The Roving Player: Andre Agassi
One of the benefits of life as a Roving Player is the chance to watch and learn lessons first-hand from the world's very best tennis players and wisest coaches. As Tennis Channel premieres the new Andre Agassi documentary, Agassi: Between the Lines, I thought it would be best to share some pointers with you that we learned from the legend. Every week in September we will take a look at a different aspect of Andre's game to see what made him the player he was.
September 24: Andre Agassi - The Evolution of a Competitor
Early in his career, Andre Agassi was a genius at hitting the ball - and often infantile when it came to competing. In some cases, he would belittle his opponents, such as the time he caught an opponent's serve during a Davis Cup match, a rather condescending act more fit for a Pro-Am than a high-stakes encounter. He was also prone to tossing in the towel, tanking in ways that insulted crowds, rivals and, most damaging of all, himself.
But he learned, and by the end of his career, Agassi was very much following the model of his wife, Steffi Graf: All business. One of the most classy aspects of Agassi's run to the 2005 U.S. Open finals - his last great run - was the way he never mugged to the crowd, never tried to use his age as a rallying point, never did anything but keep his head down and play each point.
You won't be playing in front of as many people as Agassi, but the takeaway message is powerful: Pay the highest possible respect to your opponent by giving each match your all. Don't preen. Don't say things like, "You had me," which of course is a form of gamesmanship. Since we recreational players mostly make our own line calls, be clear and decisive. Unless you see otherwise, the ball is good, so don't ever ask your opponent to make a call on a shot that landed on your side.
And most of all, don't tank. Even if you're getting the bloody tar beaten out of you, don't tank. Instead, look for ways to alter the flow of the match. Try a different tactic, slow down a bit between points and, most of all, maintain your focus as you try to learn from every point. This is the path towards improvement. September 17: The best and the brightest: Agassi's advisors
One of the more notable aspects of Andre Agassi's career was that he continually surrounded himself with the right people at the right times. As a child, he had no choice when it came to being taught the game by his father and, subsequently, being under the eye of Nick Bollettieri. Still, those two domineering males were fine undergraduate teachers, Mike Agassi most of all drilling his boy in the fundamentals, Bollettieri buffing and polishing him with a bit of discipline and confidence. Later came Brad Gilbert to shape Agassi's tactical mind, followed by Darren Cahill, himself a wise Aussie but considerably more subdued than the high-octane Gilbert.
Through all these years - starting in his teens - Agassi's physical trainer, Gil Reyes, was also very much a kindly older brother and spiritual advisor. On the business side, Agassi's affairs have been managed for years by his best friend from childhood, Perry Rogers. And over the last five years of his career, he lived with an exemplary role model, Steffi Graf.
While few of us will likely need a Perry Rogers to manage our tennis-related business deals, the rest of Agassi's camp offers useful lessons. At heart, there are different experts for different functions. As Steve Contardi, a longstanding teacher and owner of the Club at Harper's Point in Cincinnati, says, "Don't just take lessons where it's easy to get there." Just because there's someone at your club doesn't mean he or she best knows how to help you improve what you need at this particular stage in your tennis life. Some teachers are better at certain strokes, others are more adept at tactics, others better grasp doubles - on and on.
At the same time, don't take what's local for granted. Check out your local pro, talk with him or her about your game and see if he or she has an understanding and appreciation of how you play and how you can realistically improve. That aspect of reality is vital. You may, for example, want to hit a big topspin forehand like Rafael Nadal, but honestly, if you mostly play doubles three times a week, that stroke is far less useful than improving your overhead. Or rather than a tennis teacher, you might best benefit from time with a personal trainer to improve your fitness, agility or flexibility.
But again, as Agassi proved, surround yourself with the right people for the right times in your tennis life. September 10: How Agassi Redefined The Meaning of "Athletic"
The temptation is to think that athletic skill is innate and finite, that each us is born with a certain dose of it and it's as predetermined as eye color.
Andre Agassi annihilated that assumption. For starters, he took a long look hard look at himself and saw which skills he'd been granted. And though I don't believe many of us are necessarily given much more talents than anyone else, certainly the gods granted Agassi a smidge more in the hand-eye department.
But then he sought to upgrade his skills rather than merely accept what he had and concede what he lacked.
"To make myself a better player," he told me several times, "I need to make myself a better athlete. And you can do that by training and working." And so, under the tutelage of his sage trainer, Gil Reyes, Agassi sought to become stronger, more supple, faster - and therefore, better able to deploy his considerable weapons.
You can this too. Don't fall into the trap of letting people tell you how much so-called talent or ability or even skill you may or may not have. Why be limited by their perceptions? I'll concede: I'm 5' 8" and am not the kind of person who can show up at a company picnic and appear mildly proficient in a wide range of sports. So in that sense, you'd likely not call me an athlete. But isn't that a rather narrow definition of athleticism?
So then let's dig further into what Agassi taught us. Persistence is a skill too. So is concentration, and vision, and tenacity. These are the kind of skills that can make one a better athlete - and, by extension, a better tennis player too.
September 3: Learning from Andre Agassi's incredible strokes
Andre Agassi had the best forehand-backhand combo in tennis history. No other player so constantly punished opponents from both sides. Agassi's closest rivals were Don Budge and Jimmy Connors, but neither of them was quite as brutalizing off their forehand.
But given Agassi's supreme quality, what can we mortals glean from his approach?
Note most of all how Agassi uses his entire body to hit the ball. He's not flicking, he's not whipping, but instead he's deploying his legs, hips and shoulders - consistently, repeatedly, with focus and discipline.
Easier said than done? Absolutely. But possible. Perhaps if you want to improve your groundstrokes it's better to spend less time doing something well than more time generating a sweat and boasting about how you were out there for two hours - and likely grooving bad technique.
The other lesson Agassi's strokes teach us is the value of faith and letting go. Granted, his are so good that he can afford to be confident in them. But the lesson for all of us is clear: Move your feet, get into position, keep your head down and trust your swing. Former top tenner Sandy Mayer gave me a great articulation of this once. "Don't mastermind the stroke," he said. "Don't get all caught up in thinking about it. Just hit it and let it go." Another instructor I talk to frequently, Brent Abel, advices that "Great players don't worry about the consequences of that particular shot. They stay with what they're hitting longer than other players who are busy jumping off one stroke before they finish the one right in front of them." Nobody did this better than Andre Agassi. Agassi: Between the Lines premieres September 8 at 10pm with an encore presentation September 11 at 8pm. Check the schedule for complete details. Email Joel
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| Read archived columnsOakland-based Joel Drucker is one of the world's leading tennis writers. Author of the book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, Drucker's work has appeared in a wide range of print and broadcast media, including Tennis, USTA Magazine, ESPN, CBS and The Tennis Channel. For The Tennis Channel he's worked as an on-air analyst and is co-producer of the program, Center Court with Chris Myers. An avid recreational player, Drucker's lefthanded 4.5 game attempts to combine the tactical array of Brad Gilbert with the variety of John McEnroe, a style he fondly refers to as "Spinning Ugly."