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Why did Andre Agassi hate tennis?

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  • Why did Andre Agassi hate tennis?

    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. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009