you between the lines and a trainer is kind of designed to be, to describe the person that helps you with the physical, nutritional, strength training part of sides, and that's who Gil was. He was a strength trainer in my life, but he was more than that; he was a soul trainer. He was a lifeguard for me, you know, he was just an amazing, amazing person. And one of the things that really impressed me about Gil is he knew nothing about tennis, but he knows everything about the biomechanics and the human body. And he knows a lot about sports, in the sense that he's believed right from the beginning that if you have a muscle and you make it stronger, you make it more capable.

And he was asking me why I have the training routine I have, why I run five miles a day, why I do certain things. And I basically didn't know. And he asked me, do you run five miles in a tennis match ever? And I said, well, no. He says, well, in a tennis match you have to run maybe five or seven steps before you have to think about slowing down or stopping, else you're going to run right past the ball after you hit it and you won't be back in position for the next one. And I was like, well, yeah, that's, that's right.

So, you need to accelerate and then you need to brake. So, it seems to me like your sport is a lot more about starting and stopping than it is about running. And I said to him, jeez, that's about the smartest thing I think anybody's ever said to me about tennis.

He says, how about we start to focus on building the muscles that you need to explode, to brake and to dig back out of. And it was just - all of sudden it occurred to me that, you know, I had this asset in my life or access to this asset of understanding my body and being kind of guided and navigating those waters of becoming stronger and fitter.

GROSS: Was it really terrific to have somebody on your side who could train you but at the same time didn't have ulterior motives, like your father, I mean, he was living his fantasy out through you. And then, you know, but in this case, I mean, it sounded like he was really on your side and wanted what was best for you, including for you to play your best game.

Mr. AGASSI: Oh, no question before we worked together, before we even technically worked together and he, you know, we just we bonded and loved each other early in our time spent together. And, so much so that when I asked him to work with me formally, the subject of money never came up. And he said, well, absolutely yes. And he says, but if I'm going to do this, I got do it a certain way, because I'm not going to risk and I'm not going to risk you. I'm not going to risk your dreams, your hopes, your career.

And so, he literally set out and built every machine that we trained on with his hands, designed, welded and built, and it was like my father who built this dragon, you know, it was like I wondered if it was the only thing he had in common really with my father, because he was such a source of strength and he taught me that I'm worth caring about. His actions lived that was the way he lived is proving to me that I'm worth caring about. I started to realize, I was learning a lot more from Gil than just how to get physically stronger.

GROSS: In your memoir, you confessed something that's really shocked a lot of people, which is that you used crystal meth for a while in 1997, and you actually had a urine test that was done by the ATP, the Association of Tennis Professionals, and you tested positive for crystal meth there and you lied. What did you tell them to cover up for the fact that you were actually using at the time?

Mr. AGASSI: Yeah, it was a time in my life where I was depressed and didn't know what depression was. And I was disengaged with tennis. I woke up in a life that I realized it wasn't mine, I wasn't connected to. I hated what I did. I was in a marriage I didn't want to be in. And I was depressed and somebody came along and offered me an escape and, and I took it. And for a moment there was vast sadness.

And then the drug at least allowed me to feel again for a few moments before it started to, you know, rip away at me, like, like drugs do. And getting caught with it and getting tested positive, I was scared, I was ashamed. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't really confide in anybody because nobody knew. The doctor called me and told me I tested positive for, he gave me all these lengthy words of what I had been tested positive to. And I went with my recollection of crystal methylene, not being completely sure what it actually was.

And I did the only thing I thought to do. And I wrote a letter following the procedure, and I lied about how I ingested the drug. I lied by saying my assistant, who was a drug user, which was true, used to spike his sodas to sometimes conceal his usage, and that was true. And I then went on to say that I drank one of his spiked sodas. And that's how it was in my system, and I begged for leniency and mercy and sent the letter off. And I've just absolutely, from that day forward, never, you know, never, was never really able to shake how bad something like that feels.

Doing a drug is one thing, you know, its one thing to make a decision and have that decision impact you, that's fair enough. You make a choice for yourself and you pay the consequences, but when you start to lie about certain things, you really do run the risk of hurting more than just you, and that part was always hard for me. And I think in many ways from that day forward, I've been trying to atone for it.

GROSS: Were there consequences for you your assistant who you kind of ratted out in your letter, you've said that he used meth and, that, you know, he spiked his drink that you accidentally drank?

Mr. AGASSI: He had already kind of fallen off the radar. He was gone. But I watched that drug rip his life apart. He was in a rehab and was, had already publicly sort of confessed to his circle that he was, you know, dying with this addiction. And so, there was nothing private about that part of it. But, you know, in the book I sort of refer him as Slim, which was also deliberate.

GROSS: To hide his real name.

Mr. AGASSI: Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Professionally, I think the question, you know, one of the questions is, did doing meth give you a competitive edge and should it question the accuracy of your record? What do you think?

Mr. AGASSI: Well, I can tell you exactly what it did. It is a performance inhibitor. I mean, it's a deadly, deadly disease that destroys you. It destroys you from the moment you take it. It's, to take that drug and to think about doing anything physical is nearly impossibility between your heart rate and between your dehydration. It's what our sport demands. It was beyond a liability.

It was a class two violation, which is a recreational drug. And it's my belief moving forward, that anybody that tests positive for a recreational drug, while there should be rules that are followed and adhered to, instead of judgments or condemnation, that there should be some compassion towards the possibility that this person really has a problem and needs help. And I think that always should be considered because I lived it and I needed help.

BIANCULLI: Tennis star, Andre Agassi, speaking to Terry Gross in 2009.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2009 interview with tennis star, Andre Agassi. His memoir called "Open," is now out in paperback.

GROSS: So, you know, we were talking earlier about this feeling you had through your tennis career of how, like you wanted it to end, you didn't want to end. You wanted to retire, you didn't want to retire. But, then in 2006, you retired. It was over. And so, three years into that retirement, how does it feel to not be a professional tennis player?

Mr. AGASSI: It feels like a good fit. You know, it was a seamless transition for me. You know, again from that day that I lied about taking the drug, you know, that was the day that I was asking for a second chance and got it, and most people don't get that. And I made a commitment to myself and I made a commitment to all those around me and - that I would make the most of my second chance, that I would atone for this part of my life in a way that will be real every day.

And part of that atonement has been this book, part of that atonement is also the fact that I was going to play tennis as hard and as long as possible and give as much as I could to it. And do everything in the meantime to appreciate its gifts to me and it gave me my school in Las Vegas, it gave me eventually my wife.

GROSS: The school is a school that you founded and have helped fund, a charter school for inner-city kids, yeah.

Mr. AGASSI: Yeah, I built a, I built a K-through-12 public charter school in the poorest neighborhood of Las Vegas. And as a result, these children are going on to lives of their choosing, and it's been my life's work for about 12 years now. But, you know, so, I just, part of that commitment was to see through my career, to not retire for to not choose to quit or choose to retire, but for retirement to choose me. And I pushed until my body just absolutely couldn't do it anymore. And when I finished that day, I could feel that tape of that finish line snap across my chest.

And I went out that night, as recently as that night, and had dinner with a few close people in my life. And I - you could see it on my face, and as I look back, I used to think of myself as a moody person, you know, I really did. But I've to terms with the fact that, you know, tennis is moody. I mean, tennis asks a lot of you every day. And it demands you to be hypersensitive to everything you're feeling and everything that you need to have around you, everything you need to feel, to be at your best and I've been, I just, I live a blessed life now and certainly one of my choice.

GROSS: Now, when you were playing tennis professionally, you had a trainer who traveled with you, is with you a lot, Gil, who you write about in the book. Do you feel, does it feel different to go through life now without a trainer? You know what I'm saying, without somebody whose job it is to look after you and give you advice and make sure you're drinking enough water and all that stuff?

Mr. AGASSI: Oh, Gil still gives me advice. It's just not as often about the body anymore, you know. But we're so close and what he contributed to me meant more off the court than it ever did on the court. And I still get all the good stuff without the, you know, the pressures. And then there was pressures for him too, you know, he's - one mistake in a gym can cost a career, it can cost your dream, it can cost all of it. It was, and it's a mistake that can happen at any moment and you - every decision is calculated and it was tiring for him, too. He - I felt the tape snap across his chest as well.

GROSS: Its interesting, you know, you describe how when you decided to retire in 2006, at the end of the U.S. Open, well, I mean, you knew you were going to retire at the end of the U.S. Open. Your father seemed to want you to retire too, like he knew you were in pain, he knew you were done, and he wanted you to be done.

Mr. AGASSI: Yeah, I was standing in the lobby of my hotel and I felt some man come along and put his arm on me and pull me aside, like he always does when he wants to say something to you. And he pulled me aside and he had tears in his eyes, and he says, you know, don't play, Andre, just quit. Go home. You don't need this. You've done it enough. You've proven everything you need to prove. It's over now. I mean, I can't stand it. I can't stand it all these years. And he starts going on with watching me over all the years and watching and living and dying with all of it, and studying these up-comers and these newcomers. And when there's a tournament in China, he's waking up at certain hours. When it's in Europe, he's going to sleep at certain years. It's his whole life was revolved around.

And that moment, I looked at him and it appeared to me for the first time, that I saw in him what I've seen in myself, which is he hates tennis. He hasn't really come to terms with his own tortures with this, and what this all means and, you know, and I just told him, dad, I can't quit. I haven't quit yet. I had many opportunities to quit and I never chose it. And I'm not going to choose it today no matter what that means - going out there on that court. I'm going to see this through.

GROSS: When you say he hates tennis - I got the feeling, reading that part of your book, that what he really hated was watching you suffer and also, maybe, knowing what he'd put you through?

Mr. AGASSI: I think that's the case. But I think that's part of the, that's part of his emotion. I think the other part is his hating how much tennis has gotten in between me and him.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Right.

Mr. AGASSI: How much tennis has got in between - you know, my pains and struggles got in between my relationship with myself. I think it was, you know, it was it was a strong moment that a lot can be read into it and I don't, I just, I wish my father was in touch enough with what he felt to be able to fully communicate it, because it looked powerful and it looked deep and it looked it looked broad and it felt like it went to the bone.

GROSS: So, you're married to tennis star Steffi Graf. You're both retired. Do either of you play tennis anymore?

Mr. AGASSI: We do occasionally, getting ready for a charity event or something of this nature. And I take her, you know, out on the court and we both have perfectly aligned goals. She wants to run and get exercise. And I want to stand still.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AGASSI: So, she hits the ball back to me and I run her left and right. And it's kind of fun.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. AGASSI: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here.

BIANCULLI: Tennis star Andre Agassi, speaking to Terry Gross in 2009. His memoir "Open" is now out in paperback. This year's U.S. Open starts Monday.

You can read excerpts of Agassi's memoir on our website:

Here's a sneak peak of what we'll be doing next week on FRESH AIR to cope with the unofficial ending of summer. We'll be dipping into our country music archive to play interviews and performances with an array of country stars, including Merle Haggard, Doc Watson, George Jones, Charlie Rich, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

Here's a preview, an excerpt from Terry's 1996 conversation with Willie Nelson.

TERRY GROSS: Country songs have certain conventions, in a way. You know, like, a lot of country songs are about cheating or drinking too much or falling in love. I guess you could say the same thing about rock songs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIE NELSON (Country Singer-Songwriter): Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But there's also, like, a subcategory of country songs, songs where, like, you're feeling so bad, you're just overwhelmed with self-pity. And one of the most self-pitying of the self-pitying songs is a song that you wrote that's included on your demo sessions that I really want to play and hear the story behind. And so here it comes. This is Willie Nelson, singing a very self-pitying song.

(Soundbite of song, "Half a Man")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) If I only had one arm to hold you. Better yet, if I had none at all, then I wouldn't have two arms that ache for you, and there'd be one less memory to recall. If I'd only...

GROSS: Then in the next verse, you imagine having only one eye, so you'd have only one eye to cry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you think of this song...

Mr. NELSON: That's pitiful, isn't it?

GROSS: Yes. Sort of self-pitying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you think that when you sat down to write this, that you would write the ultimate self-pitying song?

Mr. NELSON: Well, actually, I didn't sit down to write that one. The way that song happened, I was lying in bed with Shirley, and I woke up in the middle of the night wanting a cigarette, and her head was on my arm. So I had to reach over on the side of the bed and get a cigarette and put it in my mouth and then get a match with that one hand and then try to strike with that one match. So it all started from that.

GROSS: Oh, because you only had one arm?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Really? Is this really what happened?

Mr. NELSON: That's true. That's a true story. So, from the one arm, I went into that one eye, one ear, one leg.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's really funny.

(Soundbite of song, "Half a Man")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) If I only had one leg to stand on, then a much truer picture you'd see. For then, I'd more closely resemble the half a man that you've made of me.

BIANCULLI: We'll hear more of that interview with Willie Nelson during country music week, next week on FRESH AIR.

Coming up, critic-at-large John Powers on a French film about one of that country's more notorious criminals.

This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.