If you read one sporting autobiography this year, I implore you to make it that of 1990s tennis ‘hipster’ Andre Agassi. Raised in the suffocating heat of the Las Vegas desert by a merciless Iranian father, Agassi despised tennis from his early childhood, but knew of no other life.
His supreme talent railroaded him down a path that earned him the admiration of millions, as well as millions of dollars. But also severe depression which even led to recreational drug use. Smoking crystal meth is not exactly a pastime you associate with the clean cut tennis stars of today! As his depression worsened Agassi inexplicably turned to drugs in an attempt to ease his psychological burden.
The fact that he suffered so badly with mental health issues makes Agassi’s achievements within the sport all the more admirable. When he won the French Open in 1999, Agassi became just the fifth player in the history of the game to have won all four major titles. Even Pete Sampras – who shared an epic rivalry with Agassi throughout the 90s while winning 14 Grand Slams – never even reached a final at Roland Garros.
Tennis is the loneliest of sports, a facet that undoubtedly contributes to the pressure. There are no teammates to pick you up after a crushing five-set defeat and no one to banter with in training. On the court it’s just you and your demons. It’s no surprise to learn that Agassi enjoyed the camaraderie of Davis Cup to such an extent that he helped the USA win it three times. He also destroyed his opponents to win Olympic gold on home soil at Atlanta in 1996.
In 2001, Agassi opened a school which became an educational model in Clark County. “That school is still thriving and our endowment allows it to live in perpetuity,” Agassi recently told the Guardian. “I then figured out a way to scale that mission across the country and in the last three and a half years I deployed over $650m nationally to build 79 new schools.”
How many kids has Agassi helped educate? “I’ve got 1,200 kids in my foundation school and they revolve annually. I now have 38,000 kids nationwide revolving. I can’t do the math but the numbers go up pretty quickly.”
Despite his dour demeanor, Andy Murray has finally won over the British public. His incredible form throughout 2016 saw him win a mammoth 76 matches and finish the year as world number one. He entered the first Grand Slam of this year, the Australian Open in Melbourne, as the bookmakers favourite to lift the trophy. But at a tournament where the Scot has reached the final on no less than five occasions, he has never managed to haul himself over the finishing line.
Amazingly the old guard of Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer rolled back the years and ended up dueling it out on Rod Laver Arena in January’s final. The indefatigable Federer won his 18th Grand Slam in a enthralling five-set win over Nadal, leaving tennis fans in awe of his perseverance at 35 years of age. The six month rest he’d taken from the game paid massive dividends.
Murray, six year Federer’s junior, is in the prime of his career. Quite how he conspired to lose in the fourth round to man ranked 50th in the world – and with his nemesis Novak Djokovic already eliminated – I doubt even he knows. The door to his first Aussie Open was wide open, or at least ajar, yet somehow Murray managed to slam it on his toe. Now comes the real test. Can he bounce back while on the grind of the ATP tour, keep his number one ranking and succeed at the French Open in May?
But yet another psychological barrier awaits Murray in Paris. In last year’s final he won the first set against Djokovic, before capitulating and losing the next three, winning just seven games in the process. Murray, 29, has already had 10 different coaches since turning professional. Agassi for comparison, had just four throughout a career spanning two decades. An indictment on modern tennis, or a window into Murray’s quest for perfection?
With Federer and Nadal, despite their heroics in Melbourne, evidently in the twilight of their careers, the expectation on Murray has shifted. Winning majors, rather than reaching finals, is now the be-all and end-all. This is his year. Murray must finally usurp Djokovic if he is to truly stake his claim as the dominant force in world tennis.