An expectant crowd awaits tennis favorite Andre Agassi as he prepares to walk onto court at Roland Garros in 1990. It will be his first tilt at a Grand Slam honor, and he’s expected to win. But something that the excited audience could never have guessed is bothering Agassi. In fact he had an extraordinary secret weighing down on his head.
Agassi enjoyed a remarkably successful career in tennis, where his by turns powerful and artful game scooped him many titles. Despite losing in the French Open final in 1990 he would go on to win eight Grand Slam crowns. On top of those, he took more than 50 other titles, including Olympic gold and helped his country to triumph in three Davis Cups.
The powerful strokemaker took his first Grand Slam in London when he won Wimbledon in 1992. He would follow that up with a win in 1994’s U.S. Open and then success in Melbourne at the Australian Open the next year. A fallow period then followed, but Agassi rose again to win the U.S. and French slams in 1999.
Still, it wasn’t only tennis that brought Agassi attention. Handsome and metrosexual, he sported luscious, flowing locks that featured on a million bedroom walls. Wolf whistles would ring out when the hirsute athlete needed a shirt change. No wonder the sponsors queued up for him, with Nike eventually winning his signature on a money-spinning deal.
Yet nothing lasts forever and that was equally true of Agassi’s tennis career. Having come into the world with a problem in his spine, he found himself plagued with problems with his back. In 2006 after missing competitions because of the issue, he finally quit. Strangely, he wasn’t sorry: as he later told U.K. newspaper The Guardian in 2017, “It’s remarkable, but if I went back in time I would probably retire sooner.”
Agassi began life in 1970, the son of an Iranian immigrant who had once been a boxer at the Olympic Games. However, Agassi Sr. did not see a future in the ring for his son: instead, he wanted him to excel at tennis. To that end, he had the star-to-be do endless practice in the yard of their home in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The coaching proved successful, with Agassi showing enough ability to justify moving into a full-time training schedule by the time he reached his middle teens. To get it, he shifted base to Florida, where he studied at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Before long, Agassi was proving a champion at youth level, and by age 16 the junior world was no longer big enough for his burgeoning talent.
It’s fair to say that the young Agassi caught the eye when he made his entrance into the professional world. Rocking his trademark splendorous locks and non-traditional colorful clothes, he cut a fine figure. Some were suspicious that he was all flash, no substance, but the naysayers were proved wrong as he rose up the ranks, culminating in that maiden slam success at Wimbledon in 1992.
Once Agassi had the Grand Slam under his belt, there was no stopping him. On his way to World Number One status three years later he scooped two more Grand Slams. The next year, he represented the USA at the Olympic Games, wowing a home crowd in Atlanta, Georgia, by taking gold.
The gold-medalist had also become a constant in the tabloids. His affair with Barbra Streisand gained plenty of column inches, but he seemed to have found true love with the actress Brooke Shields. According to Shields, Agassi courted her – if you’ll pardon the pun – by “sending long heartfelt faxes” while she was filming in South Africa.
The marriage with Shields would turn out to be sometimes stormy, despite the support the lovebirds enjoyed from their respective communities. Shields had no regrets though: as she remembered in her 2014 autobiography, “The whole relationship with him was so necessary. He gave me my first taste of freedom from my mom. He swept me away.”
But it wouldn’t last, and two years later, the pair were no longer a couple. Agassi wasn’t put off the idea of marriage, though: he’d walk down the aisle once more in 2001. This was a real wedding of stars, with Steffi Graf, herself a renowned tennis champion, taking her vows.
The marriage proved successful, and the two are still together today, living in Agassi’s Las Vegas hometown. These days Agassi has turned his formidable energy to philanthropy. His focus is on education, helping children who are at risk to enjoy opportunities in learning and sports. He’s even opened a school in the Nevadan city.
But despite a life of glamour and success, Agassi did not feel entirely good about his tennis career. In his 2009 autobiography, Open, Agassi wrote, “I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.” It seemed the darkness drove him to seek comfort from illicit pursuits.
In his book, the tennis star revealed that his failure of form in the late 1990s and concern over his wedding to Shields had led him to drug use. He described the experience in stark terms, writing, “There is a moment of regret followed by vast sadness.” And the grind of top-level tennis would take its toll too.
The hardcourt hero outlined how he felt towards the end, too. The book read, “I’m a young man, relatively speaking. Thirty-six. But I wake as if 96. After two decades of sprinting, stopping on a dime, jumping high, and landing hard, my body no longer feels like my body. Consequently, my mind no longer feels like my mind.”
Agassi had grown tired of tennis, and the reason was that it had all been too much. He’d never been allowed to choose not to play: his father had forced him when he was young and from then on events had taken on their own momentum. The lack of power over his own life had led Agassi to detest the sport that had given him so much with a passion.
In his autobiography, the star talks about reaching the number-one spot. He wrote, “I’ve knocked Pete [Sampras] off the mountaintop. The next person who phones is a reporter. I tell him that I’m happy about the ranking, that it feels good to be the best that I can be.” But Agassi is not telling the truth.
“It’s a lie,” Agassi continued. “This isn’t at all what I feel. It’s what I want to feel. It’s what I expected to feel, what I tell myself to feel. But in fact I feel nothing.” And if this realization of his own emptiness would have shocked his many fans, another secret would be an equally large shock.
In the same year that he topped the rankings, Agassi shaved off his long locks. He told website Business Insider, “When I did that, I never felt freer in my life.” He further expressed how good it had felt to rid himself of his magnificent mane, saying, “It was like a weight off my shoulders.”
As it turns out, Shields had given him the idea of removing his hair. He wrote, “She said I should shave my head. It was like suggesting I should have all my teeth out.” But he was able to convince himself, he added, writing, “Nevertheless, I thought for a few days about it, about the agonies it caused me, the hypocrisy and lies.”
And once Agassi had shaved off the hair that had been his trademark ever since he’d entered the public eye, the change was amazing. In just 11 minutes, he’d been transformed. He told how surprising the difference was even for him, writing, “A stranger stood before me in the mirror and smiled.”
At the same time that the superstar mentioned the shaving in his autobiography, he dropped a bombshell. The hair that he’d taken off had not all been exactly his. He said, “My wig was like a chain and the ridiculously long strands in three colors like an iron ball which hung on it.”
Yes, Agassi had been wearing a wig because of hair loss that had plagued him for years. He wrote, “Every morning I would get up and find another piece of my identity on the pillow, in the wash basin, down the plughole.” And how could he fix that? He added, “I asked myself: you want to wear a toupee? On the tennis court? I answered myself; what else could I do?”
Indeed, Agassi had started to lose hair in his late teens. And for years, he’d been fooling the world with replacements, but doing so had not made him happy. He wrote, “I hated feeling like a fraud. When you’re not honest with yourself – that [feeling] got very tiring for me.”
The height of Agassi’s deception had been the eye-catching mullet that he had rocked. He was left rueing the style, telling Business Insider, “The truth is that if I found a picture of myself like that, I’d probably burn it.” Luckily for Agassi, pictures of the mullet are less common now than they were in the early 1990s!
But it wasn’t just despondency that fooling the world brought the troubled player. Fear of the wig hitting the deck led him to lose his first Grand Slam final. He had been playing scared, terrified that the hairpiece would drop from his head and cause a scandal in the media.
In 1990 Agassi had won his way through to the 1990 French Open final, where he was hotly fancied to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires. He was due to face the Ecuadorian Andrés Gómez, an ageing star whom Agassi thought was not too far from retiring. Confident, he prepared himself for battle.
But disaster would strike from a direction that Agassi could not have foreseen. A shower the night before the game brought what Agassi described as “catastrophe.” He described what happened in his autobiography, writing, “A fiasco happened. The evening before the match I stood under the shower and felt my wig suddenly fall apart.”
An aghast Agassi could do nothing but watch his hairpiece fall to bits in his grasp. The wig had become unweaved, leaving him with disconnected strands. He wrote, “Probably I used the wrong hair rinse.” Deciding he needed some help, he called in the cavalry. He added, “I panicked and called my brother Philly into the room.”
Although Agassi felt that disaster had struck, Philly showed admirable sangfroid. He had a solution: the wig could be restored with clips. Now he only had one problem: finding a bunch of bobby pins before the match started. Luckily, a morning scramble around the Paris shops proved successful and the pair managed to restore the hairpiece.
In the end, the two brothers needed 20 of the hair clips to do the job. “Do you think it will hold?” asked the tennis legend. His brother shrugged, “Just don’t move so much.” Perhaps not the best advice for a sportsman! But Agassi took it to heart. He wrote, “During the warming-up training before play I prayed. Not for victory, but that my hairpiece would not fall off.”
Agassi spent the game tormented by images of his hairpiece on the court surface, having dropped from his head and landed “on the clay, like a hawk my father shot from the sky.” He imagined the astonishment of fans looming up to their TVs, thinking, “Did Andre Agassi’s hair just fall off?”
Indeed, the legend created high comedy from the terror that he had felt, when he described it in Open. He wrote, “With each leap, I imagine it falling into the sand. I imagine millions of spectators move closer to their TV sets, their eyes widening and, in dozens of dialects and languages, ask how Andre Agassi’s hair has fallen from his head.”
But couldn’t Agassi simply have gone out without his wig and simply been bald and proud? Well, in Open he answered that very question, writing, “Of course I could have played without my hairpiece, but what would all the journalists have written if they knew that all the time I was really wearing a wig?”
Distracted by his hairpiece, Agassi fell to defeat in what at the time was thought to be a huge upset. Yet in retrospect, Gómez was a tough opponent – despite never having lifted a Grand Slam trophy – and perhaps Agassi just wasn’t ready to justify the hype at a mere 20 years old.
A few years later, another Grand Slam final defeat was clouded by fears over the star’s wig. This time it had been a grueling five-set battle against Austrian Thomas Muster. And it was no upset: Muster was so good in 1994 on the surface used at the French Open that he had the nickname “the King of Clay.” Of course, we should acknowledge that these days that particular term has been definitively appropriated by 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal.
After a big tennis game, it’s customary for players to shake hands. But Muster had an extra gesture in mind. To Agassi’s horror, the Austrian reached for his head. Agassi wrote in Open, “At net he rubs my head, musses my hair.” Given the lack of security of Agassi’s “hair,” this outraged the pin-up player.
Agassi recalled his fury at the Austrian’s gesture in his autobiography. He wrote, “Apart from being condescending, his gesture nearly dislodges my hairpiece. ‘Good try,’ he says.” And for sure, Muster had not made a new friend that afternoon. Agassi continued, “I stare at him with pure hatred. Big mistake, Muster.”
His secret nearly revealed, Agassi fumed. He wrote, “Don’t touch the hair. Don’t ever touch the hair.” And that wasn’t all: the American made a vow to Muster. He continued, “Just for that, I tell him at the net, ‘I’ll make you a promise. I’ll never lose to you again.’” Amazingly, he was as good as his word; the Austrian never beat him after that.