By Michelle Tauber
Updated September 09, 2002 12:00 PM

Matthew Perry likes to win. Very, very much. Which is why anyone who picks up a tennis racket opposite the Friends star could be in for a serious whuppin’. Behind the net on a recent Saturday afternoon at an L.A. club, the tanned, trim actor—once the No. 2-ranked junior tennis player in his hometown of Ottawa—makes John McEnroe look like a lovable softie. “Are you thirsty?” he asks his exhausted opponent, whom he handily beats six games to love. “Yes? Good. We’ll get a drink later.” And if dehydration sets in sooner? Replies Perry with a sly grin: “That’s a forfeit, my friend.”

Given Perry’s fierce forehand and blistering serve—honed by daily workouts with a professional coach forfeiting might not be such a bad idea. “Sweating, running for shots, this is a world I love to be in,” says the 33-year-old star, who proved his on-court skills by returning a 107 mph serve from tennis great Andre Agassi in a recent charity match. “You can talk about walking down red carpets, flying on private planes and stuff like that,” says Perry. “But to return Agassi’s serve when he’s trying to ace you—and to win the point—it doesn’t get better.”

And as Perry knows too well, it can get far worse. “I’ve been through a very dark time,” he says of his four-year struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, including two stints in rehab in 1997 and 2001 and a 2000 hospitalization for alcohol-related pancreatitis. Hooked on the painkiller Vicodin, Perry says early on he was downing an “insane number of pills”—between 20 and 30 daily—and later drinking “probably a quart of vodka a day.” Combined with his’ 00 car crash and fluctuating weight, he was clearly a Friend in need. “It was terrifying,” says Friends executive producer Marta Kauffman, “watching someone you care about in so much pain.”

That was before a “moment of clarity” in February 2001—followed by an emotional phone call to his parents asking for help—finally prompted him to confront his problems head-on. That required resolve, humility and a kind of surrender. There’s “no gray area,” he says. “I’m an alcoholic.” Now, with his first-ever Emmy nomination, a new feature film (Serving Sara) and a $24 million payday for Friends‘ ninth—and likely final—season, Perry says he is clean, sober and able to savor his success. “It all starts from a spiritual connection with something that’s bigger than you,” he says. “That’s where the stuff of life is. As for the rest of it, I’m lucky to have a cool car and plenty of money. But if you don’t have happiness inside, and you don’t think of others first, you’ll be lonely and miserable in a big house.”

Such life affirmations are just the sort of things that the wisecracking Perry would have once mocked. “I used to call people who said this sort of stuff ‘How are you?’ people,” he explains. “They’d ask, ‘How are you?’ I’d say, ‘Good.’ And they’d say, ‘No, how are you?’ I hated that. But you know what? I’ve become a ‘How are you?’ person.”

Even Serving Sara’s disappointing performance—it grossed just $5.8 million in its opening weekend—has Perry looking on the bright side. “Whether it’s successful or not doesn’t matter,” he says. “It’s the movie in which my life got better.”

From the outside, Perry’s life has always seemed pretty charmed. There is, for example, his busy bachelorhood. After his first high-profile fling in ’96 (a gal named Julia, now Mrs. Danny Moder), Perry has been linked to a string of Hollywood beauties, including—this summer alone—actress Heather Graham, 32; George Clooney‘s ex Krista Allen, 30; and Gilmore Girls‘ Lauren Graham, 35. “I’m single and enjoying myself,” he says. “I’ve dated a few people over the summer. Some mentioned in magazines I’ve never met. Some I was just having coffee with.”

One who is more than just a coffee mate is tennis ace Jennifer Capriati, 26, whom Perry cheered on at the French Open in June. “It’s a great friendship based on mutual respect,” says Perry, downplaying reports of a romance. As for his rumored fling with Sara costar Elizabeth Hurley, “We had a nice chemistry on the set, but it was just a work relationship,” he says.

Shrugging off romance rumors is one thing. But he doesn’t laugh at the mention of a recent tabloid story that he is drinking again. “Howard Stern read it on his show as if it was fact,” says Perry. “That really got me angry. By discussing my problems, I think I’m helping people struggling with this disease. But hearing a false report that I can’t make it, well, maybe it makes it harder for them.” Perry acknowledges that his own sobriety is an ongoing challenge. “You don’t recover from what I went through overnight,” he says. “It’s a day-to-day process.”

Most days, that means waking up at his four-bedroom hilltop home “around 7 or 8. I watch the Today show and make coffee, then I go play tennis and go to work”—in one of his two BMWs (“a convertible for when it doesn’t bother me that everyone’s staring” and an X5 “for when I want to hide”). In his CD player? Bruce Springsteen’s latest, along with melancholy jazz singer Norah Jones. “I still have that dorky taste in music where, if you’re a woman in emotional distress and write a song about it, I’ll play the song over and over,” he says. “If you’re a lesbian, I’ll buy it twice.”

After his summer hiatus from Friends, returning to Stage 24 at Warner Bros. Studios on Aug. 13—along with costars Matt LeBlanc, 35, David Schwimmer, 35, Jennifer Anis-ton, 33, Courteney Cox Arquette Arquette, 38, and Lisa Kudrow, 39—”was like going back to school,” says Perry. “You show up. Tell stories about your summer. The first week we were a little rusty. There was a lot of laughing and going, ‘Oh my God, have we forgotten how to do this?’ ” he says. “But three days in, we were back on track.”

Getting his own life on track was considerably harder. The only child of John Bennett Perry, an actor best known for the Old Spice commercials in the 1970s, and mom Suzanne Morrison, a former press secretary to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (now divorced, both have since remarried), Perry displayed a competitive streak—and a love of tennis—early on, rising in the junior rankings in Ottawa until relocating to L.A. with his father in ’84. There, after turning to acting, he burned through a series of failed TV shows before landing Friends in ’94. “All the superficial things about [fame] came true,” he says of the show’s success. “I was naive enough to think it would fulfill all aspects of my life.”

Perry traces his addiction troubles to 1997, when he developed a dependency on Vicodin following a Jet Ski accident. “It wasn’t my intention to have a problem with it,” he says. “But from the start I liked how it made me feel, and I wanted to get more.” As his addiction escalated, “I was out of control and very unhealthy,” says Perry, who lost around 20 lbs. from his 6-ft. frame. “I returned to my original birth weight,” he jokes.

Seeking treatment, he spent 28 days at the Hazelden rehab center in Minnesota. “I was able to stay sober for a brief period,” he says. “But I didn’t really get it.” Off the wagon by May 2000, Perry spent two weeks in L.A.’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he underwent treatment for pancreatitis, a potentially deadly inflammation of the pancreas that can be caused by alcohol abuse. “Unfortunately,” says Perry, “that still wasn’t enough to get me to quit drinking.” To make matters worse, Perry crashed his Porsche into an unoccupied house on the day of his hospital release. Although he was uninjured—and no alcohol or drugs were found in his system at the time of the accident—the incident reinforced his reputation as a troubled star. “I tried to talk to him,” says costar LeBlanc. “There wasn’t a response. It’s such a personal struggle; they need to bottom out on their own.”

An overstretched Perry would do just that by February 2001, when he commuted weekly between the Friends set in L.A. and the Sara shoot in Dallas. By then he was downing vodka by the quart. “Never when working,” he says. “But the hangover is brutal. I was sleepy and shaking at work.” Although those close to him offered support, “I wasn’t ready to hear it,” he says. “You can’t tell anyone to get sober. It has to come from you.”

For Perry, that realization finally arrived on Feb. 23, 2001. “I can’t describe it, because bigger things were taking place that I can’t put into words,” he says of the moment he decided to phone his parents from his Dallas hotel room and ask for help. “I was in fear of losing my life,” he says. “There’s a moment of clarity where you have to prioritize your life. I listened to it.”

With 13 days of shooting left on Sara and Friends still in production, Perry boarded a jet to L.A., where his parents drove him to an undisclosed rehab center. “It was scary. I didn’t want to die,” he says. “But I’m grateful for how bad it got. It only made me more adamant about trying to get better.” By the end of his 2½ months in treatment, “I learned that a happy life is possible without alcohol or drugs.”

These days Perry seems to be proving that point with gusto. When he started on Friends, spending $2,500 on a couch seemed like a splurge. Today he has the BMWs, the $1 million-per-episode paychecks (“I don’t carry the whole million in my wallet,” he notes) and a new home movie theater. “Every day,” he says, “I wake up feeling like Tom Hanks in Big.”

The Emmy nod is another dream come true. In the past he would tune in to the nomination announcements, but when “I didn’t hear my name I had kind of a bad morning,” he says. “This time I didn’t think about it.” Well, not at first anyway. After a round of phone calls, “I got in the shower and thought, ‘I’d really like to win this thing,’ ” he recalls. “As soon as I said that I realized I’d given myself, oh, about 10 minutes to enjoy it before I went straight to the win.”

If his competitive streak is still going strong, Perry says his approach to dating is mellowing. “There was a period in my life where if someone was just right for me, I’d make up some reason to blow it,” he says. “I don’t have that instinct anymore. I’m ready for something special.” Adds pal Amanda Peete, his costar in 2000’s The Whole Nine Yards: “He’s a good listener. Especially now, with the courage he has had to get sober, he’s become even more accessible.” Perry’s ideal match? “Someone who’s happy. Someone who’s enjoying the day-to-day process of their life,” he says. “Sandra Bullock in While You Were Sleeping. That’s the girl for me.”

Careerwise, Perry is set to shoot The Whole Nine Yards 2 in October. Like his Friends colleagues, Perry has struggled to establish himself on the big screen with flops like ’97’s Fools Rush In and ’99’s Three to Tango. Yet despite his shaky track record, “I didn’t hesitate to go into business with him,” says Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing, whose studio is distributing Sara. “He doesn’t have an entourage or an attitude. You like him instantly.”

Friends fans share the sentiment. “I’m pretty sure this is the last year,” he says of the show. “It’s like the old joke, ‘How do you make God laugh? Make a plan,’ ” he says. “But we’re looking at this as the final year.” The end, he admits, “will be overwhelmingly emotional. I can’t think about it.”

What he can think about, at last, is a sunny future. How does he see himself at 40? “I hope celebrating peace in my life,” he says. “Eight years of sobriety, peace and happiness as I sit with my wife and kids watching the new NBC show: Geriatric Friends.”

Michelle Tauber

Todd Gold in Los Angeles