“It is an illusion to think that setting goals and achieving them makes you happy.”
By Stefan Wagner.
Reprinted with permission from The Red Bulletin.
THE RED BULLETIN: Together you’ve won 30 Grand Slam tournaments, earned fortunes, achieved worldwide popularity and business success. You raise millions for children’s charities, look after young tennis players, have a strong marriage and are bringing up happy children. Everything you touch seems to be successful, but what was it like after the end of your tennis careers? Did you have to relearn what success is? A tennis tournament begins on a Monday, the goal is victory in the finals on Sunday: that’s relatively straightforward.
STEFANIE GRAF: And on the Monday you get the new rankings, which tell you where you stand. When I was still playing tennis, a friend once said to me, “You’re so lucky, you can say that you are the best in something.” Today I understand better than ever what he meant. This phrase provides a certain kind of security. A doctor or a therapist never knows exactly how good he really is, there’s always the question of whether or not he could be better.
Was it easier for you playing sport than it was afterwards?
SG: No, there were different questions. For example, whether the success that you have achieved is actually what you wanted to achieve. For a sports player these questions go even deeper with age.
ANDRE AGASSI: I have my own view of success.
AA: I believe success is an illusion.
But you won all four Grand Slams, over $31 million in prize money and were world number one. That is an illusion?
AA: Success in itself, as an end in itself, is an illusion. Whether it’s in sport or a charitable foundation. Let me put it this way: in the last year, Stefanie has helped 1,000 children with her Children for Tomorrow foundation – and even if it were 2,000, there are still umpteen thousand out there that she can’t help. Would you describe that as success?
It would be crazy not to.
AA: It wouldn’t, because you describe something as success that isn’t actually success. In tennis I learned that the final isn’t the goal, it can’t be. That would have meant, ‘Shit, on Monday it all starts again.’
Following your logic, Roger Federer isn’t a successful tennis player.
AA: He is, of course – but not because he’s won the most Grand Slam titles, but because he’s the all-time best, which he is beyond a doubt, and yet he still tries to develop. True excellence is the person who understands that success won’t come sometime in the future, but rather here, now. As soon as I understood that, a few important things became clear: it’s not what I do that’s important, it’s how I do it. I won’t accept not giving my best. I won’t accept not wanting to be better. Every day, I have to try to be better, no matter what the scoreboard says or what the world rankings say, or how much I’ve raised in donations.
But you can’t separate ‘success’ from goals which are objectively set and attained.
AA: Yes you can. In fact you have to. Try it! Set yourself a goal, work hard to achieve it – will it make you happy? No. It’s an illusion to think that setting goals and achieving them makes you happy.
How much money have you raised in the last 15-20 years for your charity projects?
SG: I concentrate on the necessary amount year by year. In total it’s millions, many millions.
AA: For me, over the years it’s been almost exactly $175 million.
And do you know how many children you’ve helped?
SG: In the past year it was 1,000 children, which was our highest number for 15 years.
AA: Recently we had 1,300 children per year in our academy.
But you must regard that as success?
AA: Success isn’t what comes out, but what you put in. Doing things completely or not at all. Caring about what you do. When it comes to charity: invest yourself in your project. Find out how you can make something exceptional out of it. Does your fame help? Do you have to collect donations yourself? Will you have to spend time away from your children to give interviews? Then you have to do it with all your heart. When it comes to tennis: find out what you’re responsible for, and concentrate on that. Work on your fitness, on your stroke. Don’t lie to yourself and look for shortcuts. Success isn’t a result. Success is a way of living you choose for yourself.
So success is subjective, not objective?
AA: When you see success as a goal, you’ll never be successful. Because it becomes like an addiction, you can never have enough. Never.
But how do you measure success?
SG: By how you feel when you go to bed at night.
More and more tennis pros come to you in Las Vegas to learn from you. What can you teach these players, some of whom are world class?
SG: Actually sometimes it is about technique. Not the basics, sure, but there’s often room for tips.
You once said that you could teach a young player in 10 minutes what you learnt in 10 years. What would happen in those 10 minutes?
AA: There are a few things that are important to me, simple things. For example, that there is only one important point you play in life, that is, the next one. And that you should concentrate on the things that you can influence –you can control your attitude, your work ethic, your concentration. If it’s windy or hot or something aches or you’re tired from the match yesterday, then you have to accept it. I also try to teach young players that tennis isn’t a sport where you’ll get perfection. There’s no 100 per cent tennis. There is only the 100 per cent that is within you on the day. It’s all about bringing out your own 100 per cent.
SG: I can’t put it as succinctly as Andre, I couldn’t fit it all in 10 minutes. Also I see my task a little differently: I don’t give life lessons. I prefer listening to talking.
In Open [Agassi’s gripping and brutally honest autobiography], there are descriptions of depressive episodes, even after winning Wimbledon and becoming number one in world rankings. Was the pain of losing really stronger than the joy of triumph?
AA: Yes, and that still applies.
How do you deal with it?
AA: I’ve learned to enjoy every moment. A good day with a major final, that’s a good moment. But you have to learn to value all the moments before that led to it. The moment of victory can’t be better than the moment of preparation. Learning that is pretty much a question of survival for a tennis player.
SG: Andre’s right. The feeling you have after a victory fades so quickly. What we call success has a terribly short half-life. You would have been amazed if you’d seen Andre or me after a major victory. There was some relief, maybe, but no rejoicing or excitement. After a major victory there’s an emptiness, a routine, ‘Let’s go home, we’re done here.’
That sounds really sad.
AA: Oh, it is. Learning to see things differently is utterly essential. The day in the weight room, on the training court– that has to count just as much as finals day at Wimbledon. Not understanding that can be dangerous, because you make bad mistakes. So you think, for instance, that money is important, but money is nothing more than an expansion of opportunities for spending your time. Money can’t make you happy. When you’re happy with the opportunities that come with less money, money completely loses its significance. Money is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Exactly the same as what you’ve been describing as success: Success isn’t an end in itself. Success doesn’t mean winning.
Not many world-famous sportspeople would say that. How does an athlete come to think like that?
SG: Life is a good teacher, whether you’re a tennis player or not. You just have to ask yourself one question and answer it honestly: is the life I live the life that I want to live?
Did you already have that attitude during your career?
AA: At 27 I was number one in the world, I had won Grand Slams, I had taken drugs, I was divorced, I fell to number 141. I was unhappy. And I had to make a decision: do I keep playing tennis or not? That was the moment when I thought, even if I didn’t choose tennis for myself, because my father did that for me, perhaps tennis will give me the opportunity to get my life together. To do that I needed some meaning in my life. The school I built was that meaning. And so tennis had a purpose, tennis allowed me to create and maintain something which is really important. Suddenly it was all completely simple: tennis became a tool with which I could do something I really wanted to do.
You said that fear is a great motivator. Given your life story, what you suffered as a child through fear and pressure – did you really mean that?
AA: The fear of losing is an important motivator. Fear of not making the best of a situation.
It seems as if you raise your children without fear. With your charities you try to make the lives of others easier.
AA: But the fear of losing stays. That doesn’t go away. Ignoring the fear doesn’t help. I have a fear of failing my children: that fear is good and right, because it keeps me alert.
Is there such a thing as a life without fear?
AA: We humans can love and hate, we feel joy and fear, all these emotions are within us. It would be wrong to try and turn one of them off. Quite apart from the fact that it would be impossible.
Can you raise a child to be successful in the conventional sense of the word?
AA: But you can screw it up.
SG: That’s something we’re really afraid of, that we screw up with our kids.
AA: You can teach someone to put the scoreboard ahead of everything. But that would be wrong. Children have to learn to push themselves every day. For themselves, not for anyone else, certainly not for a scoreboard. When you see the result on the scoreboard, that’s a bonus. But what’s on the scoreboard shouldn’t be the meaning of life. Life is bigger than any scoreboard.