Andre Agassi shocked the sports world when he revealed in his aptly titled autobiography ‘Open’ that he had taken recreational drugs and lied to the authorities when a routine drugs test came back positive.
When I first heard this story and read the extracts printed in The Times, I was in total shock.
Andre seemed like a respectable tennis player who I assumed, like his peers, adhered to the strict rules and regulations around drugs in sport. Tennis, like all professional sports places a lot of resources and importance on keeping a clean and fair playing field, and rightly so.
Although Andre had a reputation as being a bit of a wild boy from Las Vegas, I never for one second thought he would dabble into illegal drugs, especially as a professional athlete wanting to make the best of his tennis career.
However, long before the book tackled the headline hitting drugs scandal, Andre described how his father fed him with speed at the tender age of just ten. Andre’s older brother Philly had warned him it might happen in this extract:
One night Philly asked me to promise him something.
Sure, Philly. Anything.
Don’t ever let Pops give you any pills. Next time you go away to nationals, if Pops gives you pills, don’t take them. These pills are tiny, white, round. Don’t take them. Whatever you do.
What if Pops makes me? I can’t say no to Pops.
Ok, he says. I got it. If you have to take the pills, if he makes you take them, play a bad match. Tank. Then, as soon as you come off the court, tell him you were shaking so bad you couldn’t concentrate.
OK. But Philly – what are these pills?
Speed. I just know he’s going to try to slip you some speed.
How do you know, Philly?
He gave it to me.
Sure enough, at the nationals in Chicago my father gives me a pill. Walking off the court, I tell my father I don’t feel right, I want to pass out and he looks guilty.
Ok, he says, rubbing his hand across his face, that’s not good. We won’t try that again.
I phone Philly after the tournament and tell him about the pill.
I did just what you told me to do, Philly, and it worked.
My brother sounds the way I imagine a father is supposed to sound. Proud of me and scared for me at the same time.
Andre was not to blame for his first encounter with drugs but his second stint comes as a result of peer pressure at the Bradenton Tennis Academy in Florida, where he is not a happy boy, forced to live miles away from his home in Las Vegas.
The worse I do at school, the more I rebel. I drink. I smoke pot, I act like an ass.
Then, 242 pages into the book, Andre uncovers the truth about how as a professional tennis player, having a bad season which saw him defaulted from a match because of bad language (this doesn’t read as a great depiction of a role model, but please do read on), and with his trainer Gil’s daughter lying in a hospital with a broken neck, he gets high on Crystal meth with his assistant ‘Slim’.
Slim says, you want to get high with me?
High? On what?
Gack. Crystal meth.
As if they are coming out of someone else’s mouth, someone standing directly behind me, I hear these words. You know what? Yeah. Let’s get high.
There is a moment of regret, followed by vast sadness… I don’t sleep for two days. When I finally do, it’s the sleep of the dead and the innocent.
Things coasted on, Andre married Brooke Shields, pulled out of the French Open and Wimbledon, and finally came to the realisation that things needed to change. Then one day, walking through La Guardia airport in New York, he gets a phone call from a doctor working for the ATP.
There is doom in his voice, as if he is going to tell me I’m dying. And then that’s exactly what he tells me.
It was his job to test my urine sample from a recent tournament. It’s my duty to inform you that you’ve failed the standard ATP drug test. The urine sample you submitted has been found to contain trace amounts of crystal methylene.
I fall onto a chair in the baggage claim area. I’m carrying a backpack, which I drop to the ground.
Yes. I’m here. So. What now?
Well, there is a process. You’ll need to write a letter to the ATP, admitting your guilt or declaring your innocence. Did you know there was a likelihood that that drug was in your system?
Yes. Yes, I knew.
In that case, you’ll need to explain in your letter how the drug got there.
Your letter will be reviewed by a panel.
If you knowingly ingested the drug- if you, as it were, plead guilty –you’ll be disciplined of course.
My name, my career, everything is now on the line, at a table where no one wins. Whatever I’ve achieved, whatever I’ve worked for, might soon mean nothing. Part of my discomfort with tennis has always been a nagging sense that it’s meaningless. Now I’m about to learn the true meaning of meaningless.
I write a letter to the ATP filled with lies interwoven with bits of truth. I acknowledge that the drugs were in my system – but I assert that I never knowingly took them. I say Slim, whom I’ve since fired, is a known drug user, and that he often spikes his sodas with meth- which is true. Then I come to the central lie of the letter. I say I recently drank accidentally form one of Slim’s spiked soda, unwittingly ingesting his drugs. I say that I felt poisoned but thought the drugs would leave my system quickly. Apparently they did not.
I ask for understanding, and leniency, and hastily sign it: sincerely. I feel ashamed, of course. I don’t know what else to do but lie.
The ATP later dismissed the case and Andre walked away a free athlete. So why did he decide to sit down one day and write his true story for the world to read?
Was it just to sell more books and make more money I hear the cynical ask? Jump on the autobiography bandwagon that most famous and even not-so-famous attempt in the prospect of increasing their profile and bank balance. Was the guilt eating into his happiness of retirement? Too familiar with the limelight, did he want to grab the headlines one last time?
Well that could be the case, but if it was for the money, he has said all proceeds from the book will go towards the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education. As part of this, he established the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy which is giving back to the young people who are in need of education and what’s more as Andre would argue, simply an opportunity to become educated.
Reading his book, I was amazed at his honesty and the frankness contained in his story. The nature of books giving that one to one storytelling meant it was like talking to him each time I opened it up.
Andre had gotten away with the drugs scandal at the time and he could have easily gone on to live his life now without telling his tale, and we would be none the wiser. So from that perspective, I have respect for Andre, that he chose to ‘fess up.
He knew at the time that he was lying to save his ass, his sponsorship and ultimately his fans that had grown in immense numbers to support him through his career.
Yes, he did a bad thing, taking illegal drugs then covering up to protect the truth when he knew full well what he was doing. It showed he was human, that he as tennis player and at times, the best tennis player in the world, he still made mistakes. Perhaps more honest that you or I, he decided to come clean and to tell all and publish this book.
We all have examples of situations where in hindsight we would change, this was Andre’s. Throughout the book, he was a down to earth guy and extremely generous – he was aware of the wealth he had accomplished but more distinctly the need of others around him. He didn’t have heirs or graces about himself, he had a big heart and he tipped more in restaurants than his arch rival Pete Sampras.
As in my World Book Day article previously published here on LTB I used the word magic to describe books compared to other mediums of communications. I was therefore touched when Andre wrote in his acknowledgements:
I was late in discovering the magic of books.
Of all the mistakes he made that he wanted his children to avoid, that was the top of his list. That is why Andre wrote the book, for his two children Jaden and Jaz and his wife Stefanie. Throughout the book there is plenty of reference to his many mistakes and how he teaches his children not to do the things he regrets. Taking illegal drugs was only one such lesson.
Mike Agassi was the polar opposite of Karolj Seles who never pushed his daughter Monica to play, or take drugs to enhance her ability but he simply ensured she enjoyed every minute that she was on a tennis court. The relationship Andre had with his father was complex, like most father son relationships can be, but Andre didn’t love him any less for it. That is another important lesson that can be a hard one for many to learn.
In his redeeming book, Andre Agassi shows a real example to others by coming clean and being open. An act of guilt, a ploy to get more money for his Foundation, no matter what the real reason Andre wrote this book, I for one am glad he did. He tells his remarkable story with humble maturity that is so much more than the drugs scandal that it may merely be remembered for.