Andre Agassi is a man of many accomplishments — ex world Number 1, Olympic medallist, eight-time grand slam champion... When he retired in 2006, Agassi was described by the BBC as “perhaps the biggest worldwide star in the sport's history". Not too shabby, for someone who grew up hating the game. Behind the flamboyant superstar is a down-to-earth man passionate about his work in the field of education for underprivileged children in Las Vegas, where he lives with his wife, Steffi Graf, and their two children. THE MAN spoke to the legend in Mumbai recently on his life after tennis, his passion for snowboarding, countries on his travel list, and much more.
You revealed your hate/love relationship with tennis in your autobiography Open. What’s your equation with the game now?
Tennis gave me a lot and it took a lot. Now I just try to stay positive and say tennis and I are about even. There’s a deep appreciation for the sport now. That’s the best way to put it.
What is the biggest lesson tennis has taught you?
It has to be problem solving. Tennis has taught me that you don’t have to be good… just better than one more person. So when you take that as a format for any role of engagement, you quickly learn how to prioritise. You learn to understand your own strengths and weaknesses. You understand your opponent and apply an engagement that gives you a slight advantage and then be willing to suffer a lot of failures knowing that you are going to win in the long run.
You were considered one of the most stylish tennis players in the world. A rebel who shunned the stuffiness of the sport for a rock and roll approach that earned you fans around the world. Where does fashion and style fit in your scheme of things today?
Well, it has lost its appeal. Now it's practicality and efficiency. I like to be comfortable. I measure success in my life based on how few times I have to wear a suit and a tie! I restrict it to once every two years. I don’t enjoy being uncomfortable.
So what’s your preferred item of clothing?
Jeans and T-shirt. I practically live in them.
Lets talk about travel…
Oh, I do enjoy travel as long as I get to take it in. But most of my travels are tied to my responsibilities. Most tennis players will tell you that one day they look forward to travelling the world so that they can see it. I enjoy my travels when it’s for leisure.
Are you the slow traveller or the adventure seeker?
I have to keep up with my wife. So definitely the busy…adventure seeker.
Where are you looking forward to going next?
I always wanted to go to Israel and Alaska. Those are the top two destinations on my list.
How do you unwind?
Just being home with family is very relaxing for me. Going to the mountains in the winter is something I never miss. I also enjoy cooking.
Is there anything you splurge on?
I have been known to travel great distances to have good Indian food. I have been to London just to have an Indian dinner. That was definitely a splurge. Going to New Zealand just to snowboard is another indulgence.
Snowboarding… that’s interesting
The moment I gave up professional tennis, I started snowboarding, which I am crazy about. To my annoyance, I am not a natural but that just makes me try harder. I love the sheer exhaustion and elation you experience after a day out in the snow. Snowboarding is a great ice-breaker when I meet strangers who are in awe of my fame. When I'm snowboarding I'm just Andre, the regular guy rather than the former tennis champion. I've had the most amazing, life-affirming conversations sitting half way up a mountain with people I've just met.
What’s it that you love rustling up?
We have a wonderful kitchen with a fantastic pizza oven that I use for cooking fish and meat too. Sometimes Steffi and I will have up to 40 people over for a meal, which I love since cooking is never stressful for me. Instead, it is the perfect opportunity for me to take control.
Despite your incredible joint fame, you continue to be in a happy marriage with Steffi Graf for 18 years. What is the secret?
I don’t think there is any real secret to a happy marriage. But there are some necessary working parts. I think you need two whole people who truly don’t need each other, respect and love each other in a way that has full discipline and commitment. We are two individuals who have lived full lives and we don’t react to each other, we respond to each other.
Lastly who wins when you play a game with Steffi?
She wins because the first thing you have to do to even think about succeeding on the court is watch the ball. And I wouldn’t be watching the ball. I’d be looking at her (laugh).
Which living person do you most admire, and why?
My beautiful wife Steffi. She’s tireless, fearless and absolutely clear on her objectives. Steffi is a gem.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Getting Steffi to say yes.
How do you start your day?
With a cup of black coffee and then several espressos through the day.
A typical day in the life of Andre Aggasi
Raising two teenagers is all about dividing responsibility as chauffeurs and chefs.
Among the current crop of tennis players who do you see yourself in?
The game has changed too much. But as far as unrealised talent goes I’d say Nick Kyrgios. I had a lot of unrealised talent for a while.
What are your dreams for your kids
We want them to be comfortable in their own skin and passionate about whatever they choose to do. If you could go back in time what would you change. I would probably retire sooner.
A book that changed your life
The Tender Bar, by JR Moehringer. It made me think about the impact a person’s story can have on others, and it was the impetus for me to write my own story, which I did with JR.
Your greatest strength
Knowing my weaknesses. It’s hard to have a better strength than that.
How would you like to be remembered?
As somebody who left the world a better place than when they came in.
A philosophy you live by
Yesterday's gone, tomorrow's a maybe, all we have is now. I try to live for the moment, which is sometimes easier said than done.
Did you know?
1. Andre Agassi always wears a neckpiece his son made for him when he was five. It’s made of rope and block letters that says, “Daddy rocks”.
2. He and Steffi bought a crate of 1989 wine for their wedding. They continue to have one on every anniversary.
3. Andre’s biggest inspiration is Nelson Mandela. “He believed that no journey is impossible and everyone is important. When I met him, I didn't know what I could ever achieve again. It was 1997, at an event for his foundation in Johannesburg. He made me feel I could be better than I was that day.”
4. The long lion-mane hairstyle he sported during the 1990s was actually a wig. The wig was held together with pins in his first Grand Slam final, the 1990 French Open final. Before the match, he prayed "not for victory, but that my hairpiece would not fall off", he writes in Open. He lost the match.
5. Both his children are far removed from tennis. His son Jaden Gil, now 17, plays baseball while his daughter Jaz Elle, 15 is interested in dance.