‘In tennis, every day you go on court and strive to reach limits’, says Steffi Graf
It can be difficult to comprehend that two of the world’s greatest tennis professionals with 30 Grand Slam singles titles between them can feel pain and suffering so deeply. Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf have tasted literally everything there is on the platter at the biggest stage of tennis: Grand Slam success, world No. 1 ranking, Olympic gold. And yet, for them, struggle remained a companion even at the top.
“We all struggle. It might look like a beautiful bed of roses because you’re holding a trophy, but the pain and suffering that goes into it creates the same anxieties in all of us,” said Agassi, who has given a riveting account of his fall from the top in the mid-1990s due to injuries, drug use and a broken marriage with Brooke Shields in his 2009 autobiography, Open.
“That’s why I decided to write my book, because I wanted to understand my struggles and express it. I believe everything should transparent in our journey. It can only help each other to know that we are not alone in it,” said the eight-time Grand Slam winner, who overcame those adversities and fought his way back to the top.
No such emotional roller-coaster for Graf, a 22-time Grand Slam champion who was glued to the top of the world rankings for a record 377 weeks, it’s safe to assume? “I was a good actress, then,” Graf quipped.
“Oh, I’ve had my ups and downs and challenges. In tennis, every day you go out on the court and strive to reach your limits. And it’s difficult to find that emotional balance. You might have it physically, but sometimes emotionally it’s hard to, day after day, ask the best of you. When you get closer to the top, the expectations and demands that you have, you don’t always feel that way but you’ve still got to ask the best of you. It’s hard, and you don’t realise the amount of pressure that sometimes you ask of yourself, not even from the outside. You’re far from having that equilibrium that you hope.”
Equilibrium is what they found in each other. Agassi, an unfiltered personality wrapped in long hair and bright clothes during his younger days, met his calming influence in Graf, and the two married in 2001 to become tennis’s most prominent couple. Agassi said his only regret in life was that the union happened 10 years too late.
Speaking about living a relatively quiet life after retirement, Graf was struggling to find the right words to describe her thoughts: “I think I was really ready for…” she paused. “Me!” Agassi jumped in. “Yeah, for you,” Graf turned and smiled, before adding, “I was ready and I was looking forward to that. I loved what I did, I gave it all and I was ready for, yeah, Andre.”
There’s a lot to be said for being attracted to what you respect and what you’re not,” Agassi said. “The discipline she has always shown in her career is something that my personality couldn’t abide. Her personality and skill sets allowed her to go about things differently. And that’s attractive. It’s the same, but it’s different.”
Graf agreed. “I think we came together at a time when we knew each other pretty well already,” she said. “There might be certain differences in how we handle things and personalities, but in all of the right things I find that we are similar. Our priorities and thoughts are very aligned. By raising kids too you learn so much about each other. Between the value, respect and trust for each other, it’s working really well, let’s just put it that way.”
The two said they have also found their calling in philanthropy in their post-tennis life. While Agassi has formed the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation to provide educational opportunities for kids, Graf has established Children for Tomorrow that supports children from war-torn places.
“I felt like my lack of choice, being forced into tennis at a young age and out of school, left me very disconnected with my life,” Agassi said about taking the plunge into charity. “At one of the lowest points of my career is when I decided to give children with no choice that opportunity. Getting involved in this gave me the platform to move forward with my educational objectives.”