Local writer helps pen Agassi book The Agassi Story, the autobiography of Mike Agassi (Andre’s father) co-written by occasional NUVO freelancer Kate Shoup Welsh, is a first-person account of his family’s unique story, one that takes the reader from Russia and Armenia — his parents’ homeland, from which they fled — to Iran. As a poor child during World War II, he was introduced to tennis at the American Mission Church where American and British G.I.s played on dirt tennis courts, giving Mike candy in exchange for retrieving balls. He became an Olympic boxer for Iran in 1948 and 1952, the year he immigrated to America. It’s also a story about Mike as a father and his sometimes-strenuous relationship with Andre. The book was released at the U.S. Open this fall and is $24.95 and distributed by ECW Press. ISBN 1-55022-656-8; 260 pages. NUVO: Why did Mike write this book?
Kate Shoup Welsh: I think writing it was a healing process. In all honesty, I don’t think he was inclined to do it because he didn’t believe anybody would be interested in his story. And, he’s never been the kind of guy to seek the limelight or muscle in on Andre’s fame. He’s not trying to say, “Look at me and how important I am and look at what I did for my kid.” It’s an interesting story and one that should be told. I remember the first time I went out to visit him [at his home in Las Vegas]. I walked in the door and he was like, “Is anybody going to want to read this?”
NUVO: Is it true that Bud Collins, at the RCA Tennis Championships, told you he didn’t want to read your book?
KSW: Right. I gathered that he felt that the book was going to be like “Yay! Look at me! I’m so great and Andre would have never made it without me!” kind of story. That’s not what it is at all. It’s a story about a father and his son and a father and his family. I didn’t want it to be a book that just talked all about the great things, but rather an honest, complex book that captured his complex character.
NUVO: Mike came across as bitter when recalling others’ resentment of his children’s talents and telling horror stories from competing in juniors. Was he a stage dad?
KSW: I think that there was a lot of dissension about him when his kids were in juniors because he was very aggressive. He did challenge every shot. He did heckle from the court. He would coach the kids from the stands. He did all kinds of things that just aren’t done. A lot of what people interpreted as asshole-ishness was really just him looking out for his own kids and trying to ensure that they didn’t get screwed over. The fact is he really didn’t know how to work the system the way other parents did. He wasn’t on tournament committees. He was really aware of the fact that he wasn’t a doctor or a lawyer when so many of the tennis parents were. He was a casino worker from Las Vegas and I think that put them at a disadvantage right from the very beginning. He was very aware of that and maybe a little bit oversensitive. Some of his behavior was looking out for his kids’ best interest, and I don’t mean to justify it. In retrospect I think he really doesn’t think it was OK either.
NUVO: Mike makes apologies for pushing his kids in tennis and even for leaving Andre’s wedding reception to Brooke Shields.
KSW: I don’t think he exactly feels bad about those things. He’s aware that his actions affected his kids in a negative way and he wishes that that hadn’t been so. He’d probably do a lot of things the same given the chance to do it all over again … although [laughing] he said he’d teach them golf instead.
NUVO: What does his family think of the book?
KSW: Mixed feelings. It’s amazing how hard it is to get them to read it. One of his daughters, Tami, has always understood him in a way that’s different from how his other three children perceive him, partially because he was easier on her. She told me I had captured sweetness about him that she had always known. My goal with the book was to try to create a portrait of him that’s honest and not overly flattering. I didn’t see it as a big apology vehicle.
NUVO: Any reaction from Andre on the book?
KSW: I don’t believe he’s read it, and that’s unfortunate. I was conscious of not hijacking Andre’s story. I was very sensitive about that when I was writing. I wanted to make sure it was Mike’s story. Unfortunately, Mike and Andre have never really learned to communicate with each other very effectively.
NUVO: Will these stories be new to die-hard tennis and Agassi fans?
KSW: There haven’t been many articles about the dad, so there is stuff that’s never been heard before. If you’re a huge Andre fan and have read everything about Andre you’d learn about the extent to which his dad has affected his life. Will you read stories about Andre that you’ve never read before? Yes, some.
NUVO: Good dad or bad dad?
KSW: Both. He really focused on his kids and was involved with them in a way that many fathers at that time weren’t, especially with his older daughter, Rita, who was born in 1960. He changed her diapers, took her with him to work when he was coaching tennis at the Tropicana and taught her how to play. He didn’t teach her how to play a ladies game, he taught her how to play hard. He deserves credit for that. He was strict and demanding. He did live somewhat vicariously through his children, but he didn’t give up his own life and identity. He never quit his casino job to follow Andre on the tour after turning pro like so many parents do. He didn’t want to leach off of Andre the way a lot of tennis parents do — they mismanage their money. When Andre bought his parents a house, Mike wasn’t comfortable with that.
NUVO: The book is written in such a way that the reader feels like they are having a private conversation with Mike. Part of which is the informal language and turn of phrases like, “Hitting the snot out of the ball,” or “nowadays.” It’s conversational, sometimes humorous, and written in Mike’s voice.
KSW: I hope so. I did tons of research before I met with him and to just write the book proposal and table of contents. The flow of our conversation mirrored the structure that I had already set up, which really helped.
NUVO: It’s critical and straightforward — nothing is sugarcoated.
KSW: That is very much him. He is very blunt. He’ll tell you what he’s thinking. He’s pretty opinionated.