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November 23, 2014

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Ron Kantowski:

Agassi’s book puts ’97 in perspective

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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.

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I don’t know Andre Agassi, the Las Vegas tennis legend and, as of Tuesday, admitted former crystal meth user. But I have liked him since the day he started losing his hair and responded by shaving it off.

It was like somebody lobbed that “image is everything” pretense that once defined him and Agassi whacked it into the swimming pool in his neighbor’s yard. With a goodly amount of topspin.

Goodbye, hair extensions. Hello, Gillette Mach 3 razor. I can deal with it, Andre seemed to be saying.

Apparently what he could not deal with was his marriage and his game falling apart at the same time. It was around that time, in 1997, that he says he experimented with crystal meth, one of the most stunning revelations in his new book “Open,” which hits Barnes & Noble and a million other places where books are sold Nov. 9.

While I have never tumbled from No. 1 to No. 134 in the world tennis ratings, I have gone through a divorce. My drug of choice was alcohol, but whereas drowning one’s marital sorrows with a pony keg of Coors Light mostly falls into society’s “let it slide” category, doing the same with a couple of grams of methamphetamine has more serious ramifications and repercussions, which Andre is about to discover.

My prediction is that he’ll handle whatever society dishes out, much in the manner that Earvin “Magic” Johnson has or Alex Rodriguez has or — do I say it? — Marv Albert has.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since 1997. A lot of checks with a lot of zeros and Agassi’s signature on them have been written out to charities. He’ll go on Oprah and appear as humanly fallible as the rest of us.

In the end, if not before, the public eye will smile on him.

But this rather remarkable revelation — not remarkable in that it happened, but remarkable in that Agassi felt the need to reveal it — would certainly explain a lot about Nov. 16, 1997, the last time I saw Andre Agassi play tennis in Las Vegas when it counted for something, albeit only a little something. It was the finals of a USTA Challenger Series event that paid $7,500 to the winner. Like I said, a little something.

Agassi was trying to get his mojo back, not to mention his wife, Brooke Shields, and his game, which at that time was sort of a cross between Bill Cosby’s and Elton John’s, minus the fat cigar and the sequins. It wasn’t pretty. Two days before the final, he had gone off on the chair umpire and was fined $1,000 for abusive language.

This is what I wrote:

SURPRISE! I went to a tennis match Sunday and a Dice Clay concert broke out.

Two days after making an even grander spectacle of himself by uttering the swear word with all the consonants to the chair umpire, the pride of Las Vegas — and its favorite Potty Mouth since the late Redd Foxx — was a model of decorum.

Discounting his sluggish legs, which he said felt like, well, doo-doo, Andre Agassi had nary a harsh word for anybody or anything at UNLV’s Fertitta Tennis Complex during the championship final of the Las Vegas/USTA Men’s Challenger.

Agassi lost 6-2, 7-5 to Christian Vinck, a left-handed German whose serve-and-volley game was as sweet as strudel. Anybody offended by Agassi’s profane actions on Friday must have delighted in watching him being served — in this case, literally — his just dessert.

But the crowd that snuggled in cozy “center” court (in reality, the far left court) was behind Agassi all the way.

Say what you will — and Agassi certainly did during his quarterfinal match — it was going to take more than a few expletives for his fans to turn on him and give thumbs up to the Christian.

Agassi wasted little time in burying the hatchet with umpire Norm Chryst, who, no matter what you may have heard Friday, is no relation to Jesus H. “I’ll be all good today, Norm,” Agassi said with a grin prior to the warm-up.

And he was. Agassi barely said two words during the match. And when he did, they didn’t take a hyphen.

Some of the side effects of crystal meth are agitation, irritability, talkativeness, panic, compulsive fascination with repetitive tasks (like serving a tennis ball, for instance), violence and confusion. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but tennis fans saw some of each from Agassi that weekend.

Another side effect of methamphetamine is an increased libido. Though I didn’t see much of that, to be honest, I wasn’t paying rapt attention to the mixed doubles matches on the auxiliary courts.

When it was over, when you might have expected Agassi to be a little testy about losing to a player who might have asked for his autograph last year, he was most gracious. Save for a couple of curt replies to a reporter with whom Agassi is feuding, he did not crack wise.

It wasn’t me. Honest. The only time I have spoken to Agassi long enough to make him mad about something was when he got me out of bed when he was in Cincinnati at one of those clay court tournaments to talk about one of his many charitable causes, and if he was mad at me, it was only because I kept dozing off during our conversation.

“If my side of the court was colder, then I’d be the first one bitching about the temperature,” Andre said about the brisk conditions. Only he was smiling again.

If it was all an act, wife Brooke Shields would have been proud. And if it was an act, it was better than Brooke’s work on “Suddenly Susan.”

Little did we know that Andre was headed for a marital breakup and eventual second marriage to fellow tennis star Steffi Graf while Brooke was headed for a cameo on “Two and a Half Men.”

Tennis' penchant for tolerating boorish behavior aside, what Agassi said to the chair umpire crossed the line between acceptable ploy and unacceptable behavior. But with the exception of that Teller guy who does magic (or is it Penn?), we all say something we regret. Fortunately, most of us don’t do it in a crowded tennis stadium where women and children are present.

Like the talking head on the news Tuesday night who suggested the only reason Agassi is kissing and telling is because it sells books. Maybe Jimmy Connors still owes him $20, but it’s not like Agassi needs the money this book is going to generate.

Leaving the crowded tennis stadium, a crowd of mostly women and children had formed outside the main gate. They were waving programs and tennis balls and scraps of paper in Agassi’s face, hoping he would sign every item. He tried to accommodate them.

It might not have been an apology for acting like — well, what a donkey digs. But it was close.

Just like that ball the umpire said was out.

I have no earthly idea why Andre Agassi decided to say the things he did for this book. If he was brought up Catholic, I would understand it a little better, because just the other day I called my mom to tell her I was the one who took the Nestle’s Crunch bar out of my little sister’s lunchbox when I was in fifth grade and confessed to my wife that I thought the waitress at Applebee’s who brought us our Pick n’ Pair Lunch Combo in 2002 was sorta cute. When you grow up Catholic, guilt is a serious cross to bear.

I do not condone recreational drug use, but I do not condemn those who do, if for no other reason than I went to college and succumbed to peer pressure. But I admire those who can come to grips with their demons, or former demons, in whatever way works for them, or brings them peace of mind.

Closure can be a wonderful thing, even if you are writing a book and don’t need the money.

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