Is Roger Federer better than Pete Sampras? Yes, says Andre Agassi

At an event in Mumbai, Andre Agassi answers questions on his career as a tennis player, his father Mike and of course, wife and former tennis ace Steffi Graf


Tennis legend Andre Agassi during the unveiling of India Value Fund Advisors new brand identity in Mumbai on Wednesday. Photo: PTI
Tennis legend Andre Agassi during the unveiling of India Value Fund Advisors new brand identity in Mumbai on Wednesday. Photo: PTI

Mumbai: Former world No. 1 tennis player and eight-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi said Roger Federer was the greatest player of all time because of his skill over all surfaces. Agassi, who played against Federer towards the end of his career (and the beginning of Federer’s), is among the few players to have battled both the Swiss and Pete Sampras, the other frequent contender in the debate, on a tennis court.

Agassi was in Mumbai as a guest at an event organized by private equity firm India Value Fund Advisors Pvt. Ltd, which has been rebranded as True North. At the event held on Wednesday evening at the Grand Hyatt hotel, he answered questions from commentator and author Harsha Bhogle on his career as a tennis player, his father Mike and of course, wife and former tennis champion Steffi Graf.

Dressed in a suit, witty and frank, he spoke about his “hate-love” relationship with the sport, and recounted stories some of which were documented in his autobiography, Open, which came out in 2009. The 46-year-old currently runs the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education in Las Vegas, USA.

Edited excerpts:

On growing up with a demanding father

My father was a visionary, if you want to be kind to him. When I was six-months old, in his head, I was already playing tennis. He would put a balloon over my head and tie a ping-pong racquet on my hand. As I tried desperately to remove the racquet, he visualized me playing and said I would become a great player. I have a video of playing as a four-year-old.

Our family didn’t have much and my father would bet on me in Vegas. But looking back, I am grateful for my father’s sacrifices.

My father’s purpose is to find faults (laughs). When I won Wimbledon (in 1992, beating Goran Ivanisevic in five sets in the final), I called home and asked him if he saw the match. There was a moment’s silence and then he said you had no business losing the fourth set. Nowadays, he tells me to be a better father.

I called him after the book came out—there was a lot of talk about him because of what I had written. He said he was too old to care but if he could go back (in time) he would change one thing. I was driving and I pulled over to listen carefully. He said I wouldn’t let you play tennis. I asked why. He said it would have been baseball or golf because you can play longer and make more money.

After I lost to Pete (Sampras) decisively once, I rushed to the hospital where my father was having an open-heart surgery. The doctor warned us that when he came out, he would have tubes attached and might try to resist. Once he woke up, he seemed agitated and wanted to say something. We had this game of charades before we got him a piece of paper and a pen. He wrote: You should have played to his backhand! Mom said he had seen the match before the operation.

On being labelled a prodigy and a rebel

I thought of myself more as a survivor. As a child, I was moved 3,000 miles (about 4,800km) away into a tennis academy (Nick Bollettieri’s Tennis Academy in Florida at age 13), living and playing with other kids. We (kids) raised each other, kind of like Lord of the Flies with forehands and backhands. Fear is a great motivator and making it (a success) was my only escape. I took rebellion to the world stage. Prodigy was one of the better things I was called. I was good at rebellion.

On his flashy clothes, styling in the early years and the hair-piece

I wore a lot of things I am trying to forget. I am trying to burn the photos too.

I was the youngest of four and my brother lost his hair very early. I turned pro and I started to lose my hair and wore a wig to hide it as much. Before the French Open final (1990), I ran out of this special conditioner I used for my hair-piece and used the hotel one. I stepped out of the shower and my hair was all floppy. My brother went and got like a hundred bobby pins to hold my hair. And my brother’s advice was, tomorrow don’t run around too much. The last thing I was worried about was winning the French Open. When everyone thought I lost (to Ecuador’s Andres Gomez), I felt I won (having survived with the bobby pins).

On his relationship with tennis

I hated what I did (tennis). I saw what it did to our family dynamics. Dad had rules: Wake up, play and then brush teeth, in that order. The angst and the conflict started early. There were so many feelings tied to survival and not having a choice. I thought winning and reaching No. 1 would bring peace. I turned No. 1 (in 1995) and it changed nothing. When I turned No. 1, it started a downward spiral—I got into a marriage I didn’t want (with actress Brooke Shields), doing drugs… It took 25 years to reach No. 1 and less than two years to get (down) to No. 141.

I lost in Germany in the first round and my coach locked me up in the room. The decision was either we quit or we start over. I never hated tennis as much as that moment. Looking out of the window, I wondered how many people chose their life, and I had an epiphany—nobody does. It gave me an opportunity to change my life. I saw a programme on (TV) 60 Minutes, on kids having no choice in their life and there was a connection. I wanted to build my own school and overnight committed to a $40 million mortgage. This was my connection back to playing a sport I didn’t love. People talk about love-hate; mine was hate-love. Tennis gave me a life, my wife and I was grateful to play longer than my body allowed.

An athlete spends one-third of his life not preparing for two-thirds of his life. Failure and success are an illusion. Failure is an interpretation of an event. You have that in sport. What matters is how you engage with life. It’s full of beautiful moments and difficult times but these are all train stops. You get off and on but stay on the right train.

There is no sport, where players talk to themselves, like tennis and answer back as well! It’s like solitary confinement.

On writing in his book that winning doesn’t feel as good as losing feels bad

I come from a tortured perfectionist background. Losing was a cardinal sin and took me time to come to terms with it.

On modern tennis

The game’s changed so much. When people ask old champions whether they would match up (to modern times), you don’t. When you look at the change, for example, the way the ball spins now, it changes the rules of engagement, changes how you approach the game.

Who is better: Pete Sampras or Roger Federer?

I woke up one day from a dream that I was Pete and went back to sleep. Sorry, I can’t help it (about the jibe). There is (for players) too much pride in your strengths and limitations. Mine were different from Pete’s. I look at Federer and he makes things look so easy that it pisses me off. Is Federer better than Pete? Yes. He could beat people from anywhere, from the back of the court. He has a plan A, B, C and he never got to C; he barely gets to B.

On parenthood

In giving our children what we didn’t have, we forget what we did have. Dad taught us discipline, fortitude and not to take no for an answer. Our children, we are trying to balance those lessons without the prize. Dad chose for me the highest bar that I could reach. A lot of good comes from asking for the best from yourself.

On Steffi Graf

She is our Rock of Gibraltar; she makes our life possible. She has 22 trophies (Grand Slam) and I have only eight. She doesn’t even know where her trophies are. A lesson on how to stay humble in life is to marry someone greater than you. If she leaves (me), I would get half of the trophies: that’s 15.

It was the best day of my life when she said yes (to the proposal). She was the hardest to win (over). When Steffi Graf says yes to you, that’s the closest you get to arriving.

Being married to someone better (in tennis) means you don’t have to say certain things, it’s understood. Tennis is a lonely sport. You don’t need to explain to someone like her because she has suffered with me and lived with me.

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