Why did Andre Agassi hate tennis?

He is not the only star to claim to detest the sport that made him rich and

Stuart Jeffries

The Guardian
Thursday 29 October 2009

Andre Agassi admits taking crystal meth during a low point in 1997.
Photograph: Frank Baron

"I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark
and secret passion and always have." So writes Andre Agassi in his new
autobiography, Open, published this week. It is 2006 and one of the world's
most feted sports stars has just woken up in a New York hotel room, poised
to play his last tournament.

But why would a great sportsman hate his sport? Why wouldn't he love
everything about it and all it brings to his life - travel, glamour, money,
mass adoration, endless free tennis rackets and barley water, not to mention
the surely sustaining thought that he is doing something for a living that
makes many of us sick with envy?

"But it becomes more than a job, it takes over your life," says former
British tennis professional Barry Cowan, perhaps best known for taking
Agassi's nemesis, Pete Sampras, to five sets in Wimbledon in 2001. "If
you're at the top of tennis, you're on tour 30-plus weeks of the year - and
when you're doing that, everything revolves around tennis. Every decision
you make, tennis is at the back of your mind. That's the main reason for
burnout among tennis players in their 20s.

"I know this for myself - it's something you've done since you were six
years old, and there's a sense that if you stop giving 100% you are doomed
to failure, and that is unacceptable. No wonder so many players hate their
sport - the surprise is that so few admit it."

And despite all the kudos, money and silverware, there's a reason it's the
top players who suffer most - because they're the ones playing the most
tennis, as they don't get knocked out in the first or second round. So they
have the least free time, the most mental stress and suffer the most

Agassi's avowed hatred for his sport is far from exclusive to tennis.
British cyclists Chris Boardman, the former Olympic pursuit champion, and
Tour de France star David Millar have both admitted to not really liking
cycling. "In Boardman's case," says William Fotheringham, the Guardian's
cycling correspondent, "he liked the winning not the cycling itself, and he
drove himself to win."

That need to win can become a miserable addiction. Olympic gold-winning
track cyclist Victoria Pendleton gave an insight into this in a brutally
frank Guardian interview after winning gold at Beijing last year. "I was an
emotional wreck beforehand," she admitted. "I worried that I would be the
one person who let down the team. So winning was just a relief. And even
that felt like a complete anti-climax. It was very surreal on the podium and
as soon as I stepped off it I was, like, 'What on earth am I going to do
now?' I found it quite hard to deal with. It was, like, I've got no purpose
any more."

But it is her answer to the question of how to get out of this psychic void
that is most telling: "I soon worked out that the only thing I could do was
to get another gold medal. I need one. If 2012 goes to plan, winning the
Olympics on my home turf, I might finally feel I've achieved the ultimate
for me."

Pendleton's pleasure-free, angst-ridden drive to win is almost a defining
characteristic of the greatest sports stars. "People say the pressure on top
stars such as Andy Murray is unbelievable," says Cowan, "but I feel the
pressure is from the stars themselves. They expect the best and if they
don't deliver, it is horrible for them. With a sport like tennis, where at
any tournament there can be only one winner, there are going to be a lot of
perfectionists having to deal with disappointment. You need to be incredibly
mentally strong."

Not all are. Former England cricket all-rounder Vic Marks has a poignant
insight into the realities of being an athlete. "Sometimes as a cricketer,"
he says, "you just long for it to rain." But why? "So you don't have to
play. I'm not saying cricketers hate cricket, but when you're playing a
county game and the sky darkens and it starts to piss down, it doesn't half
fill everybody in the dressing room with joie de vivre."

But surely top-flight players long to show the world how marvellous they are
at their chosen discipline? "Not always. When it pissed it down, you knew
were not going to fail that day. Lovely thought. With cricket, perhaps more
than any other sport, everything you do is measured and analysed for all
time - your failures are a matter of enduring public record."

Former professional footballer Stuart James echoes that thought: "Lots of
players I know would travel to the ground hoping the game would be
cancelled," says the ex-Swindon Town regular. "Fans say: 'You've got it
good, you're on hundreds of thousands of pounds a week, so how can you
moan?' - but most football players think the fans don't really understand
what their lives are like."

A terrible fear of failure is one reason the life of the sports star can be
rather less than the realisation of a beautiful dream. But there are others:
horrendous training schedules, endless travel, foul fans, boredom and lack
of privacy. "I remember being underwhelmed when I was selected to go on tour
for England," Marks recalls. "People said what a bloody cynical and churlish
response that was - but the prospect of being away for four to five months
is not necessarily very appealing. Everybody thinks it must be so wonderful
to spend the winter in the Caribbean or Australia, but it's not when you're
away from your family and you're standing outside for eight hours five days

There have been many English cricketers who have refused the supposed
delights of the winter tour, but none more celebrated than Marcus
Trescothick, the England batsman whose stress-related illness forced him to
pull out of the national squad in 2006. "With Trescothick, there's no one
who was more consumed by cricket than him," says Marks, the chairman of
Trescothick's county, Somerset. "It had been his life since he was six, and
that may well have made the stress worse to the point he had to take drastic
measures to get away from Test cricket."

Mental stress

Agassi's biography reveals that he snorted crystal meth from a coffee table
at his home in 1997, when suffering a lack of form and worrying about his
impending marriage to actor Brooke Shields. "There is a moment of regret
followed by vast sadness," he writes of the drug-taking experience. "Then
comes a tidal wave of euphoria that sweeps away every negative thought in my
head. I've never felt so alive, so hopeful - and I've never felt such

As this passage implies, mental stress isn't the only major reason sports
stars suffer more than the rest of us are generally prepared to admit. In
his autobiography, Agassi describes the sheer difficulty of getting out bed
one morning towards the end of his tennis career. "I'm a young man,
relatively speaking. Thirty-six. But I wake as if 96. After two decades of
sprinting, stopping on a dime, jumping high and landing hard, my body no
longer feels like my body. Consequently, my mind no longer feels like my

That passage will resonate for any player nearing the end of their career,
with a body once in prime condition now a bundle of aches and pains that
prefigures more intense physical suffering in later life.

"Freddie got a sense of that before he retired," says Vic Marks of the
England all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, whose Test career ended earlier this
year. "He could still do the bowling, but the batting suffered."

"The incentive to play for England is so high you'd do anything," Flintoff
admitted recently. "Some mornings the missus had to get me out of bed and
put my shoes and socks on for me. You then get the anti-inflammatories
inside you, and a painkiller, and off you go . . . For me, a big achievement
was just actually getting out on a cricket field. I've had six operations in
four-and-a-half years - and two-and-a-half of those years were in rehab.
I've been injured since I was 13. I had back problems all the way through."

Flintoff, of course, is a national icon, all-but-universally liked. The same
isn't true of Derby County captain Robbie Savage, who earlier this week went
public about some of the more horrible things that he has endured from
football fans off the pitch. In Britain, football stars more than any other
kind of sportsman or woman are likely to suffer foul abuse (think of what
England fans chanted at David Beckham after a match against Portugal: "Your
wife's a whore, and we hope your kid dies of cancer"), but none more so in
recent years than Savage.

The former Welsh international told Radio 5 Live that he could put up with
what he called "dog's abuse" from the terraces and conceded it even fired
him up to play better. What he couldn't tolerate was death threats, having
the windows at his home broken, having coins thrown at him as he left the
pitch. He recalled that once, when he was playing for Birmingham City, he
was visiting the NEC with his son when an Aston Villa fan spat at him in the
face. "I was out with my little boy. That's got to be out of order, hasn't
it?" You'd hope so, but the horrible truth is that many of us who aren't
sports stars are immune to taking their feelings or lives seriously.

And even the former England and Aston Villa manager Graham Taylor takes an
unsympathetic view of Agassi's revelations. "I'm not certain writing about
how he doesn't like playing tennis is a good idea. We're all human beings,
but generally speaking I have not got a lot of time for those people who
complain about playing professional sport for a living."

There is, a horrible coda to this story of sporting misery. In his 2007 book
Silence of the Heart: Cricket Suicides, historian David Frith wrote that
cricket has a suicide rate that exceeds the national averages for the
respective cricketing nations, and estimated that more than one in 150
professional cricketers have taken their own lives, among them the great
Yorkshire and England wicketkeeper David Bairstow, who killed himself in
1998. Why? Frith concluded that cricket is an all-consuming endlessly
absorbing sport and after retirement the thought of life without cricket is

The mental and physical pain of playing sport and being at the top of your
game may be bad enough, but the existential horror of realising at the end
of your career that you are no longer part of that world is surely worse.
Perhaps, unlike Agassi, these players didn't hate their chosen sport. More
likely, they loved it too much.

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