He was the athlete as rock star, a cocky rebel with shaggy locks and go-for-broke style. Yet Andre Agassi’s wild-child image—and a burning drive that earned him eight Grand Slam titles—masked an inner torment he kept hidden throughout his 20-year career and which he reveals only now in his autobiography, Open. “If you’re going to tell your story, you owe it to yourself to tell it honestly,” Agassi, 39, explained to PEOPLE’s Alex Tresniowski. “Especially if you’re going to call it Open.”
Agassi, who retired in 2006, says he spent thousands of hours “downloading my life and finding out the arc of it. I knew my stories, but what was my story?” He explored his deep ambivalence toward tennis and how his demanding father pushed him into the sport. “I never chose this life, and so I resented it,” he says. “It came with a huge price tag.” In 1997 he dropped to No. 141 in the world rankings; by then he was already using crystal meth. “It was periodic for a year or so,” he says. “I can’t speak to addiction, but a lot of people would say that if you’re using anything as an escape, you have a problem.” Scared straight after flunking a drug test, he quit and rededicated himself to his sport—and found happiness with Steffi Graf, whom he married in 2001 (they live in Las Vegas with their children Jaden, 8, and Jaz, 6).
Agassi says he consulted with first wife Brooke Shields before writing about their rocky two-year marriage. “We spent many hours [on it],” he says. “A lot of our recollections were the same, but not the interpretations.” In the end, he says, Shields complimented “the beautiful nature” of the book. “I tried to turn a hard er lens on myself,” says Agassi, “than on anyone else.”
I’m seven years old, talking to myself, because I’m scared, and because I’m the only person who listens to me. Under my breath I whisper: Just quit, Andre, just give up. Put down your racket and walk off this court, right now. Wouldn’t that feel like heaven?
But I can’t. Not only would my father chase me around the house with my racket, but something in my gut won’t let me. I hate tennis, hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing, because I have no choice. I keep begging myself to stop, and I keep playing, and this gap, this contradiction between what I want to do and what I actually do, feels like the core of my life. My arm feels like it’s going to fall off. I want to ask, How much longer, Pops?
I get an idea. Accidentally on purpose, I hit a ball high over the fence. I catch it on the rim of the racket, so it sounds like a misfire. My father sees the ball leave the court. He curses. But he heard the ball hit wood, so he knows it was an accident. He stomps out of the yard. I now have four and a half minutes to catch my breath and watch the hawks circling overhead.
My father likes to shoot hawks with his rifle. He doesn’t like them because they swoop down on mice and other defenseless creatures. He can’t stand the thought of something strong preying on something weak. Of course he has no qualms about preying on me.
Agassi quits school in the ninth grade and turns pro at 16. His looks and style attract nearly as much attention as his game—particularly his hair, which he wears long. In fact, he is going prematurely bald and has to wear a hairpiece, even while playing.
The night before the 1990 French Open, I’m taking a shower and I feel my hairpiece suddenly disintegrate in my hands. The weave is coming undone—the damned thing is falling apart. I summon my brother Philly to my hotel room. Disaster, I tell him. My hairpiece—look! He examines it. We’ll clip it in place, he says.
He runs all over Paris looking for bobby pins. He can’t find any. In the hotel lobby he bumps into Chris Evert and asks her for bobby pins. She doesn’t have any. At last he finds a bag full. He helps me reconfigure the hairpiece and set it in place. Will it hold? I ask. Yeah, yeah. Just don’t move around a lot. We both laugh.
Of course I could play without my hairpiece. But after months of derision, criticism, mockery, I’m too self-conscious. Image Is Everything? What would they say if they knew? Win or lose, they wouldn’t talk about my game. They’d only talk about my hair. I can close my eyes and almost hear it. And I know I can’t take it.
Set up by a mutual friend, Agassi and actress Brooke Shields exchange faxes before their first date in Los Angeles shortly after Christmas 1993.
We go to a little Italian joint on San Vicente. We say most of the same things we’ve said by fax, but now, in person, over plates of pasta, they sound different, more intimate. There is nuance now, subtext, body language, and pheromones. Three hours pass in a millisecond.
We discover that, despite our outwardly different lives, we share similar starting points. She knows what it’s like to grow up with a brash, ambitious, abrasive stage parent. Her mother has been her manager since Brooke was eleven months old. The difference: her mother still manages her. And they’re nearly broke, because Brooke’s career is slumping. She does coffee commercials in Europe to pay the mortgage. She says things like this, startlingly candid. I wish I could be half as open. I can’t tell her much about my own torments, though I can’t avoid admitting that I hate tennis. She laughs. You don’t actually hate tennis.
But you don’t hate hate it.
I do. I hate it.
My third date with Brooke. We’re kissing, on the verge, but first I need to tell her the truth about my hair. She can sense that I have something on my mind. What’s wrong? she asks.
I haven’t been completely honest with you.
We’re lying on a couch. I sit up, punch a pillow, take a breath.
Andre, what is it?
This isn’t easy to admit, Brooke. But, look, I’ve been losing my hair for quite some time and I wear a hairpiece to cover it up.
I reach out, take her hand, put it on my hairpiece. She smiles. I had a feeling, she says. It’s no big deal. It’s your eyes I find attractive. And your heart. Not your hair.
Shields persuades him to shave his head, to his great relief. But by then cracks are already starting to show in their relationship.
The producers of Friends have asked Brooke to [be a guest on the show]. The actor playing Joey seems like a nice enough guy. When the scene starts, however, I realize I’m going to have to kick his ass. Apparently the script calls for Brooke to grab Joey’s hand and lick it. But she takes it one step further, devouring his hand like an ice cream cone. Brooke is laughing. Joey is laughing. I’m staring, wide-eyed. Brooke didn’t mention anything about hand licking. On the next take, Brooke takes Joey’s hand and puts it in her mouth, up to the knuckles. I jump out of my seat, push through a side door. Behind me comes Brooke. She grabs my arm and asks, Where are you going? I don’t want to watch you lick that man’s hand, I say. Don’t do this, Brooke says. Me? Me? I’m not doing anything. Go back and enjoy yourselves. Have some more hand. I’m out of here.
Despite escalating tensions, Agassi proposes and the couple set a date.
My wedding looms. I think all the time about postponing it, or calling it off altogether, but I don’t know how. One day I’m watching TV with Slim, my assistant. During a commercial Slim says, You want to get high with me?
High? On what?
What the hell’s gack?
Why do they call it gack?
Because when you’re high, your mind is going so fast, all you can say is gack, gack, gack.
That’s how I feel all the time. What’s the point?
Make you feel like Superman, dude. I’m telling you.
As if they’re coming out of someone else’s mouth, I hear these words: You know what? Yeah. Let’s get high.
Slim dumps a small pile of powder on the coffee table. He cuts it, I snort some. There is a moment of regret, followed by vast sadness. Then comes a tidal wave of euphoria. I’ve never felt so alive, so hopeful—and above all, I’ve never felt such energy. I don’t sleep for two days. Playing weeks later, I struggle. Afterward, reporters ask if I’m OK. They’re actually concerned. Brooke is remarkably unconcerned. Her oblivion is partly due to the wedding planning, but also her rigorous premarital training regimen. For motivation, she tapes a photo on the refrigerator door. It’s a photo of the perfect woman, she says. The perfect woman with the perfect legs—the legs Brooke wants. The photo is of Steffi Graf.
Agassi and Shields wed in April 1997. At the nearly 6-ft.-tall bride’s request, he’s wearing shoes with lifts.
That summer, Brooke is in Los Angeles, but I spend most of my time in Vegas. Slim and I get high a lot. Apart from the buzz of getting high, I get an undeniable satisfaction from harming myself and shortening my career. After decades of merely dabbling in masochism, I’m making it my mission. Then, in the fall of 1997, I get a phone call. It’s a man with a gruff voice. It’s my duty, he says, to inform you that you’ve failed the standard ATP [Association of Tennis Professionals] drug test. The urine sample you submitted has been found to contain trace amounts of crystal methylene. If you knowingly ingested the drug, you’ll be disciplined, of course. Three months’ suspension.
I write a letter to the ATP. I say Slim, whom I’ve since fired, often spikes his sodas with meth—which is true. I say that I drank accidentally from one of Slim’s spiked sodas. I don’t know what else to do but lie. I’ve never been so disgusted with myself. I tell [my coach] I’m done with drugs, I’ll never touch them again.
He’s true to his word. But his marriage to Shields remains troubled.
I’m sitting in our bathroom in Los Angeles, watching Brooke get ready to go out. Brooke accuses me of refusing to participate in her world. She says I’m not open to new experiences, new people. I could be rubbing elbows every night with geniuses—writers, artists, actors, musicians. But all I want to do is stay home, watch TV, and maybe, just maybe, have my friends over for dinner. I can’t lie. That does sound like a perfect night.
They divorce in 1999. That same year, Agassi connects with a fellow tennis champ who’d resisted his advances in the past—Steffi Graf.
[At the 2000 French Open, I lose in the second round.] Later I tell Stefanie that I don’t understand why I sometimes come apart—still. She gives me insights from her experience. Stop thinking, she says. Feeling is the thing. Feeling. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before. It sounds like a sweeter, softer version of my father. But when Stefanie says it, the words go deeper. Other times, Stefanie knows there is nothing to be said. She touches my cheek and tilts her head and I see that she gets it—that she’s been there—and that’s enough.
Agassi and Graf begin dating, and in 2001 they announce she is pregnant.
It’s what we both wanted, and she’s delighted, but frightened too. So many changes. We go out to dinner, to Matsuhisa. We sit holding hands, telling each other it’s going to be fantastic. I don’t realize until later that this is the same restaurant where it all unraveled with Brooke. Just like tennis. The same court on which you suffer your bloodiest defeat can become the scene of your sweetest triumph. After we’re done eating and crying and celebrating, I say: I guess we should get married. Her eyes widen. I guess so.
Agassi retires in 2006, finally giving up the game he both loved and hated. Then one day he and Graf—who have no tennis court at their Las Vegas home—drive to the local court for a pickup game.
I hit a screaming backhand—into the net. First backhand crosscourt I’ve missed in twenty years. For a moment it bothers me. I tell Stefanie it bothers me. I feel myself getting irritated. Then I laugh, and Stefanie laughs, and we begin again. Soon we’re having so much fun that when the rain comes, we don’t notice.