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The Agony of Agassi, Back at Wimbledon Celebrity Coaching Novak Djokovic

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The former prodigy once described a tennis academy as ‘Lord of the Flies’ with forehands, and wrestled a lot of demons. But he just can’t leave the game he claims to hate.

 

Andre Agassi (zimbio.com)

Written by Michael Mewshaw

WIMBLEDON—Andre Agassi has reinvented himself more often than Madonna. Beginning as what Ivan Lendl disparaged as “a kid with a haircut and a forehand,” he went bald early and secretly wore a flouncy blond wig. Worried his rug would fall off on court, he shaved his skull, grew a goatee and sported a piratical earring and bandana. Barbra Streisand praised him as “highly evolved, a Zen master.” But when the International Tennis Federation president Philippe Chatrier criticized his flamboyant wardrobe, Agassi replied less like Buddha and more like a sullen punk, calling Chatrier “a jerk.”

When Agassi married model/actress Brooke Shields, she persuaded him to put lifts into his shoes so she could wear heels at the wedding. Small wonder he lost focus and began losing matches. This was a prelude to a divorce and a made-for-TV comeback. In the end, Agassi won eight Grand Slam titles and by the time of his retirement had metamorphosed into a much-beloved sportsman.

Far from finished, though, he became the bestselling author of a memoir, Open, that was greeted as if it were the Confessions of St. Augustine. Truth to tell, it was a good book, much more insightful and substantive than most depictions of pro tennis. This may have had something to do with its ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Peppered with references to Thomas Mann, Walt Whitman, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, its style sounded nothing like Agassi’s irreverent press conferences. Before one French Open final, he told reporters, “I’m as happy as a faggot in a submarine.”

But if Open’s literary achievement was surprising, the book’s theme was downright shocking. Again and again Agassi declared, “I hate tennis.” Then he catalogued why he detested the sport. Sold to the public as clean family fun, the game at its highest level is actually played by the products of a misery machine, and like most victims of abuse, they prefer not to talk about it. Breaking this cycle of silence, Agassi provided a grim portrait of his lost childhood, a Dickensian adolescence and his adult struggle with alcohol, drugs, and depression.

This suggested that he intended to abandon tennis and pursue other goals. Or perhaps become a champion of reform. Instead, he started competing in highly paid exhibition matches and Senior Tour events, and turned himself into a spokesman for various global brands, including Longines watches and Lavazza coffee.

In his newest incarnation he has now joined the ranks of celebrity coaches. During the French Open, he provided his services to Novak Djokovic, the Serbian star who’s attempting to regain his winning form, and during the Joker’s first-round win at Wimbledon, Agassi beamed from the Player’s Box, much as he does in commercial plugs for charter schools.

Djokovic praised Agassi as “someone with a very positive mindset about tennis and life in general… He likes to focus on the right frames and just get the best out of it.”

Since this didn’t correspond at all to what Agassi had revealed in Open, a reporter piped up, “Andre was a pretty puzzling kid. Drank a lot of whiskey at [Nick] Bolletieri’s [Tennis] Academy, bleached [his] hair and all that.”

“I didn’t hear about that,” Djokovic said.

“Read the book.”

Djokovic swore he had read it, yet he came away convinced the author was just the guy to get him back on track. The tennis press, suffering from the same amnesia as Djokovic, has published nary a word about how bizarre such an arrangement might strike any reasonable reader of Agassi’s autobiography.

Born in Las Vegas to a brutal father, a former Olympic boxer from Iran, Andre was frog-marched onto a tennis court as a toddler and forced to hit thousands of balls a day. Friendships and education were treated as distractions. He was his father’s whipping boy and was expected to whip other boys and the occasional adult deluded enough to bet that he could beat the kid. At junior tournaments Mr. Agassi fed his son caffeine-laced pills. Later he tried to turn him on to speed.

As a teenager, Agassi was dispatched to the Bolletieri Academy in Florida. His game flourished, but his life turned feral. He skipped school, drank, and smoked dope. Nobody cared as long as he kept winning. The Academy, in Agassi’s words, was “Lord of the Flies with forehands.” But it was no worse than other tennis factories, and Bolletieri had competition when it came to totalitarian trainers. Jim Pierce, a convicted felon and ex-inmate of an insane asylum, bullied and beat his daughter Mary into the Top Ten. Seven-time Wimbledon champ Pete Sampras spent his formative years with a coach later jailed for the sexual abuse of children. Peter Graf, father of Agassi’s current wife, Steffi, dressed his mistress in tennis clothes to resemble his daughter.

Agassi was quick to catch on to the sport’s prevailing cynicism. At the age of 15 he made it into the second round of a pro tournament. As an amateur, he couldn’t accept prize money. But he put in a fake claim for expenses in the exact amount a pro would receive. Amused by his deviousness, the tournament director gave him $2,000.

Some might argue that the delinquencies of junior tennis and national training centers have nothing to do with the pro tour. But the drug abuse, tanking, match fixing, and absence of ethical standards that plague pro tennis actually start at the junior level and get amplified as players rise in the rankings.

Nothing demonstrates this better than Agassi’s account of his mid-career swoon. A multi-millionaire with a ninth-grade education, he had a reputation for pulling out of tournaments with fake injuries or half-heartedly sleepwalking through matches. Even the U.S. Davis Cup coach accused him of tanking. Andre felt he had no identity except the one concocted by sportswriters. To fill up his emptiness, he drank and set fires. Nothing apocalyptic, just a little pyromania to take the edge off.

When this didn’t work, he snorted crystal meth. Whatever this reveals about Agassi, it says far more about tennis’ lackadaisical anti-doping program. When Andre tested positive, the result was covered up and never revealed to the public. Authorities bought his bogus excuse that he accidentally drank a spiked soda.

A few prominent former players speculated that there was more to Agassi’s drug use than he admitted. Ex-Wimbledon champion Pat Cash wrote in the London Sunday Times that insiders suspected Andre had been on anabolic steroids or some other illegal performance enhancer. Cash reported that Magnus Larson, once a top ten player and now a coach, had published a memoir in Sweden that was never translated into English. In it Larson alleged that Agassi was among the six never-named competitors who had tested positive for steroids in 2003. These men were exonerated, with the flabbergasting alibi that they had consumed contaminated supplements distributed by tournament officials.

Cash added that he himself had been dubious about Andre’s last-minute withdrawal from the 2002 Australian Open. He wrote that Agassi had huddled for hours with Aussie tournament officials before dropping out with the announcement that he had a wrist injury.

After all this, one might expect that Agassi would find himself persona non grata on the tour. At the very least, with Maria Sharapova still sidelined after her conviction for doping, one would think tennis authorities should query Agassi about his admitted drug use.

To the contrary, tennis has embraced him and he travels the world promoting his brand, accepting awards and handing out trophies. In 2011, he was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame and is universally praised for his charity work, especially his sponsorship of charter schools in the United States. For sportswriters the upbeat irony is irresistible—high school drop-out bankrolls the education of underprivileged kids.

It fell to Diane Ravitch, an expert on American education, to point out that this is the least of the ironies about Agassi’s involvement with charter schools. In the New York Review of Books Ravitch produced a detailed critique of charter schools, accusing them of offering enormous federal tax credits, as high as 37 percent, and juicy enticements to foreign investors in the form of Eb-5 visas. Some charter operators buy buildings, lease them back to themselves and get rich from real estate. Others supply charter schools with goods and services and pocket a fortune. Ravitch goes on: “Andre Agassi entered into a profitable partnership with an equity investor to build and open charter schools across the country, even though the Las Vegas charter school that bears his name is one of the lowest performing schools in the state.”

So now that “the annual English garden party of Wimbledon” has started and there’s palaver about Andre Agassi giving back to the game by coaching Novak Djokovic, it might be wise to remain wary of the brash hustler from Vegas who always seems to have an ace up his sleeve.

 

DISCLAIMER: This story was originally published on The Daily Beast. Ubitennis has been allowed to publish the article with the consent of its author.

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Australian Open Daily Preview: The Men’s Semifinals

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Daniil Medvedev after his quarterfinal (twitter.com/AustralianOpen)

Rafael Nadal is only two matches away from a record-breaking 21st Major singles title.  On Friday, he faces Italy’s Matteo Berrettini, in a semifinal rematch from this same round at the 2019 US Open.  In the other men’s semifinal, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas renew what started as a testy rivalry in 2018.

 

Also on Friday, it’s the championship match in mixed doubles at 12:00pm local time.  It will be Kristina Mladenovic and Ivan Dodig (5) vs. Jaimee Fourlis and Jason Kubler (WC).  Mladenovic is a two-time mixed double champion at Majors, while Dodig is a three-time champ.  The Australian wild card team consists of 22-year-old Fourlis and 28-year-old Kubler, who are both vying for their first Slam title.


Rafael Nadal (6) vs. Matteo Berrettini (7) – 2:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

Their aforementioned US Open semifinal is their only previous meeting, which went to Nadal in straight sets.  That was Berrettini’s first Major semi, coming off a long five-set battle with Gael Monfils in the last round, just as he is now.  Nadal also endured an exhausting five-setter in the quarterfinals, where Rafa was hindered by stomach issues against Denis Shapovalov.  Both men are expected to be fully recovered on Friday, as they benefit from having two full days off between the quarters and the semis. 

Nadal has often capitulated in the Australian Open quarterfinals, more so than any other Major, with a 7-7 record lifetime.  However, it’s a completely different story once he advances beyond the quarters, as he’s 5-1 in semis at this tournament.  His only semifinal loss came in his first semi 14 years ago at the hands of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  Since then, he’s undefeated in this round, which includes two epic five-setters with Fernando Verdasco and Grigor Dimitrov.  And overall in Major semifinals, Rafa is 28-7, though he has lost four of his last eight.

This is the third Major semi for Berrettini, who was the runner-up at Wimbledon last July.  Matteo has survived two five-setters this fortnight, and both times he let a two-set lead slip.  He has spent over 16 hours on court through five rounds, about two hours more than Nadal.  Both players arrived in Melbourne with questions regarding their health, as Rafa underwent foot surgery several months ago, and Matteo withdrew from the ATP Finals due to an oblique injury.  However, aside from Nadal’s hesitance to slide on the court, neither have seemed hampered by their recent injuries.

Rafa is fully aware of what a huge opportunity this is to take the lead in most Major singles titles won by a man, with Federer and Djokovic both absent.  Will the historical implications impact his play?  Also, is Matteo ready to defeat an all-time great on such a big stage?  He is 0-7 lifetime against “The Big 3.”  And Berrettini’s backhand remains a liability which Nadal can easily expose with his signature top-spin crosscourt forehand.  With history within his sights, and his enormous edge in experience, Nadal is the favorite to reach his sixth Australian Open final.


Daniil Medvedev (2) vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas (4) – 7:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

When they first played on tour at the 2018 Miami Open, harsh words were exchanged after extended toilet breaks, as well as Medvedev’s frustration over Tsitsipas not apologizing for winning a point thanks to the net cord.  The chair umpire had to physically intervene after the match.  Since that tense meeting, these players have mostly remained civil, yet they are certainly not good friends.  Medvedev claimed that first encounter, and won their next four as well.  However, Tsitsipas has now taken two of their last three.  On hard courts, Medvedev is 5-1.  And at hard court Majors, he’s 2-0, which includes a straight-set win in this same round a year ago in Melbourne.

On that day, Stefanos was coming off one of the biggest wins of his career, coming back from two-sets-down to defeat Nadal in the quarterfinals.  But on Friday, he should be the much fresher player.  The Greek advanced in straight sets on Wednesday after only two hours, while the Russian played five thrilling sets, and almost five hours, saving a match point to come back from two-sets-down to defeat Felix Auger-Aliassime.  Despite Stefanos undergoing an elbow procedure in the off-season, he’s looked completely unhampered by it.

This is a huge opportunity for Tsistipas to achieve his first final at a hard court Major, after losing in this round two of the last three years in Melbourne.  Even though Medvedev wrote a message on the camera lens to Tsitsipas after his quarterfinal claiming he wasn’t tired, Daniil has to be somewhat depleted after one of the most grueling quarterfinals in recent memory.  But based on their history, as well as Medvedev’s hard court prowess, Daniil should still be favored to reach his third consecutive Slam final on this surface.


Friday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Danielle Collins blasts past Iga Świątek and into the Australian Open final

Danielle Collins comprehensively beat Iga Swiatek to reach the Australian Open final.

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Danielle Collins (@AustralianOpen - Twitter)

American Danielle Collins made light work of Iga Świątek to move into her first Grand Slam final.

 

The Pole looked exhausted, particularly in the second set, after her exploits in the quarter finals against Kaia Kanepi, and was no match for the explosive Collins. Świątek going down 6-4, 6-1.

Collins will face Ash Barty in the title match, who also came through in a comfortable straight sets, against another American, Madison Keys, 6-1, 6-3.

It’s looking to be a procession for the world number one in Melbourne, who has yet to drop a set.

On Saturday, the two-time Grand Slam winner will look to become the first Australian women to win on home soil for 44 years.

Having recovered from endometriosis last year, Collins’ run to the final is even more spectacular.

She immediately stamped her authority, breaking Świątek in the opening game.

This was backed up with a comfortable hold, that was sealed with a barnstorming backhand drive. Collins soon nabbed the double break and raced into a 4-0 lead.

But Świątek, to her credit, battled back, holding serve and breaking the American with some explosive hitting.She now trailed 4-2.

A topsy-turvy set of tennis saw Collins break the Pole for the third time, but the drama was only just getting started.

Świątek miraculously saved three set points, the second with a sublime backhand volley, to the delight of Rod Laver Arena, and broke the American, again.

This was backed up with a hold serve, to beg the question, could Collins serve it out and she did, converting her fourth set point in a marathon rally, 6-4.

The 27th seed had all the momentum going into the second set and clinically broke the Pole with some irresistible hitting.

More power tennis flowed from the American’s racquet and she secured the double break, moving into a 4-0 lead.

The seventh seed simply had no answer to Collins’ dominance, and although she saved a match point, the American was far too strong and made no mistake on her second.

After the match she spoke to the crowd.

“It feels amazing. It’s been such a journey and it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s been so many years of hard work and hours at an early age on the court,” she said.

“Yesterday I was talking about all the early mornings where my dad would get up with me and practice before school.

“It’s just incredible to be on this stage, especially with the health challenges, and I’m just so grateful. I couldn’t be happier.”

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Nick Kyrgios Refuses To Engage With Doubles Player’s Criticism After Reaching Doubles Final With Thanasi Kokkinakis

Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis are into the men’s doubles final at the Australian Open.

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Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis (@AustralianOpen - Twitter)

Nick Kyrgios has refused to engage in criticism from Michael Venus after he reached the Men’s doubles final with Thanasi Kokkinakis.

 

The controversial Australian reached his first grand slam final with good friend Thanasi Kokkinakis as they defeated third seeds Horacio Zeballos and Marcel Granollers 7-6(4) 6-4.

The Australian duo have also knocked out top seeds Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic as well as sixth seeds Tim Puetz and Michael Venus.

Speaking of Michael Venus it was the New Zealander who had a problem with Kyrgios’ behaviour in their match branding him as ‘an absolute knob’ as well as stating he has the maturity of a 10 year-old.

After the match Kyrgios refused to hit back at the doubles specialist as he wanted to focus on the victory, “Michael Venus, I’m not going to destroy him in this media conference room right now,” Kyrgios said in his post-match press conference.

“But Zeballos and Granollers are singles players. They’ve had great careers. I respect them a lot more than I respect Michael Venus. I think the balance was there today. The quality of tennis was amazing. I think the festival atmosphere was still there. I think they embraced it. They knew it was an incredible atmosphere.

“Zeballos took a selfie with us before we walked out. That’s how you embrace an atmosphere. You’re not losing a match and then getting salty about it afterwards. It’s ridiculous.”

Kyrgios and Kokkinakis’ reactions have caused a stir among opponents with their over-the-top celebrations after points.

However Kokkinakis told journalists that they are not disrespecting their opponents, “I think for the most part it’s not us trying to disrespect the opponents,” Kokkinakis said.

“It’s us trying to get the crowd going to just increase the atmosphere. Sometimes the opponents take it personally. That’s what happened with the Croatians that we played, the No 1 seeds. That’s obviously Michael took offence to that.

“We’re not doing anything directly to them to try and disrespect. We’re just trying to get the crowd even more hyped, and then some of them take it personally.”

Regardless of their reactions, Kyrgios and Kokkinakis have put a lot of attention on doubles as they bid to win their first grand slam title.

On Saturday they will have an all Australian final with Matthew Ebden and Max Purcell after they knocked out second seeds Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury 6-3 7-6(9).

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