In June 1999, on the eve of the Roland Garros final, Andre Agassi cowered in bed, sequestered in a Paris hotel. Two years earlier, he had been battling for scraps in public parks on the Challenger circuit, the pro tennis minor leagues. In his dark moments, he dabbled in meth. Now he was preparing to face Andrei Medvedev, one of the hottest players on tour, for the Roland Garros title. The moment was too much for him.

“They stand just inside the door and watch me open the minibar,” Agassi writes in his autobiography Open, referring to coach Brad Gilbert and trainer Gil Reyes. “I pour myself a huge vodka. Brad’s mouth falls open as I down the drink in one gulp . . . I’m sick nervous, Brad. I haven’t been able to eat a bite all day. I need to eat, and the only way I can eat is if I take the edge off . . . After dinner, when I get back to my room, I take a sleeping pill and slide into bed.”

Less than 24 hours later, Agassi beat Medvedv in five grueling sets, joining Rod Laver as just the second man in the Open era to complete the career Grand Slam. (In 2009, Roger Federer became the third.)

Booze and pills, turkey and wheat bread

While Agassi tossed back booze and sleeping pills before his biggest matches, Agassi’s dominant rival, Pete Sampras, prepared for these occasions with monkish discipline. His willingness to dedicate himself completely to “the gift,” as he calls his preternatural tennis talent in his autobiography A Champion’s Mind, helped him win 14 Grand Slams, second on the all time list behind Roger Federer’s 15 (and counting). But this same self-control may have cost him the French, and thus the career Grand Slam.

Sampras’ best result at Roland Garros was a 1996 semifinal loss to Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Although he’ll be forever immortalized as a fast-court player, Sampras could hold his own on dirt. He won the Italian Open in 1994. And in 1995, on muddy clay in Moscow,  Sampras almost single-handedly beat the Russian squad to win the Davis Cup for the United States.

In his run to the Roland Garros semifinals in 1996, Sampras took out two former champions, Sergi Bruguera and Jim Courier. “Beating Jim gave me a semifinal berth opposite Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and I liked my chances in that one. I liked them a lot,” Sampras writes in A Champion’s Mind. A shot at the title seemed to be within his grasp. “Down deep, I’d felt that it was my time at the French Open.”

In the 48 hours before the semifinal, Sampras was overcome by a craving for grease. “Looking back, I know I should have found a Pizza Hut in Paris and feasted on a greasy pie. But, disciplined guy that I am, I held out.” Sampras grazed on light pasta, broiled chicken, turkey on wheat bread . . . meals calibrated by a nutritionist not to satisfy a craving, but to deliver the precise combination of calories and nutrients to keep Sampras’ physical plant in good order.

Big mistake. Come the semifinal, Sampras had nothing. “I just hit an unexpected physical and mental wall. I was powerless to play better. I believe it had something to do with diet, which would help explain those bizarre cravings I’d had–and supressed.”

His last, best chance at the French Open had slipped through his fingers.

–Andy Clarke


3 responses to “Open/Mind

  1. “… Agassi beat Medvedv in five grueling sets, joining Rod Laver as just the second man in the Open era to complete the career Grand Slam.”

    This is not quite right, because Laver completed the career Grand Slam in 1962 (at a time when the term ‘career Grand Slam’ didn’t exist, though I know what you mean). What Laver did in the Open Era — his Grand Slam in 1969 — has nothing in common with what Agassi did. Andre never swept all four majors consecutively.

    I find Pete’s story intriguing, especially considering his anemia. He says his body was missing fat at that point. Whether his body could have processed fat in time for a match the next day, I don’t know. And he was facing extremely hot conditions after strenuous matches; and his anemia was not going anywhere, fat or no fat.

    And though he’d swept Kafelnikov in the Davis Cup matches, Kafelnikov had since beaten him, so Pete was facing a more confident Kafelnikov in Paris. It was a tough assignment all around. Stich was waiting in the final, the one man Sampras said he feared on the court.

  2. Forgot to sign in when I posted that comment, so I’m doing that now.

  3. Thanks for the clarification, Kevin.

    Good point about Sampras. In the autobio, he says he liked his chances against Kafelnikov, but I wasn’t aware that he’d then have to take down Stich.

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