FEW TENNIS CAREERS have rivalled Andre Agassi’s for on-court showmanship and off-court intrigue. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s Agassi was appointment viewing, initially as a flash, brash wunderkind who sported a mullet, flouted dress codes with fluoro shirts and generally lit up a rather staid circuit (remind you of anybody?). Later, his mullet shorn after a celebrated and ultimately losing battle with hair loss, Agassi was reborn as a statesman of the game, enjoying a titanic rivalry with Pete Sampras as he became one of the sport’s all-time greats, winning eight Grand Slams including four Australian Opens.
Back in Australia to promote Uber One in a campaign that honours the player’s iconic ’80s mullet, Agassi nominates his epic 2001 semi-final encounter with local favourite Pat Rafter as his most memorable Australian Open moment.
“I’ll never forget playing Rafter in the semi-finals, night match,” says Agassi, who’s speaking to MH at Allianz stadium in Sydney. “It was like the biggest sporting event down here, maybe historically. Him having me two sets to one. And I just remember having to go into the locker room at the end of the third because we were just dripping. The roof got closed. It was so hot and humid and we both were losing so much fluid. And my stuff is like, soaked. I had to change everything. Shoes, socks and my head was ringing because you don’t realise how loud something is until you actually have quiet and when I got in the locker room it was like you’re sitting in the worst place in a concert where your ears are just ringing. And I went back out there and, you know, obviously everybody wanted Rafter to win. But as we got deep into like the warrior zone, it was incredible how fair they were to just two honest gladiators. They cheered us as we deserved for what we were doing, regardless of who was winning the point. That really endeared me for a long period of time. I felt Aussie too.”
With this year’s Open kicking off on Sunday, Agassi finds it hard to see anyone preventing world number one and grand slam GOAT Novak Djokovic from claiming an 11th Australian Open title. “I mean how do you bet against Novak, ever? You probably have to go Novak one, Alcaraz coming in there at two, slightly ahead of Medvedev, who’s probably slightly ahead of Sinner,” says Agassi. “Once you see the surface, how the ball’s playing, then you can start giving edges to people.”
“Obviously, Nick Kyrgios comes to mind just because he’s that entertaining to watch because you don’t know what you’re going to see because he’s so talented. De Minaur, I mean that guy could run on water, it seems. Just like a water bug, right. The way he scoots across the court, his competitiveness. He never stops bouncing around. I would cramp up if I played like him. He’s really fun to watch as well.”
These days the 53-year-old father of two picks up a racquet around once a month, instead scratching his competitive itch in the booming sport of pickleball. “I competed last year in this pickleball slam, me and Roddick against Chang and McEnroe, and it was a $1,000,000 winner take all ESPN thing,” he says. “It was so much fun trying to get ready for that and realising what a workout it actually was and I said, I’m going to get into this. And sure enough, over the summer I’ve just been going nuts. I love the fact that you can improve at it. Every time I play, I feel like I’m getting better.”
Does a background in tennis translate to the pint-sized imitation? “Tennis translates to pickleball,” Agassi confirms. But going from pickleball to tennis might be more difficult, he says. “I’ve been only playing pickleball for like five months and not having picked up a tennis racquet during that time, I picked one up the other day for the sake of it and I couldn’t believe how heavy it was. I couldn’t believe how long it was. I couldn’t believe how far the person was on their side of the net. I couldn’t believe how fast the ball was coming and how much time I had. And then I couldn’t believe I hit the first five balls to the back fence. So tennis translates to pickle more than pickle translates to tennis.”
He’s managed to convert his wife, Steffi Graf, to the sport, too, and admits they’re both competitive, though in slightly different ways. “We’re both viciously competitive with ourselves,” he says. “We express it kind of differently. We kind of have the same intensity, but she’s not as worried about being better than somebody. I probably have a little bit more of that in my game.”
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Retiring back in 2006 at a time when Roger Federer had just begun his ascendancy but the ‘Big Three’ rivalry with Nadal and Djokovic had yet to take shape, Agassi is struck by the way technology and athleticism have influenced the modern game. “Generally speaking, athletes are bigger, stronger, faster [today],” he says. “Everybody now has grown up with the technology and the strings and the racquets, so they get rewarded for playing aggressively. But the spin and the athleticism have changed the rules of engagement of how people play against each other. The geometry has changed a bit in the sense that balls can bend and balls can get down and balls can get up and over and down. So, you just see people having more time. It actually gives you more time and shrinks the court in a lot of weird ways. These guys move so well they can kind of contain the spin and geometry just by being able to use their legs. It’s a whole different animal.”
As detailed in his seminal autobiography, Open, written with acclaimed ghost writer J.R. Moehringer, Agassi’s dad was hellbent on his son becoming a pro tennis player, driving him relentlessly on a homemade court. Given how Agassi was forced into tennis by his father, you wonder how the experience has influenced his attitude to his own children’s forays onto the sporting field, particularly his son, Jaden, who plays college baseball for the USC Trojans. “My biggest issue with my dad was the lack of choice I had in anything, right? So that was solved way early with me as a father, in that it was not my life to live, it’s my children’s. I just hold them accountable to what they say they love and what they say they want and go along on the journey. Everybody has their path.”
Fave gym move?
Bench press PB?
I spent most of my career around about 300 lb (136 kg). And then after my career, I had more time and I got up to 315 (142 kg). Now I’m just really careful so it’s all about volume.
You can’t outrun bad habits.
I’m a grease and salt person more than I’m a sweet person. So if I had my last meal, so to speak, I’d grease up.
Fave Aussie slang?
I know so many Aussies that say no worries, and yet you damn well know that it’s a worry. Like, what’s up with that?
I’m pretty legendary. I mean, the high, high, high, high fours. It only takes one person, though, right?
Do you miss your mullet?
I don’t miss any time I ever spent wasting on hair issues, including the worry of losing it.
Is there a secret to a great mullet?
You got to own it, man, like, full conviction. You can’t go halfway. Go big or go home.
Andre Agassi is an ambassador for Uber One