The Times (London), UK
February 28, 2015 Saturday
Agassi's American dream built on toughest of love
by Matthew Syed
Andre Agassi has spent most of his life trying to come to terms with
his childhood. He started playing tennis in his cot, a mobile of balls
hung above his head, a ping-pong bat taped to his hand, his dad
standing above encouraging little Andre to hit, hit, hit.
When he was old enough to walk, he played in the yard against the
so-called Dragon, a mechanical device custommade by his father to spit
tennis balls from a steep angle at more than 100mph in the Las Vegas
haze. Agassi estimates that he hit one million balls per year
throughout his childhood, his dad screaming every time he missed.
At the age of 13, he was packed off to boarding school to play yet
more tennis at the Bollettieri academy in Florida. "It was more like a
prison than a tennis academy," he says. "It was on an old tomato farm
and the courts stretched one after the other into the distance. We
only went to school for four hours a day. The rest of the time we
To meet Agassi in the flesh is to feel the contradictions in one of
the most revelatory of modern sporting lives. He hated tennis, but
loved it, too. He begrudged his upbringing, but acknowledges that it
laid the foundations for everything he has achieved in life. He
resented his dad, but has gradually come to recognise that for all the
pain, mistakes and shouting matches, this complex man, still railing
against the world at the age of 84, acted out of love.
"He is an extraordinary and complex man," Agassi says. "I have spent a
lifetime trying to understand him. His mum was a Russian Armenian who
moved to Tehran after the Armenian genocide in 1915. Dad grew up in
Tehran as a Christian and he had some pretty horrible experiences.
They were very poor. I think that taught him to fight. He took up
boxing, won two golden gloves and competed in two Olympic Games for
"When he came to America, he had one ambition: 'I will spend my life
trying to create an environment where my kids can have the one thing I
never had, money'. He conditioned us to leave our heritage behind. His
attitude was: 'We are Americans. We are going to live the American
dream.' He didn't want us to learn [Persian]. We changed our name from
Aghassian to Agassi. He didn't want anyone to think we were Muslim."
The parental urge for betterment, for leaving a former world behind,
will strike a chord with many second generation immigrants. So will the
vision of a tortured dad, who felt that everyone was against him,
seeking to ensure that his children had every opportunity to succeed.
But the sheer intensity of what Agassi endured will seem extreme, even
to immigrant eyes. He was pushed, cajoled, urged and goaded, every
spare hour, of every day.
"The irony is that I had it pretty easy," Agassi says. "It was my
three older siblings who really felt the heat of my father's ambition.
I was the baby. Thank god he had the sense to save me from himself.
That is why he sent me away at 13 to the tennis academy. Our
relationship was on the brink of self destruction. He just couldn't
stop himself pushing, pushing, pushing."
The experience has shaped Agassi's attitude profoundly to his own
children from his marriage to Steffi Graf: Jaden, 13, and Jaz, 11. "I
didn't want to make the same mistakes," he says. "Even when the
children were very young, I didn't define their ambitions for them. I
try to let them decide what they are passionate about. But once they
define it, I hold them to a standard of commitment. Their dreams
become my dreams and I won't allow them to stop caring just because
they have had a disappointment or two.
"I am not saying it is easy to get the balance right. My daughter used
to ride horses and she flew off a couple of years ago, and the horse
stomped around a foot from her head. And it changed her on a dime. She
didn't want to get back on her horse. And that was kind of an
interesting one for me. I don't know if I handled it right. I didn't
push her to carry on, but that was because I didn't want to see her on
the back of a 1,200lb animal.
"My son had a tough experience, too. He is very into baseball and he
was hit by the ball and broke his palate last year. I would have
understood if that had affected him. But he went out the next day and
on the very first pitch, he hit it to deep right. That took character.
I celebrated that. That is what I try to do with my kids: to give them
context. I don't tell them what to do, but I encourage them to keep
going at the things they love, even when the going gets tough."
Perhaps it is the experience of mentoring his children that has
triggered a reinterpretation of his upbringing. In recent years he has
come not merely to respect, but to admire his father, a man so
vigilant to insults, so proud, so driven by an inner turmoil that he
never fully resolved, that he would step out of his car and offer to
fight anyone who cut him up on the Vegas strip.
"It is only recently that I have realised how difficult life has been
for him," he says. "Even my tennis career was tough on him. He watched
me play live on average once a year. I never knew when that time would
be. It might be in Palm Springs. It might be in LA. But he never
missed a single match on TV, wherever I was playing in the world. He
would record it and watch it 50 times. He lived and died with it.
Watching me lose, watching me suffer. He was suffering, too.
"What I can say for certain is that my dad was motivated for all the
right reasons. He was not acting out of betterment for himself; he was
acting out of love for me. Whether he was right or wrong, whether he
made good or bad judgment calls, I know he just wanted his boy to live
the American Dream. All that work, all that pressure, all that angst:
he was pushing me to have the success that was denied to him. And that
realisation goes a long way."
Today, they are reconciled. They have a relationship that works, at
least in away that they can both live with. Agassi would love to
shower his father with gifts, but he has to be conscious of his dad's
pride. "To say this man has lifeforce is an understatement," he says.
"He worked until he was 80. He just kept going. He only accepts gifts
from me today if he is convinced they aren't costing me much. He
wouldn't accept a thing if he felt it was a sacrifice for me."
Today, Agassi lives in a small community a few miles from the Vegas
strip and divides his time between his family and his charitable
foundation. The school that bears his name - he donated a reported $35
million (about £23 million) to create it - has segued into a new
business venture with a social conscience, funding Charter schools
across the United States. He is busy, but has found a balance, both in
his professional life and the personal relationships that matter most.
Perhaps the deepest irony about the fragile rapport he has found with
his father is that it was most imperilled by the book that lifted the
lid on their relationship. When Agassi brought out his tell-all
autobiography in 2010, he was terrified that his father would take
offence. "I called him up before publication and said, 'Dad, you
haven't read the book. You haven't even let me talk to you about the
book. Can I at least walk you through how I have portrayed you, so you
are clear about why I did it?' "He just said: 'I am 80 years old. Why
would I give a s*** about what people think about me? I know what I
did and why I did it. And I would do the same all over again.' I sort
of smiled because that was my dad all over: strong, proud, never
prepared to admit a weakness.
"But then he suddenly said: 'Actually, there is one thing I would do
different.' "I had to pull over to the side of the road. I couldn't
believe he was going to admit a mistake. 'What would you have done
different, dad?' I asked. He said: 'I wouldn't let you play tennis.
You would be playing baseball or golf if I had my time over. You would
have made a lot more money.' " ? Andre Agassi gave this interview as
part of the launch of his BILT by Agassi and Reyes fitness range,
which is available at selected David Lloyd Leisure clubs. More
information at http://dl-f.it/ BILT like father like son Sir Alex
Ferguson and Darren Ferguson Darren banned his dad from watching
Peterborough United play while he was in his second spell in charge at
London Road. He claimed that, despite all his father had achieved in
the game, he was a jinx, but Sir Alex saw Darren's Peterborough win
1-0 against Rochdale in August 2014 and the curse was lifted.
Peter Coe and Lord Coe Peter famously told his son: "You ran like an
idiot," and chastised him publicly after the 800 metres final of the
1980 Moscow Olympics, where Coe ran badly and lost to Steve Ovett, his
close rival. Peter was Seb's coach and although his methods were
controversial he clearly got the best out of his son, who understood
his father's precise nature in their pursuit of excellence.
Floyd Mayweather Sr and Floyd Mayweather Jr Mayweather Sr taught his
son how to throw punches at a young age, but never expected his son to
be throwing them at him. Their relationship has had its ups and downs
since 1993, when Mayweather Sr was jailed for drug trafficking. Over
the past 20 years Mayweather Jr has fired his dad as his coach,
evicted him from a home that he owned and repossessed a car he was
'What I can say is that my dad was motivated for all the right reasons'