Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009 | 1:32 p.m.
Hometown tennis legend Andre Agassi admitted last night that he will spend “every day of my life atoning” for his explosive and shocking revelations of drug use and thrown championship tennis matches. The now clean-cut athlete and philanthropist said: “Success, money and fame only magnified the lack of understanding to my life. I made a lot of wrong turns. I got into some very dark places. Now I fight for peace every day, and fortunately I win most days.”
Andre launched his book Open: An Autobiography yesterday and had insisted with publishers that the kickoff take place in Las Vegas -- his hometown -- and not the traditional New York. However, he flew there today to appear on TV shows tomorrow, including Late Night With David Letterman.
Last night before he began a nearly three-hour book signing closing in on midnight for a crowd of more than 1,000, he sat down with ESPN journalist Rick Reilly for a candid and emotionally charged conversation onstage at the Encore Theater in the WYNN.
I had the privilege of sitting in the front row in front of his mother, father and brother, while his wife Steffi Graf sat nearby.
The banter between the two men was brilliant -- and also remarkable for the admissions and candor. It’s one of the best interviews I’ve ever watched. At some points, it was hilarious, but the message was clear. “I found my life,” said Andre proudly. He says he wrote the book, which details him turning to drugs as an escape from the depths of despair in the hopes that what he experienced on his journey would help others.
“I needed to pay the price by revealing the truth. I haven’t transformed myself. This was my forming. If it helps just one person or thousands of people, then that was its purpose. Whereas once I hated tennis and myself, I learned to love tennis and myself. That didn’t happen overnight. It’s an evolution. I didn’t learn to love tennis until I was 27.
“My lack of inspiration led me to some pretty dark places. I was depressed. I lived my life as a lie. I was in a marriage (to Brooke Shields) I didn’t want. I was married to a woman I didn’t love. I tanked matches. It was hideous wanting to lose them. There was nothing good about the place I was in. I felt I was in prison with a life I didn’t want.”
Andre said that it all added to the anxiety he experienced and that it got so bad that he tried one day to destroy all of his tennis trophies. He hammered them trying to break them into pieces but wound up only denting them badly. He said he threw his Wimbledon trophy through a glass window.
“The book ends the day I really retired from the sport. You can’t put everything into a 400-page book, but I wanted it to be a thank you note to the people who took me through this journey with the most formative moments of my life,” Andre said.
In admitting the use of crystal meth, he said: “It was at the lowest point. I was so depressed, and somebody offered me an escape. It gave me insane energy, and I’d stay up for days without sleeping. I’d play golf. I’d clean the house. I was living a lonely existence on the drug. I knew the choice I was taking. I became even more separated from people with it. I knew it could destroy people’s lives, but the first euphoria was so good.
“Then you’d become dependent on it, and then the vast sadness afterward would add to the desperation. The heart rate just went out of control. I certainly couldn’t have played tennis while on it. It was a very foggy time in my life. I only used it in my own prison. I was able to shut it down before it got a foothold, and I did it myself without going to rehab.
“I don’t know if Brooke knew about it or that I was even so depressed. We were two different people, although she tried to understand me. When the ATP ordered the drug test and I lied in a letter, I was scared to death, ashamed and panicked.“
There was real fun humor in between the heart-tugging tales. He laughed about not wearing underwear when he played tennis. “I’d forget to pack them, so it became routine. You certainly feel freer, but the calluses are not only on my fingers!”
Andre said that on his first date with Steffi, he discovered that she wasn’t into five-courses dinners in fancy restaurants and much preferred the beach. “So the next day on our second date, we started it as if it was the first date all over again. We went to the beach. We talked about everything, including babies. Then she went into the water and stayed there. I had no choice but to eventually go in, and that’s not a good decision when not wearing underwear under tennis shorts.”
He says that Steffi continues to be his strength: “I had to live through all of this to find myself, and now she’s there for me. She knew all of my demons. I’m not an educated person. I hated school and have come to realize that the lack of education in my life created some of the hopelessness I had.
“My own children were at the forefront of my mind when I wrote this book and revealed this journey from out of the dark. Re-living my life was very emotional, but I learned from every part of it. I wanted my kids and the kids at my school to know that they could define who they are by knowing what you do with mistakes. I have turned all my mistakes into positives and am stronger because of them.”
Andre revealed that it was his father who chose tennis for him. He built his then 7-year-old son a super turbo ball thrower and had him hit 1 million balls a year. All spare time was committed to tennis, and Andre revealed that his father even taped table tennis paddles to his hands to keep swinging. “I was terrorized but kept it all inside me,” he said. “My mom tried to keep the peace, and my dad would create the opposite.”
He says the book blasts Jimmy Connors for his rudeness but says even that shaped him. He said that when he was having hair problems, his brother Phil went to the Hair Club for Men to pick out a toupee mullet. He fessed up that he lost the French Open because he was frightened it would fall off, not having proper bobby pins to hold it in place after using the wrong conditioner on it.
“Going bald in the end was liberating,” he said. “ It felt great, and I felt free. It didn’t matter anymore.
Thankfully, Andre came out of the storms -- more like hurricanes -- to find peace in a far better place. Our city is all the better for it with his Andre Agassi Preparatory Academy. The sport is better because of his achievements after he had his epiphany -- and after going so far down the ladder with his ability to bounce back all the way to the top. This time, however, he’d made the choice, and he was fully in control of his life.
It truly was an uplifting experience listening to Andre. He didn’t flinch, however tough the questions, and however candid his incendiary revelations. I think everybody in Steve Wynn’s auditorium walked out feeling better for listening to Andre’s confessions, weaknesses and subsequent strengths. He sure was Open, and the book should be No. 1 on the bestseller lists within a week, just like he was No. 1 on the court for all those years.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground. Read more of Robin's stories at VegasDeLuxe.com.
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