Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi

The leanness is gone, there's a distinct paunch and he readily concedes he was never as good as his wife on a tennis court. But Andre Agassi is more of a champion today than he ever was in his playing days.

Ex-India cricket captain Rahul Dravid meets Andre Agassi during a promotional event in a city hotel yesterday. Pic/Ashraf Engineer  and Suresh Karkera
Ex-India cricket captain Rahul Dravid meets Andre Agassi during a promotional event in a city hotel yesterday. Pic/Ashraf Engineer  and Suresh Karkera

Brutally honest
Why? Because his honesty is more brutal than his return of serve or the two-handed missiles he fired at his opponents from across the court.

We saw it first in his autobiography 'Open' and it burns as bright. In it is a glimpse of what makes for a champion. Victory on the court, Agassi pointed out at a Q&A session with cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle yesterday, isn't what closes the circle on life or career.

Forced into tennis - which he hated - by a fiercely -driven father, Agassi felt "winning would be the road to peace". Sadly, it only pulled him deeper into the morass of despair.

Languishing at 141 in the world rankings in 1997, the golden boy of tennis decided to quit being what everyone else wanted him to be. It was only when he shook off the expectations after he found himself at the bottom, "that I was more connected with myself than I ever was before". All he knew, he said, was that "I could be better tomorrow than I was yesterday".

What Agassi was telling India Inc at the rebranding of India Value Fund Advisors (IVFA) to 'True North' was that success doesn't come in a blaze of glory; it is a peak scaled one step at a time.

With that epiphany, Agassi made the biggest one-year leap into the top 10 in the history of tennis rankings, reaching No. 6 in 1998.

The next year was his most successful ever, with triumphs at the French and US opens and a runners-up salver at Wimbledon. He finished the year at No. 1 at age 29.

He was briefly No. 1 in 2003 too, the oldest player (33 years, 13 days) to achieve the ranking.

Steffi better to watch?
But Agassi is quick to point out, a twinkle bright in his eye, that Steffi Graf, his wife, was the player to watch. He thinks he's got the better deal there too, "if she leaves me, I get half of her titles."

Beneath the humour there is fierce belief in his way of life. "Success and failure are illusions. How you do, what you do makes all the difference," he asserts. It's a philosophy he's passed on to his children - a son (Jaden Gil) who plays baseball and a daughter (Jaz Elle) who is passionate about hip-hop dance.

"We don't choose what they do, but we expect them to live up to a standard in what they pursue as well as life in general," he said.

Bhogle was right when he said of Agassi: "He used to be a tennis player, but he's a full-time philosopher now."

At the back of the room, another champion nodded imperceptibly. After all, he lived these values too. His name is Rahul Dravid.