Inside Agassi and Becker’s secret rivalry
[For my new post on the Agassi-Chang rivalry, click here]
By now everyone should know about Andre Agassi’s explosive admission that he used crystal meth (the dangerous drug otherwise known as ‘ice’) in 1997, tested positive, then got away with it by writing a simple explanation letter to the ATP. However, very few people know about the underlying reason for this seemingly pointless admission – Agassi’s ongoing contest with Boris Becker to see who can dominate the tennis spotlight.
What? I hear you say. Allow me to explain.
All one has to do is to take a look at the careers and post-career lives of these two great tennis champions.
Boris Becker played 15 years of professional tennis, was number 1 in the world and claimed 6 grand slam titles. Andre Agassi, on the other hand, stuck around for 20 years, was also number 1 in the world at some stage, and bagged 8 grand slam titles, including the rare career grand slam. Strictly speaking, Agassi has probably had a slightly more impressive career based on titles alone. Further, Agassi has a 10-4 record against Becker, including a 4-1 record in grand slam matches. The first set goes to Agassi, 6-4.
However, the real battle between these two warriors took place outside the tennis courts. Both men craved the spotlight, and it was only a matter of time before they started trying to outdo each other.
Boris Becker, with his attacking style, struck first, marrying famous photographer Barbara Feltus in 1993 by first getting her pregnant. The couple also caused shockwaves when they posed nude together in a photo taken by Babara’s father before the wedding. Becker had captured the spotlight of the tennis world off the court, and for a while, there was no one to challenge him.
Enter Andre Agassi, who either intentionally or inadvertently stole the spotlight from Becker with a high profile celebrity wedding of his own. Agassi, the natural baseliner known for his defensive brilliance, took his time, dating actress Brooke Shields from 1993 (perhaps already with Becker in mind) and wedding her in 1997. It was a stormy relationship that the media feasted on, snatching away the attention so dearly craved by Becker. Easy second set for Agassi, 6-2.
Frustrated, Becker planned his next move, only to be caught off-guard by a pre-emptive strike from Agassi, who rocked the tennis world again by ending his marriage with Brooke Shields in April 1999. Not to be outdone, a furious Becker initiated a separation from his own wife in December of the same year. To kick it up a notch, there was the whole debacle surrounding the pre-nup the couple signed, which brought more media scrutiny than even Becker had hoped for. Thanks to the messy divorce settlement, Becker finally edged Agassi this time in a tie-break, 7-6 (11-9).
From here, both tennis greats stepped up their games and took the rivalry to a new level. First Agassi began dating one of the greatest female tennis players of all time, Steffi Graf, after the French Open champion’s ball in 1999. Two of the greatest of all time dating? It was a strange doubles combination, that’s for sure, but think about the kids they’d have!
But Becker brought his A-game this time and dropped a bombshell on Agassi and the tennis world by revealing that he had impregnated a waitress in the broom closet of Nobu in London after his last match in 1999 (following Wimbledon). Just to milk it a bit more, Becker initially denied paternity, claiming that he was an ‘unseeded’ player, until a DNA test confirmed what he had known all along.
Nevertheless, the impact was undeniable. Becker was king of the headlines once more, and as a result people barely flinched when Agassi and Graf married in 2001. A big comeback for Becker, 6-1 in the fourth set!
From here, with the match tied 2 sets apiece (6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 1-6), the two men were exhausted and struggled to come up with new material. Agassi and Graf started pumping out kids and made a few headlines when they played doubles together. Becker, on the other hand, went through a custody battle and another broken engagement through which he was dumped by text message. It was all very tame and both men were having difficulty coping without controversy.
Becker even tried to relive some of his best moments when he recently (a week before Agassi’s latest revelations) declared that the daughter he had with the waitress was actually conceived on an uncomfortable set of stairs as opposed to a broom closet. Regardless, he admitted in shame that it was the quickest match he had ever played, prompting suggestions that there were other reasons apart from his powerful serve that earned him the nickname ‘Boom Boom’. Indeed, the waitress recently likened Becker to a “runaway train” in her new tell-all book In One Breath (named after the length of the encounter).
Just when the two champions appeared to be heading down an endless fifth set with each unable to break the serve of the other, Agassi stunned the world with his latest drug revelations. One of the greatest tennis players of all time not only took ice, but he had also gotten away with it! Let’s not forget, 5 of Agassi’s 8 grand slams were won after 1997 – if he had been banned from tennis the way he should have, then Becker probably would have won their secret contest already.
The disappointment in Becker was apparent for all to witness in his latest interview, where he said: ”I’m the last person to throw stones, as there have been some difficult times in my own life (emphasis added), but to hear that he took crystal meth, that certainly puts a whole new light on Andre. And it’s not a beautiful light.”
”There have been stories over the years about some tennis players taking drugs, but maybe they were just stories, and now Andre, a big star, has been so open about what he took and how he lied to avoid punishment. I’m struggling to think of anything else in tennis that comes close to this.” At this point, Boris whipped out some old newspaper clippings of his Nobu scandal, but no one seemed to notice.
”Andre didn’t just take drugs, he also tested positive for drugs and then got away with it, and that’s not good at all for tennis, especially for the governing bodies,” Becker said. ”People are going to be thinking, ‘How could this happen? How could he get away with this?’”
Clearly, the fact that Agassi ‘got away with it’ has plagued Becker, who added: “If it had been made public in 1997 that Andre was using drugs, his career, and his life, would have been very different. He wouldn’t be where he is today. Maybe his career would not have survived if everyone knew that he had taken drugs, and if he was banned from the tour for a while. But no one knew until now, and it was after he took crystal meth that he played some of the best tennis of his life. He won many grand slams after that.”
For the last person to throw stones, that’s certainly a lot of rocks!
Perhaps sensing that defeat was inevitable, Becker threw in a futile last-ditch effort, reminding everyone that in his own memoir, he admitted to washing down sleeping pills with whisky. I’m sure he wanted to say: “That’s almost as bad as ice!” Unfortunately, victory had already slipped out of his grasp.
Game. Set. Match.
Agassi defeats Becker, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (11-9), 1-6, 27-25, in their secret contest.