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October 1, 2014

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Agassi describes hate for tennis, admits he was living a lie

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Andre Agassi speaks after a loss at the 1997 U.S. Open in New York. His autobiography contains an admission that he used crystal meth that year.

It turns out Andre Agassi was lying all along.

To fans. To opponents. To tennis authorities. To first wife Brooke Shields. To friends, including Barbra Streisand. To the media. And, he says, to himself.

"I can't live with that anymore," Agassi said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

"These lies — some of them came, certainly, out of fear. A lot of them came out of real confusion. A lot of it was thinking out loud. A lot of it was just getting stuff wrong. And a lot of it started with lies to myself," Agassi said. "When I retired from tennis, I had the opportunity, the time, the energy, to turn a real hard lens on myself."

His book "Open," in stores Monday, allows Agassi to unburden himself of secrets he's carried for years. Secrets about using crystal meth, about evading punishment for a failed drug test, about wearing a hairpiece, about what he calls a long-standing hatred of tennis.

Agassi described the memoir, a compelling read crafted by Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer from tape recordings of the eight-time Grand Slam champion's taped recollections, as part of his "atonement for where I've been in my life."

As he retraces that life in present tense — and without quotation marks, because "this is reconstructed dialogue," as he put it — Agassi sets out to explain himself and describe his journey from ninth-grade dropout to founder of a prep school in Las Vegas. He writes about his courtship of tennis star Steffi Graf, now his wife and the mother of their two children.

Along the way, he offers critical words for rivals such as Pete Sampras, Michael Chang and Boris Becker; discusses "tanking" matches; and poignantly describes his childhood fear of his father ("shrill and stern and filled with rage"), who Agassi told the AP refused to read the book.

Agassi recounts how, when he was a kid, his father would give him Excedrin before matches because it contained caffeine. Once, Agassi writes, his father gave him what Agassi believes to be speed. He also writes at various points about using marijuana and alcohol. Speaking to the AP, Agassi called crystal meth "a performance inhibitor" and said, "Everything I earned on the tennis court, I actually had to probably earn more than I needed to, because of many of the things I did to myself."

Agassi further talked about his drug use during a "60 Minutes" on CBS News interview with Katie Couric that aired Sunday night. The segment opened with footage of Agassi and wife Steffi Graf playing tennis at Darling Tennis Center, a public facility near their home in Northwest Las Vegas.

Agassi said during the television interview that he couldn’t recall how many times he used meth, but said it was for the better part of 1997. “It was way more than it should have been.”

The segment, the first of a two part series, is mostly about his dislike with tennis from an early age and how he wanted to quit. Agassi said he father drove him hard because he believed tennis was the quickest road to the American dream for the Armenian-American.

“It was really scaring, especially for a 7-year-old,” he said. “It was an unnecessary burden for a child, but one I carried.”

Agassi said his drug use came at a point in his life where he didn’t think too highly of himself. In addition to his unhappiness in tennis, he wasn’t satisfied with his relationship with actress Brooke Shields. The couple eventually divorced after less than two years of marriage.

“I was living in fraud. I was just living in hell,” Agassi said.

Asked by the AP whether he ever took performance-enhancing substances as a professional, Agassi — who retired in 2006 — replied, with a light chuckle, "No. No. The answer is 'No.'"

He is not surprised by the negative reactions to some of the book's revelations. Martina Navratilova, for example, likened Agassi to baseball's Roger Clemens; Roger Federer referred to material in the book as "a bit of a pity."

Agassi understands such responses, he told the AP, because, "You've got to remember: I spent many years angry and disappointed at myself."

He said he simply felt compelled to confess to using crystal meth "a lot" in 1997, failing a doping test that year, lying to the men's tennis tour about how the drug entered his system and avoiding punishment.

"How can you tell people to not hide from truth when you hide from it?" Agassi said in the interview. "While I know this story cuts against the grain of one's perceptions of me, it is the true me. And I believe in that authenticity."

He added: "I have no regrets about what's in there."

There are plenty of fascinating passages, aside from the excerpts sold to magazines and newspapers as part of the publicity push to help sell books. Agassi used the word "sensationalized" repeatedly during the 20-minute interview to describe those excerpts.

He hopes people will read the entire book so they can appreciate what he called its "power."

"It's about me learning how to commit fully, despite the fear of failure," he said. "It's a person waking up in a life that they didn't choose, in a life that they maybe don't want, and not being sure how to take ownership of their own life, and figuring that out."

The book also is about tennis:

On Sampras: Agassi says Sampras "sounds more robotic than" a parrot. At his depths, Agassi thinks: "I envy Pete's dullness. I wish I could emulate his spectacular lack of inspiration, and his peculiar lack of need for inspiration." Agassi tells of betting coach Brad Gilbert about how much Sampras tipped a parking valet; they ask the valet, who says $1; Agassi's conclusion: "We could not be more different, Pete and I."

On Chang: "He thanks God — credits God — for the win, which offends me. That God should take sides in a tennis match, that God should side against me, that God should be in Chang's box, feels ludicrous and insulting. I beat Chang and savor every blasphemous stroke." When Chang wins the 1989 French Open, Agassi thinks, "I feel sickened. How could Chang, of all people, have won a slam before me?"

On other opponents: Agassi writes about holding grudges against Becker (who Agassi says blew kisses at Shields during a match), Jim Courier, Thomas Muster, Yevgeni Kafelnikov, Jeff Tarango (who Agassi says cheated during a match between them when Agassi was 8).

On "tanking:" Agassi says he lost on purpose against Chang in the Australian Open semifinals one year so he wouldn't have to face Becker in the final, writing: "It's almost harder than winning. You have to lose in such a way that the crowd can't tell." He also says of sports writers: "They never get it right. When I tank, they say I'm not good enough; when I'm not good enough, they say I tank."

On his fake hair: Of the 1990 French Open final, Agassi writes, "Warming up before the match, I pray. Not for a win, but for my hairpiece to stay on."

On the 1999 French Open final, which he won to complete a career Grand Slam: "I've already obsessed about this tournament for the last 10 years. I can't bear the idea of obsessing about it for another eighty. ... If I don't win this thing right now, I'll never be happy, truly happy, again."

Las Vegas Sun reporter Ray Brewer contributed to this report.

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