Agassi sounded as relaxed and introspective as always, but managed a stray swipe at Pete Sampras when discussing their recent exhibition match, which Sampras won with ease. We also disussed the state of American tennis, Michelle Obama and, most importantly, whether he spells it "racket" or "racquet."
Busted Racquet: How's your back holding up after Monday?
Andre Agassi: Not ideal. I asked Pete to be a little sensitive with him breaking off serves left and right and jerking me around the court, but he thought it was more important to get his aces and do his drop shots and make me look my age. As a result, I'm still recovering [laughs].
BR: What was your preparation for this match and the other exhibitions you play?
Agassi: It's a good question, it's different than it ever used to be. It used to be that I could start and build to it every day and now you have to really be careful that you don't go over that line and set yourself back a week. It's something that shouldn't be done. I would stagger my practices because going hard is pretty comfortable but recovery is the big question mark. Going too hard sometimes or going too close back to back in practice has sometimes led to some issues for me heading into the match. I would say I was playing about two to three times per week, which is enough for me to hit the ball clean. And I was doing a lot or cardio work through high-intense weightlifting, low weights, heavy reps and some more non-impact stuff.
BR: Both you and Sampras said before the match that it was all for fun and clearly not like the old days. I don't know if you saw it, but at the end of the clip, ESPN showed Sampras saying that even though it's not the same, he still wanted to "kick his [expletive]." Did you have the same mentality?
Agassi: No, I wouldn't say I subscribe to the last comment. I really don't think about Pete very often so the idea of doing something to him isn't really it [laughs]. For me it's about the 19,000 people that are there, and entertaining them. Tennis is a sport where you don't have to be good, you just have to be better than your opponent, so when you have two opponents that are close in abilities it can be a very entertaining match. My goal is to do my best to keep it there. Pete certainly is more capable than me on the court these days and the quality of that entertainment was solely in his hands.
BR: During the changeovers of the match, you both were looking up at the highlights being played on the Jumbotron at Madison Square Garden. Besides the neon, what catches your eye from those old clips?
Agassi: I couldn't believe how good I was in my prime [laughs]. The first thing that crossed my mind was how well I moved. I played until I was 36 years old, so I don't have a clear recollection of the court coverage I used to have, even in my mid-20s. Even getting to the finals of the U.S. Open when I was 35, I'm out there negotiating and cutting corners and avoiding the defense, because that can expose the half-step that you've lost over the years. So it's really been a long time for me in feeling or recognizing how well I could cover the court when I was at my best. When I looked up, I was sort of taken by the actual court coverage. The quality of shots is not something that's far from my recollection, especially when I hit the ball in the right spot. But the movement is a huge issue and I was amazed looking back.
BR: When you look at those old clips, do you have a good recall of the points? In your book, "Open," you appeared to be able to put yourself back in the moment pretty well.
Agassi: You lived it and it meant the world to you. I can't say every point, because a lot of points blend into the others in hindsight, but there are those moments when you knew what you were feeling and they tend to be less about points and more about the emotional state of where you were. Whether it was trying to put away the match in the fourth set and losing and having to go five, or Pete trying to put away that third or fourth set and you getting over that hump and hitting that shot, knowing that when you hit that passing shot that the fifth set was yours because he was running out of steam. You remember the emotions of all that more than you remember specific points.
BR: You mentioned the 19,000 people at the Garden. It got me thinking, could anyone besides you and Sampras sell out the Garden right now? Even Federer-Nadal?
Agassi: I would hope so. My instinct would be to believe that. I would pay to go watch Nadal and Federer play, certainly at the Garden. It's a venue that's added to all our lives in one way or another and to have tennis come back to the Garden was appealing to New Yorkers. There's an additional component to what Pete and I had because both of us said goodbye to the sport in New York. To come back and play again in the Garden had another layer of story to it. But Federer and Pete played three years and sold it out, or it appeared that way on TV, and I'd imagine that to see Nadal and Federer compete there would be quite an evening.
BR: Currently there are six Americans in the top 100 of the ATP rankings. In 1989 there was six Americans in the top 10, you being one of them. What's happened to American tennis and can it recover?
Agassi: A lot has happened. It's become so globally competitive, and Federer and Nadal have absolutely snuffed out any leftovers as it relates to Grand Slams over the last six years. I think Americans are spoiled with the generation we came off of in the sport. We had a lot of Grand Slam titles between Mac, Connors, myself, Pete, Courier, Chang. There was a lot of titles, a hard standard to live up to. Roddick came and I believe he was on the verge of doing the same thing that we did but he ran into the generation of Nadal and Federer. Quite honestly, I think the same thing would have happened to me and Pete. I think those two guys have raised the bar in a way that tennis hadn't seen yet and as a result there wasn't much left for anyone else. But the gap is starting to close, getting a racquet in more young kids hands I think will give us a say into more Slams in the next generation. That always does change and it tends to shift from country to country. My hope is that our grassroots effort will change that.BR: Speaking of the young kids, you just filmed a PSA with first lady Michelle Obama and your wife, Steffi Graf. First question, how did you draw the short end of the stick and have to be the one crouching at the net as a ballboy instead of standing back in the court looking relaxed.
Agassi: [Laughs] Thank you for noticing how uncomfortable I was.
BR: Yeah, you're the one with the bad back!
Agassi: You know, when the first lady is in the house, you don't argue with anybody, including the director. I just tried to get in the position that was most comfortable for me. If it's for the good of the game, for the health of our young kids across this country, it was worth it. But I'd have much preferred standing, even though that's not all that great for my back either.
BR: What do you think about the new lines for the 10 and unders? On some level, I like how it shrinks the court for smaller kids but on the other hand, can you imagine yourself hitting those 2,500 balls per day from your dad's ball machine on a smaller court?
Agassi: No, but here's the good news: You can have your cake and eat it too. You can always play up. My dad could have always put that ball machine on the big court. There's always a way for a 7-year-old to play a 12-year-old in tennis. We're not taking away the right, we're adding a dimension that allows for kids to learn the game and become attracted to the game without being intimidated by it. That wouldn't have affected me. I still would have been out there hitting 2,500 balls a day. You gotta remember, and don't quote me on the statistic, but if I'm not mistaken, Venus and Serena's father didn't let them compete in even one junior tournament, and if he did it was very, very few of them. You can go your whole childhood working on your game and developing it, honing your skills. Ten and under tennis doesn't preclude you from doing that and picking up the normal size racquet or going on the normal-sized court. This allows children to practice the game and develop fundamentals but it also gives parents an opportunity to play with their child. Before this program, you had to play tennis in order to teach your child tennis. Now, all of a sudden, you can go hit balls and spend that quality time. I think it's all upside.
BR: Last question because I know you're in a hurry. Our blog name is Busted Racquet, spelled with a "Q." How do you like your racquet? With a "K" or with a "Q?"
Agassi: I go back and forth on that, but I think when I just write it myself I lean toward the "Q."
BR: Right. It just looks better. It's more classy. Thanks, Andre.
Agassi will appear in the upcoming video game, Top Spin 4.
- Pete Sampras
- Michelle Obama
- Madison Square Garden