Agassi goes commando to fight for honesty about an amazing career

After all the revelations in his book, the maverick American has shocked fans with a shorts story, writes Paul Newman in New York
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The Independent Online

It is four years since Andre Agassi brought down the curtain on his career but the 40-year-old Las Vegan can still light up a stage.

Play was in full swing on Thursday night here at the US Open – where Agassi began his career in 1986 with defeat to Jeremy Bates and ended it 20 years later – when the eight-times Grand Slam champion was given a standing ovation before taking his seat at Manhattan's Town Hall.

Hundreds of fans had paid up to $150 (about £97) to spend "A Special Evening with Andre Agassi". For the next two hours they listened as he was interviewed about his autobiography, which was published at the end of last year.

They do not do understatement in these parts. Rick Reilly, the interviewer, described Open as "the Sistine Chapel of sports books", while Agassi said J R Moehringer, his ghost, would go down as "one of the greatest writers of our time".

It is certainly a tome memorable for its honesty. Agassi describes his use of crystal meth, his subsequent lies after a positive drugs test, his "tanking" of matches, his failed marriage to Brooke Shields and his hatred of tennis. He even describes how he spent several years wearing a wig on court.

Reilly's opening question, nevertheless, went straight to another revelation: from the 1999 French Open onwards Agassi did not wear anything under his shorts. "I got to the locker room and realised I'd forgotten my underwear," Agassi told the audience. "What can a man do? I just commandoed it. After that it was a case of 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'. It actually feels good." He added: "I don't want to unsettle you, but I'm actually freebagging tonight."

Agassi's father, an Armenian who grew up in Iran before emigrating to America despite not speaking a word of English, was obsessed by an ambition to make his son a tennis champion. From an early age Agassi was forced to practise for hours as "the dragon", his name for the ball-feeding machine installed in their backyard, forced him to hit up to 4,000 shots a day.

"Dad used to introduce me as the future No 1 player in the world," Agassi said "We had two rules in the house: you will brush your teeth and play tennis – but not in that order."

Agassi said his father had not read the book and had no intention of doing so. Agassi phoned him, concerned at what his reaction might be to the reviews and wanting to point out that it was "a loving portrait" of his father. Agassi recalled: "He said: 'I'm 80 years old. What do I care? If I could do it all again I would do the same, except I wouldn't have you playing tennis. You'd play baseball or golf instead: you play longer and you can make more money.'"

Some reaction to the book has been unfavourable. Martina Navratilova suggested some of Agassi's titles should be taken away because he should have been suspended at the time he won them. He was reluctant to get into a slanging match. "It bothered me what she said. She was wrong. But my book is about forgiveness. I try not to react to what was said."

Asked what crystal meth did for him, Agassi said: "I had a lot of energy. I was like Speedy Gonzalez. I didn't know what to do with it. I would do lots of cleaning. I would lock myself in the house and do all this cleaning and make sure the laundry was perfect. I was like Martha Stewart on steroids."

Agassi revealed that he had not spoken to Shields since the book's publication. He said she had never met Steffi Graf, his current wife, though the actress had called their home on one occasion. "Steffi picked up the phone," Agassi said. "I did what anyone would do and changed our number."

Pete Sampras was Agassi's constant rival and is not spared in the book, particularly in relation to his alleged meanness. "He was fundamentally my antithesis," Agassi said. Asked by Reilly what Sampras brought out in him and whether he liked him or not, Agassi replied: "The worst in me – and no."

The evening wound up with a brief question-and-answer session, though for some it was simply a chance to acknowledge their hero. "Thank you for your honesty," one questioner said to loud applause. "People say you diminished the game. I say you elevated the game."

Afterwards Linda Peters, a fan from Florida, waited patiently for Agassi to sign her copy of his book. "I'm the same age as Andre and feel like I've grown up with him," she said. "I loved what he did for the game and what he still does for it. I'm not delighted about the drug-taking and the tanking of matches. I would argue with him about them, but I commend him for being so open."