Witness to Greatness
OK. Now we’re even.
Once, I made Andre Agassi cry.
I was a pretty fair tennis player back then -- the best 17-year-old in Seattle, one of the better junior players in the nation, bound for Cal with a tennis scholarship. For my last five months of high school, I went to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, a hot, humid boarding school in Florida, where, for the first time, I trained with some of the best.
“Hey, I’m Andre,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
I had just arrived. It was nearly midnight. After a long flight, I’d made my way inside the dorm, laid down my rackets and fallen into a bottom bunk, hoping I wouldn’t wake anybody up.
A light came on. There he was, a kid looking down at me from the top bunk.
He had floppy brown hair, a wide smile and bright eyes. Andre Agassi was my first roommate. He was only 14, and it didn’t last long. About two weeks later, I moved into another dorm with kids closer to my age. But during those two weeks and for the next few months, I got to know an Andre Agassi that many would not see until his career was nearly over.
Junior tennis operated on a caste system. The very best players tended to stick with the very best -- and the tomato cans with the tomato cans. Most of the top dogs were white, wealthy, sure of themselves. I was none of those. I was good, not great. Middle class, not wealthy. Shy, not sure. Black, not white. It was hard to fit in.
But Andre, the son of an Iranian immigrant who worked at the casinos in Las Vegas, went out of his way to help me. Maybe it was because by birth he was something of an outsider himself.
He showed me where the buses lined up for school in the morning. He made sure I knew when I could fit in some rest during the day, when to line up outside the cafeteria, where to do my laundry, who the tough coaches were. The other kids couldn’t care less about helping a newcomer. Here was Andre, though, going out of his way to be nice to someone he’d never known.
His life was hard and complicated. I found this out on the court. There was so much expected of him. And he didn’t seem to know how to deal with the emotions that came with being blessed with prodigious talent.
The first time I saw him strike a tennis ball, it was 100 degrees; the air was damp and thick. Most of us were dying, but Andre just couldn’t miss. He turned his shoulders, cranked his hips and let it ride -- thwack. Then came another forehand -- thwack. And another -- thwack. I could close my eyes and tell the sound of his black racket swooping through the air and crashing into each ball.
The sound was different. It was deeper, clearer, with a resonance that seemed to swish into my eardrums and stay there. Andre, I had been told, was the best player in the world for his age. Watching him, I wasn’t surprised. I thought he possessed genius. I was an excellent athlete, but no matter how hard I worked, I could never make that sound.
Andre was so accomplished that he practiced with the top 17- and 18-year-olds, a group of kids so skilled they could take sets off touring pros. He held his own. He was small and spindly. His serve wasn’t very good. But everything else was a version of the Andre who would go on to win Wimbledon, the French Open, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open.
You had to keep the ball away from his forehand. If you went there, and especially if you hit a ball right into his strike zone, he’d stuff a winner down your throat. Nobody could return serves like him. He could already handle serves from the pros, hard serves, the spinning, arcing, curving serves, and ram them back as hard, fast and arcing as they came.
Andre was already better than I was. It took me a couple of months to work my way into the best group of players. The top dogs were surprised to see me. Still, on days when I was hot and my big, left-handed serve was humming, I could beat any of them.
I played Andre twice when I had things going right. It was just practice, but both times I laid into him. Because he was Andre, and because he knew in his bones that he possessed greatness and I did not, losing to me, even losing a couple of practice sets, was something he couldn’t handle.
I remember acing him. I remember watching my high bouncing serves shank off his frame. I remember sending my lefty slice so hard into his body that the ball nearly knocked him over. And, I remember his tears.
The second time we played, Andre grew so frustrated that he began to sob, openly, right there on the court, as he waited for my serve, the tears flowing faster with every service winner I hit.
We were interrupted by a booming voice. It was Bollettieri himself, a former Marine, who yelled:
“Andre! I’ve had enough of this crap! Get off the court! Go to your room!”
I felt sorry for Andre. He seemed unhappy, living as he was -- so far from his family in Las Vegas, with so much expected of him. To me, it felt as if Bollettieri knew what was in store for Andre, and he used every moment he could to teach his budding genius a lesson. He couldn’t allow Andre to just melt into a pool of misery on the rare occasion when he was not able to handle a serve.
Andre trudged off the court that day and went to his room, head down, eyes filled with wetness, all alone.
Soon, of course, he turned professional, became a star, and developed a rebel, self-involved, image-is-everything persona. For years, as I went through college, played a bit of minor league professional tennis and then became a journalist, I told anyone who would listen that the Andre I had known wasn’t at all like the young Turk in the TV ads.
I figured that the image he cultivated was just a mask, a marketing tool. It is satisfying to know, after seeing him shed that mask and then, over the last few years, give millions of dollars to charity and run his own school for poor kids in Las Vegas, that I had it right.
The real Andre, even before he became a star, is an unusually kind person.
My career earnings, from a single year mired in the minors? About $15,000. His, from 21 years of glory? More than $31 million. I might not have gotten rich playing tennis, but I’ve always considered myself lucky. Part of it was whom I met along the way. There’s Arthur Ashe and Bollettieri, who teamed up to help me go to the academy in Florida. And right beside them in my personal pantheon: Andre.
I was lucky to have been around his greatness, if ever briefly, and lucky to be able to appreciate his evolution, to see it from the start. To see him change from the kind but punky kid, who cried when I aced him, into the prodigy who was all hair and attitude as he swept to the top, and finally into the stunningly graceful man who brought me to tears as I watched him walk off a court in New York, one of the greatest champions of all time.