Learn from Andre Agassi’s Search For Meaning

February 11th, 2010

Andre Agassi’s autobiography, appropriately and cleverly titled Open, is about much more than his historic tennis career. In fact, it’s more about his search for meaning than anything else. Whether you’re into tennis or not, there’s plenty of inspiration and deep insight to take from Andre’s story and apply to your own.

I was looking forward to reading Andre’s autobiography because he slowly won me over as a fan towards the end of his career, and of course, because I love tennis. I greatly respect how he reinvented both his attitude and career, but what I really wanted to learn more about was how he trained and developed his game. Although the book didn’t offer much in this regard, I was still glued to it because of Andre’s fascinating story and his inspiring perspective on life in general. As such, this isn’t only a great book for tennis fans, but also for athletes or anyone else looking to find more meaning in their lives.

Talented But Tortured

While some people are lucky enough to have known from an early age what they want from life, it seems that most people don’t think about it much and passively accept whatever circumstances are dealt to them. They rarely make an attempt to improve upon these circumstances no matter how bad they are, and instead of controlling their lives, they allow those they’re surrounded by to do it for them. Then there are the tortured individuals who are full of ambition and are eager to take control of their future but don’t know what they want from life and don’t know how to direct their motivation. Andre Agassi seems to have identified with this at an early age. He also realized that he didn’t have much of a choice even if he knew what he wanted because his future had already been chosen for him.

As the son of a father determined to produce the world’s best tennis player and had already failed with his three older children, Andre was the fourth and final chance. Having more talent and a stronger will to win than his siblings, he was also the best chance. Starting at a very young age, he was forced to spend hours and hours drilling against a ball machine that he resentfully referred to as “the dragon.” According to Andre, his only choices were to defend himself against the wrath of the dragon or the wrath of his father, and the former was apparently a much lesser evil.

As Andre began playing tournaments, he discovered his intense hatred for losing which he perceived to be an unpleasant reminder of his father. However, this competitiveness also brought some purpose to the sport that he deeply resented. At the age of 13, Andre’s father sent him off to live full time at a tennis academy in Florida. Despite his talent earning him a full scholarship, he wanted nothing more than to be back home in Las Vegas and rebelled in every way he could to help make it happen. This included playing in a tournament with eye mascara on his face, his long hair dyed pink, and wearing jeans. He basically violated as many of the rules at the academy as he possibly could. He eventually leveraged his talent to escape life at the academy by demanding that he be allowed to drop out of school and focus on becoming a professional tennis player.

From Flashy to Classy

Andre found early success on the pro tennis tour much more easily than most emerging players do, especially at the young age of 16. However, his lack of discipline and inspiration resulted in many difficult ups and downs that on numerous occasions left him wanting to quit tennis before he even solidified the start of his career. But without having completed high school and having no other skills to rely on other than tennis, he believed he had no other choice, even if he knew what he wanted to do instead. He felt trapped.

As he so clearly proclaimed in his book numerous times, Andre Agassi hated tennis. Although shocking and sad, especially to those of us who truly love the game, it’s understandable considering his circumstances. With his big hair, bright clothes, and imposing tennis game, he forged ahead despite his hatred for what he was doing and quickly earned a reputation for being a flashy and rebellious kid. Although he took a lot of heat from fans and the media, especially for the “Image is Everything” ad campaign that he did for Cannon, he was ironically and painfully very aware of a need for more meaning in his life.

By 1999, 13 years into his professional career, Andre had discovered within himself a passion for helping others and was beginning to realize that he was much more motivated to play tennis when it was associated with an inspiring goal. He had accumulated several close friends that were part of his team and was inspired to dig deep and play well as a form of appreciation for their help. He was also inspired by his plans to establish a charter school for underprivileged children in Las Vegas. With this newfound inspiration on his side, he reached the final of the 1999 French Open, one of the 4 “grand slam” tournaments of the year, and realized that it would likely be his last chance to win it. Being that this was the same tournament where he lost his first two grand slam finals, he badly wanted to redeem himself. In addition, winning the French Open would make him only the 5th player to win all 4 grand slam tournaments.

Being inspired by a new perspective on life that was continuing to grow more and more clear, Andre won the 1999 French Open and was shocked by how good it felt considering his hatred for tennis. He realized that he was doing more than just playing tennis and that winning meant more than having a trophy and a spot in the record books. By playing for his team and his charitable foundation, he suddenly had meaningful reasons to appreciate tennis and the opportunities that it has and would continue to provide. At the age of 29, when most tennis players are thinking about retirement, Andre felt as if he was just getting started.

It’s All About the Pursuit

Although he doesn’t explicitly say it in his book, I’ve heard Andre say on numerous occasions that it’s “all about the process.” He didn’t have to say it in his book because his story implies it. Life is great when you’re in a focused pursuit of your dreams, and it’s even better when you sense the accomplishments of your dedication and hard work. This is what I think Andre discovered towards the end of his career and is why I think he treasured his 1999 French Open victory so much.

While most other tennis players are probably more inspired by the game itself, Andre needed his inspiration to come from a different source. He found it in the form of his friends, his charter school, and his family, and it gave him the motivation to consistently train hard for the last 6 or 7 years of his career which was something he was certainly not doing years prior. This leaves us with two great lessons. First, motivation and happiness largely depend on thoroughly understanding your personal values. Andre wasn’t happy playing tennis or fully committed to his success until he developed a better understanding of his. Second, if what you’re doing doesn’t align with your values, stop what you’re doing or find a way to make it align. Andre didn’t want to be a professional tennis player, but he found a way to appreciate it by associating it with the things he cares about most.

While Andre Agassi may have never been a professional tennis player if he wasn’t pushed into it, I think it’s safe to say that he’s experienced tremendous fulfillment from using his talent on the tennis court to discover himself and improve the lives of others. Few of us have the tremendous tennis talent of Andre Agassi, but we all have the ability to experience deep fulfillment by understanding our personal values, living life in agreement with them, and being proactive about pursuing goals that are based on them.

Critics Suggest Andre’s Story is Self Serving

Throughout the first half of Andre’s book, I have to admit that I was disappointed by the unfavorable details that he shared about other people. I think it’s inconsiderate and indicative of poor character to speak negatively of others in such a public manner unless there’s a good reason for it. However, by the end of the book, I realized that his story would have been incomplete without this information, and I felt that the inspiration provided by his story easily qualifies as a good reason.

Besides, Andre claims that his intentions were to focus on his own flaws more so than anyone else’s. I find this easy to believe considering that he reveals far more damaging information about himself than anyone else. For example, he talks about being a poorly behaved adolescent, not having completed high school, playing tennis in a hair piece to hide his receding hair line, and he even admits to having used crystal meth in 1997 to escape a troubling time in his life. He also admits that he lied to the governing body of professional tennis to avoid suspension after failing a drug test. Throughout the book, Andre talks about the trouble he had dealing with negative media attention, and by knowing that some of the information in his book would surely draw much more, he must have had a good reason for it. While he claims it’s guilt, others think it’s greed.

Andre’s admission of using crystal meth created quite a stir in the tennis community with even highly players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal expressing disappointment. One player even suggested that Andre’s trophies and prize money be revoked despite the fact that crystal meth is not considered to be a performance enhancing drug.

Based on what’s said in the book, it seems clear to me that Andre’s use of crystal meth really didn’t hurt anyone but himself and that he clearly regretted it afterward. Despite the fact that he violated the rules of the game and caused a stir by talking about it years later, I still think he fully deserves everything he’s earned. While some argue that he’s tarnished the credibility of tennis’ governing body, and therefore the sport itself, he gives no evidence whatsoever of the ATP knowing that he lied to them in regard to his failed drug test. Furthermore, as someone who loves the game of tennis and values truth and sincerity, I see Andre Agassi as someone who has contributed greatly to the sport regardless of this distraction. More importantly, he has made great contributions to society as well. This is something that few of his critics can say for themselves.

Andre’s Inspiring Farewell to Tennis

Along with twenty plus thousand other people sitting in Arther Ashe stadium, I watched one of the last matches of Andre’s career at the 2006 US Open. He drew such a tremendous amount of applause, cheering, and outright screaming from the crowd that it gave me chills. A few days later, during his final match, I watched on television as he fought away his tears while getting ready to return serve. He knew he was just a few points away from the end of his incredible journey as a professional tennis player which he started as a confused and unhappy kid and was now ending as a grateful, mature, and inspired man. At the conclusion of the match, he gave the most tearful, appreciative, and thoughtful farewell to the fans that a tennis player has probably ever given.

For those of us who appreciate Andre Agassi as a great tennis player as well as an inspiring individual, the last chapter gives some refreshing evidence that he actually does enjoy the game of tennis and that it was really the circumstances under which he played that he hated. Either way, he will always be one of tennis’ greatest, both on and off the court.

Inspiration for Life

Whether you’re a fan of Andre’s or just want to gain some inspiration from his story, I highly recommend reading Open. If you appreciate Andre’s struggle to discover himself, then I especially recommend reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl which is a much more serious story about the meaning of life but also a natural progression from Andre’s story. If you’re not inspired to live a life that’s filled with meaning after reading these two books, then you may never be!

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