The ecstasy of Agassi

Andre Agassi at the Australian Open, his best Slam event, in 2005.

Andre Agassi at the Australian Open, his best Slam event, in 2005.

My sister Gina is the administrator of the Westfield chapter of Meetings Planners International. Recently, she graciously invited me to hear clinical and sports psychologist John F. Murray address her group. I’m glad she did, for his talk not only offered valuable tips on translating sports success to the business model but also recalled one of my all-time favorite tennis players – Andre Agassi.

Murray – a former tennis player and author of “Smart Tennis” who’s worked with top athletes in that sport, the NFL, the NHL and diving, among others – identified eight key concepts that contribute to success in any field, including passion, work ethic, resilience, flexibility, focus, guided imagery, confidence and energy. I asked him which tennis player best exemplified the principles he conveyed to us. He paused for a moment before giving me what I thought was a surprising answer.

“(Andre) Agassi,” he said. “He had the kind of tough mental skills to turn every disadvantage to an advantage.”

Agassi – one of my two favorites along with John McEnroe – was in his prime an all-surface, all-court player with the most idiosyncratic manner and best return of serve this side of Novak Djokovic (though I think Ken Rosewall probably had the best return of serve to date.) He was also a teen phenom who was considered for a long time to be more interested in his long, multicolored hair, stone-washed denim shorts and his Nike motto (“Image is everything”) than he was in winning.

Indeed, his success and failure were tied up in his love-hate relationship with tennis, with coach Nick Bollettieri and with the father, Mike, who drove him sometimes ruthlessly to succeed, even going so far as to tie a paddle to his hand so he could hit a ball when he was still in his high chair. It’s interesting that Agassi would marry two women considered by some to have been exploited children – Brooke Shields and Steffie Graf. Agassi and Graf have two children who don’t play tennis, which I think speaks volumes.

In his memoir “Open Season,” Agassi recalled using methamphetamine. But he’s also devoted his life to underprivileged children, particularly in his native Las Vegas. And he did ultimately develop the skills Murray described, winning eight Slam tournaments and the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics to become one of the all-time greats.