Agassi’s crisp returns to Vijay’s tricky serves

Vinay Kamath Chitra Narayanan Kochi | Updated on February 26, 2019

Vijay Amritraj and Andre Agassi shared a sparkling conversation at the IAA World Congress in Kochi

Andre Agassi aced the conversation with Vijay Amritraj, and won hearts with lessons on purpose and determination

Vijay Amritraj started with a tricky serve. “So, Andre, now that you are in Kochi, what do you think of the famed Malabar fish curry?” Agassi returned it with a smashing retort, “Vijay, I will be out of shape if I stayed any longer in Kochi!”

At the IAA World Congress in Kochi last week, delegates were treated to a delightful serving of questions by tennis legend Vijay and rapid volleys by eight-time Grand Slam and Olympic gold winner, Andre Agassi.

Vijay, the consummate conversationlist, drew Agassi out to talk about his on-court exploits as well as his off-court activities — notably his foundation for children’s education. Agassi, who has raised nearly $200 million for philanthropy, was introduced on stage as the “most charitable athlete” of his generation.

Battling demons

The tennis ace who had penned the autobiographical book Open was fairly candid on stage when asked about his very first Grand Slam win — Wimbledon in 1992. He had played and lost in his earlier two Grand Slam final appearances and the going appeared tough at Wimbledon against Goran Ivanisevic, whose booming services had taken him to the finals. Agassi described how he battled many internal demons when playing tennis. “I just happened to be good at a sport that I hated,” he said, describing his initial lack of motivation.

“When I won, the emotion I had was of relief. No longer would I be considered the greatest underachiever in sport,” he said. “Winning did not mean that much to me as I knew I would have to go out and prove myself all over again.”

And, what about the champions dance, Andre? asked Vijay. Did you dance with Steffi Graf (whom he would eventually marry). “Well, she was always winning so any male Wimbledon champion could dance with her (roars from the audience).. . but I was so looking forward to the dance and I even went to Harrods and bought a tuxedo and you know they said there won’t be a champions dance that year. So, I never wore that tux again!”

“And, you were the best male player and yet you go home and be the number two!” quipped Vijay. “Of your Grand Slam victories, which was the most important one?” asked Vijay. “It has to be the 1999 French Open, because I was coming back from such hopelessness. As my coach Brad Gilbert told me, get back to the basics and control what you can control.” Agassi described how he went the cycle from success to failure (the nadir was when he slipped to 140 in ATP rankings), to finally finding purpose and taking ownership of his life.

Retirement, the other side

On retirement, Agassi said: “I didn’t know what’s on the other side. Tennis had given me a platform for the rest of my life and I could raise $200 million to fund a school I had started for ‘at-risk’ kids.” There are 1,200 kids in the school in Las Vegas today. On contemporary men’s tennis, Agassi said: “Novak is 31 but his body is that of a 25-year-old. Novak can overtake Federer; if he wins Paris again, it will be a Grand Slam all over again. I stopped predicting about Federer as I have been wrong so many times,” he said.

This was Agassi’s fifth trip to India — his philanthropic activities have brought him to Mumbai several times, and he described how through Square Panda, he helps young children learn. Asked about his first reaction to India, Agassi said it was the same as any other visitor with the obvious impression of wealth disparity.

But after his next few trips, he said, “I realised it was not the disparity between the rich and poor that hits you, but the disparity of hope. The fact that even with education and hard work, you may not be able to break out of your situation.” This is why, he said, it was important to prevent the feeling of hopelessness among young Indians.

As for winning the hearts of the audience in Kochi, it was game, set and match to Agassi as he shared important lessons on purpose, determination, resilience and sharing .

Published on February 25, 2019

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