While Telling His Life Story, Andre Agassi Teaches Basic Economics
When Nick Bollettieri first saw a teenage Andre Agassi play tennis, he was floored. That he was says a lot about Agassi’s game. Figure that Bollettieri had famously been coaching some of the world’s best players for years, but after watching Agassi hit he called Mike Agassi to excitedly tell him “Your boy has more talent than anybody I’ve ever seen come through this academy.”
While the initial plan was for Agassi to spend three months at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy given the school’s nosebleed tuition, Bollettieri quickly let Agassi’s father know that his son would be on scholarship for the rest of his time there. As he put it, “I’m going to take him to the top.”
Agassi relays the above, along with the rest of his life story in his excellent 2009 autobiography, Open. Tennis fans will find the book unputdownable. So will most sports fans. Those who don’t care about sports will be moved.
And then the economically focused will be better equipped to explain numerous economic concepts through Agassi’s retelling of his life. This is a very good book, and it’s also one that will be referenced by your reviewer quite a lot in the years ahead. In short, Agassi’s examples instruct about concepts well beyond tennis.
Up front, it should be said that Agassi was an indifferent student who ultimately dropped out of school in the ninth grade. Important here is that Agassi was far from stupid. He was very interested in literature and poetry classes, while not jazzed by math classes.
Where it gets interesting is that once a globally famous tennis player, Agassi raised tens of millions in order to found the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. In the book he regularly highlights the charter school as one of his greatest achievements, and the stories about it within Open are surely inspriring. Agassi has built an educational showpiece smack dab in a run-down part of Las Vegas. In the process he’s furthered the education of kids who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks. It’s a great story.
My question about all this would be how he squares it with his own life, along with his father's. In Agassi’s case, he’s once again far from stupid despite his lack of formal education. His life insights make that clear. Furthermore, one doesn’t reach the top of an intensely competitive sport on talent alone. So much of tennis is mental as Open reveals with great regularity.
As for Mike Agassi, Agassi writes that he “never worked a day in construction. He knew nothing about concrete, asphalt, water drainage. He read no books, consulted no experts. He just got a picture in his head and set about making that picture a reality.” What was the picture? It was of a home tennis court. Mike Agassi built the tennis court at their house outside Las Vegas on which he would train his children. He did this despite no formal training as a contractor, or tennis court designer.
The question that would be interesting to ask Agassi is where he sees education in the big picture. His father didn’t need it, nor realistically did Agassi himself. Both had and have knowledge and skills that seemingly cannot be taught. Hard work and passion arguably trump education by a mile when it comes to achieving one’s goals. Does Agassi agree, and if so, how does this inform the educational process at his school?
Moving to more economically-focused concepts, antitrust is rooted in the theory that some businesses can become so powerful that they vanquish all the competition. In the process they jack up prices, and generally control a market that is soon bereft of competition. Antitrust lawyers at the Department of Justice and other federal bureaucracies make it their business to weaken the businesses that they see as too strong to avoid the scenario about which they theorize.
On its own, the very concept is wildly arrogant. As business history makes very clear, antitrust officials invariably “discover” monopolies just as they’re about to not be. The histories of Standard Oil and Microsoft vivify the previous assertion very well. Furthermore, the ludicrous reasoning behind antitrust is that the present predicts the future, not to mention that lawyers free of commercial experience can predict the future of industries about which they have little realistic knowledge.
So with it hopefully established that antitrust is supported by intensely weak reasoning, those who still believe it serves a purpose would be wise to read Open. They should because in doing so, they’ll be met with regular commentary from Agassi about his #1 nemesis on the tennis court: Pete Sampras. The players came up together, starred during a similar timeframe, and invariably played against each other in numerous Grand Slam finals. As Agassi half-jokingly laments throughout about his opponent in tournament finals, “in the end I always lose, because there is always Pete. As always, Pete.”
Interesting about Sampras is that Agassi didn’t initially take him seriously. Despite Agassi’s immense talent and knowledge about tennis, he didn’t see it in Sampras. After crushing him 6-2, 6-1 at a 1989 tournament in Rome, Agassi concluded that he had “a long and painful slog ahead. I feel bad for the guy. He seems like a good soul. But I don’t expect to see him again on the tour, ever.” Agassi added that “He’ll be lucky to qualify [my emphasis] into tournaments.”
Sampras of course went on to become the most dominant tennis player of his generation, and easily one of the greatest of all time. His accomplishments include 14 Grand Slam or Major championships. Sampras’s evolution raises a basic question: if a tennis savant like Agassi couldn’t detect his future dominance, why should we presume that antitrust drones with very little business experience are capable of seeing into the future of commerce? Assuming they could, does anyone seriously believe they’d be working as DOJ salarymen?
Taking the above point further, Agassi is unafraid to hide his misses, and once again unabashedly acknowledges that he didn’t see a big tennis future for Sampras. Figure that a year after dismissing his talent in Rome, Agassi watched him play John McEnroe in the U.S. Open semifinals. As he remembers it,
“It doesn’t seem possible, but the kid I thought I’d never see again has reconstituted his game. And he’s giving McEnroe the fight of his life. Then I realize he’s not giving McEnroe a fight – McEnroe is giving him a fight, and losing. My opponent tomorrow, incredibly, will be Pete.”
Agassi was the “can’t miss” tennis prodigy, while Sampras was forgettable. Readers can imagine where this is going. They won’t need to look up on the internet the winner of the 1990 U.S. Open final. Nor will they have to look up the 1991 winner of the French Open final between Agassi and Jim Courier. About his opponent at Roland Garros, Agassi recalls from the Bollettieri Tennis Academy that “I was so much better than Courier, so much more favored by Nick.” In this case Agassi and Bollettieri somewhat misread the future. While Courier never had the career that Sampras or Agassi did, the proverbial “tortoise” in Courier reached the Grand Slam mountaintop more quickly than Agassi too.
Still, the real economic story here is Sampras. It’s a trade story. We close off lanes of trade, and harm everyone (including ourselves) in the process. While Sampras at least nominally deprived Agassi of several more major wins, the story is more nuanced. As Agassi recalls after yet another loss to Sampras in what was a Wimbledon final, “Pete tells me he never saw me hit the ball as hard and clean as I did those first six games, and it made him raise his game, amp up his serve by twenty miles an hour.” Yes. We all intuitively get Sampras’s point. These two tennis giants brought out the best in each other. That’s what trade does. It’s competition. It forces everyone to improve. It’s not zero-sum. Small thinkers will say without Sampras (or vice versa) that Agassi would have more Grand Slam wins, but unknown is how much less of a player Agassi would have been absent Sampras’s endless success forcing him to improve, and how much less of a player Sampras would have been if not for Agassi.
Further expanding on the Sampras point, the competition that free trade ensures is not just great for the competitors. Applied to tennis, the game was better and more watched precisely because of the rivalry between Agassi and Sampras. The two fought endlessly on the court for victories, and the winners were tennis fans. Trade in the commercial sense is no different. Not only does it bring out the best in those competing, but it’s plainly best for the consumer too simply because the competition among producers forces endless improvements among those competing feverishly to serve our needs. It cannot be repeated enough that there are no losers or victims of free and open trade. It’s only winners. Period.
What about recessions? Economists, politicians and pundits talk endlessly about “fighting” them. They seek policies to avert them. They miss the point. Recessions are the cure.
In Agassi’s case, his tennis career had many peaks and valleys. By 1997 he’d reached a very deep valley. What’s important is that he ran to it. That he ran to it, that he didn’t avoid what brought him low, is what set the stage for quite the revival. As he put it amid a horrid stretch that had reduced a then three-time Grand Slam winner to playing $3,500 (total prize money) “qualifiers” in public parks in forgettable cities like Burbank, “Unless I can accept that I’m where I’m supposed to be, I’ll never belong there again.” For Agassi, “there” was the finals of Grand Slam tournaments like the Australian, French and U.S. Opens, along with Wimbledon.
Importantly, Agassi’s personal recession was necessary for him to get back to the top. Applied to “economies,” they’re just people. They’re just individuals. And because they're just individuals, it's hopefully easy to see why recessions are so important. And also why it’s so necessary for governments to get out of the way when economies recess. The declines are a sign of the recovery on the way simply because recessions signal a cleansing of all the bad habits and mistakes that brought on the downturn to begin with.
Agassi’s recession that reduced him to “qualifiers” proved particularly cleansing. Two years later he was the #1 ranked player in the world, and during that time he added three Grand Slam victories to his resume. As his coach (the endlessly interesting Brad Gilbert) described it to the Washington Post, Andre’s “got a 27-1 match record over the last four Grand Slams. Only Rod Laver, Don Budge, and Steffi Graf have ever done better.” In the regular economy, politicians and economists medicate downturns to our endless detriment.
Regarding taxes, Agassi quips about halfway through Open that “I understand that there’s a tax on everything in America. Now I discover that this is the tax on success in sports – fifteen seconds of time for every fan.” Agassi's point is that the more successful he was as a tennis player, the less time he had for himself, his girlfriend, and realistically the practice that enabled the initial success. About the quote, Agassi is alluding to the cost of success and the subsequent demands that have the potential to neuter it, but at the same time he hits on something that requires stress. As this column regularly states, people get rich in this country generally as a result of achieving remarkable things; frequently through innovations that make life easier, extend life, or that make life much more enjoyable. Despite this, the achievers pay the most in taxes, by far. Why? It's understandable that fame can shrink free time. That's understood. What will never be understood is why achievement brings with it such a large tax bill.
Returning to Agassi’s preparatory school in Las Vegas, he understood well that the more he played tennis, and the better that he played tennis, the more money that he could raise for his school. As he so crucially put it about his aversion to retirement from professional tennis (he ultimately hung it up in 2006), “Many people benefit from every tennis ball I hit.” Oh my, Agassi’s statement explains so much. It instructs about so many things.
On the subject of inequality, Agassi’s comment is a reminder that a rising wealth gap is a sign of progress, a sign of the achievements of the very few benefitting many. In Agassi’s case, he was one of the greatest tennis players to ever play the game. Agassi was very unequal to nearly everyone in the world. Economists and politicians bemoan the economic impact of inequality, but economies are once again people. Looked at through the prism of Agassi, was anyone hurt by his genius on the tennis court? No. At the same time, has anyone benefitted from his tennis genius? The answer is a resounding yes. Without the unequal, life would be brutal. They make the world go 'round. In fighting inequality we fight progress.
Agassi’s inequality also enabled endless giving by him. The obvious example is his preparatory school, but there are others. One of his favorite restaurants during his touring days was Campagnola. It’s located at 74th & 1st Street in Manhattan. Agassi was a regular, and became close friends with Frankie, the restaurant’s manager. At one point Frankie expressed worry about financing college education for his kids. Not long after Agassi set aside Nike shares to pay for the education of Frankie’s kids. Successful people in the U.S. are grand givers. Agassi has given away millions in additon to those Nike shares, while Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s charitable giving is legendary. When we seek penalties on rich individuals and rich corporations, we’re penalizing those most capable of acting generously.
Most important of all, every politician in the world should have Agassi’s line about how “Many people benefit from every tennis ball I hit” on their office walls. In bold. They should read it over and over again. They should because they need to remember that they’re only able to spend insofar as the Agassis of the world are hitting the proverbial balls. Sorry, but it’s true. Governments and politicians have no resources. They have nothing to give. They can only give insofar as the real producers are creating the wealth that makes their faux generosity possible.
Agassi’s quote is also a reminder of the certain fraud that is Keynesian economics. Keynesians believe government spending stimulates economic growth. No, it doesn’t. Government spending is on its very best day an economy-depressing effect of the actual economic growth that made it possible. Politicians aren’t hitting the balls as much as they’re spending the fruits of the hitting. They quite simply cannot stimulate prosperity. They can only spend it away. Agassi’s quote is yet another reminder of why we need politicians to get by on much, much less. Simply put, they’re not helping us unless they’re reducing their burden on us.
Late in Open, Agassi inserts a journal entry from his touring days. He was writing the entries for his son, Jaden. Agassi was in Shanghai playing in a tournament, but wished he was in Las Vegas with Jaden and his wife, Stefanie (retired tennis great, Steffi Graf). Still, his answer to Jaden for why he was where he didn’t want to be exists as an important life lesson for us all. It’s one that former BB&T Bank CEO John Allison regularly preaches; that a life well lived isn’t all about fun. It’s often about blood, sweat and tears. To Allison, it’s doing what is sometimes difficult that makes us, and that ultimately makes life fun. Agassi seems to agree. As he puts it to Jaden in the journal, “I wanted to quit and leave and go home and see you. It’s hard to stay and play, it’s easy to go home and be with you. That’s why I’m staying.”
That’s the quote that will close this review of what’s an excellent book. Agassi tells more than a life story. In telling us about his life he teaches about life, while also revealing new ways to explain economics. Although Agassi was never formally educated, his life educates. In so doing, he teaches the willing readers more about economics – and life – than most any economics teacher or life coach. Readers will very much enjoy Open, and they also learn a great deal from it.