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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

open.jpgAndre Agassi's autobiography came out early this week and the chapter that has drawn the most attention is his admission to using crystal meth through much of 1997, during a down-time in his career… and lying about it to tour officials. I've read the book, titled Open, and, for me, the crystal meth confession was the least revelatory of all the Agassi life stories.

On Sunday night's edition of 60 Minutes, correspondent Katie Couric read to Agassi some of Martina Navratilova's comments on the subject. She said she was "not so much shocked that he did it as shocked that he lied about it". And when Couric then quoted Navratilova as saying, as far as she's concerned, Andre is "up there with Roger Clemens," he immediately welled up with visible tears. And he choked back those tears to meekly ask for compassion rather than condemnation. Agassi's point, and it seems to me the point we need to get here, is that a lot of people facing pain and confusion in their lives turn to drugs for escape and for solace and for company. On 60 Minutes, Andre raised his eyebrows in reminding the audience that crystal meth is a "performance inhibitor," which is a fact both pharmaceutically correct and emotionally poignant. Roger Clemens' use of "performance enhancers" threw his athletic achievements under a shadow of doubt and then his lying about that drug use, to both baseball officials and a Congressional panel, meant disregard for Major League Baseball's attempt to clean their sport of performances achieved through unjust means. Andre Agassi was using a drug that was detrimental to both his physical and mental skills as an athlete. He was only human in his desperation to cope with a dark era in his life….and he was only human again in lying about it in order to avoid the shame of a three-month suspension.

Rafael Nadal has also been critical of the Agassi crystal meth admission. Rafa's take is that there is no sense in bringing up now, all these years later. The confession is a blight on the good name of the noble sport of tennis. Again, I disagree. It's eye-opening for us to know that a world-class athlete, someone we not only admire but envy, traveling the world, making a hundred million dollars over twenty years playing a beautiful game, can also feel the depths of despair. And he can also turn to behavior, taking debilitating drugs and lying about it, that he's ashamed of.

I actually found many of the sensitivities and insecurities revealed by Agassi in his book quite endearing…and quite unique for a male. For instance, he says he was truly hurt by the British tabloids calling him fat during a couple of his Wimbledon stays. When one of his girlfriends broke off their relationship after two years, he admits that he drove down the street, after their final farewell, and sobbed uncontrollably, slumped over his steering wheel. He describes in detail what panic he felt when his hair started falling out in a hurry at the age of 17. He wore a hair weave for years. Before a big match in Paris at the French Open, his hair piece fell apart and he was terrified that it would fly off his head in front of the big crowds at the match.

I've been an Andre Agassi fan from the days he rocked the night matches at the US Open in his denim shorts. I've had the pleasure of interviewing him through all the eras of his tennis career and always found him to be refreshingly introspective. And now in this book, Open, I find him even more fascinating. And more appealing. His keen intelligence, despite never even finishing ninth grade….his eye-of-the-tiger heart on the court, despite his admission that he literally threw a few big matches…all the candor is a gift of insight we are rarely privy to when it comes to the world's greatest athletes.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

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