The superstars who hate their sports
“I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.” So writes Andre Agassi in his autobiography, Open, published this week. It is 2006 and one of the world’s most fêted sports stars has just woken up in a New York hotel room, poised to play his last tournament.
But why would a great sportsman hate his sport? Why wouldn’t he love everything about it and all it brings to his life—travel, glamour, money, mass adoration, endless free tennis racquets and barley water, not to mention the surely sustaining thought that he is doing something for a living that makes many of us sick with envy?
“It becomes more than a job, it takes over your life,” says former British tennis professional Barry Cowan, perhaps best known for taking Agassi’s nemesis, Pete Sampras, to five sets in Wimbledon in 2001.
“If you’re at the top of tennis, you’re on tour 30-plus weeks of the year—and when you’re doing that, everything revolves around tennis.
Every decision you make, tennis is at the back of your mind.
“That’s the main reason for burnout among tennis players in their 20s. No wonder so many players hate their sport—the surprise is that so few admit it.”
Agassi’s avowed hatred for his sport is far from exclusive to tennis. Olympic gold-winning track cyclist Victoria Pendleton gave an insight into this in a brutally frank interview after winning gold at Beijing last year.
“I was an emotional wreck beforehand,” she admitted. “I worried that I would be the one person who let down the team. So winning was just a relief. And even that felt like a complete anti-climax. It was very surreal on the podium and as soon as I stepped off it I was, like, ‘What on earth am I going to do now?’ I found it quite hard to deal with. It was, like, I’ve got no purpose any more.”
Pendleton’s pleasure-free, angst-ridden drive to win is almost a defining characteristic of the greatest sports stars. Former England cricket all-rounder Vic Marks offers a poignant insight into the realities of being an athlete. “Sometimes as a cricketer,” he says, “you just long for it to rain.” But why? “So you don’t have to play. I’m not saying cricketers hate cricket, but when you’re playing a county game and the sky darkens and it starts to piss down, it doesn’t half fill everybody in the dressing room with joie de vivre.”
Former professional footballer Stuart James echoes that thought: “Lots of players I know would travel to the ground hoping the game would be cancelled,” says the ex-Swindon Town regular. “Fans say: ‘You’ve got it good, you’re on hundreds of thousands of pounds a week, so how can you moan?’—but most football players think the fans don’t really understand what their lives are like.”
A terrible fear of failure is one reason the life of the sports star can be rather less than the realisation of a beautiful dream. But there are others: horrendous training schedules, endless travel, foul fans, boredom and lack of privacy.
Agassi’s biography reveals that he snorted crystal meth from a coffee table at his home in 1997, when suffering a lack of form and worrying about his impending marriage to actor Brooke Shields. But mental stress isn’t the only major reason sports stars suffer more than the rest of us are generally prepared to admit.
Agassi describes the sheer difficulty of getting out bed one morning towards the end of his tennis career. “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.”
There is a horrible coda to this story of sporting misery. In his 2007 book Silence of the Heart: Cricket Suicides, historian David Frith wrote that cricket has a suicide rate that exceeds the national averages for the respective cricketing nations, and estimated that more than one in 150 professional cricketers have taken their own lives.
Why? Frith concluded that cricket is an all-consuming endlessly absorbing sport and after retirement the thought of life without cricket is intolerable.
The mental and physical pain of playing sport and being at the top of your game may be bad enough, but the existential horror of realising at the end of your career that you are no longer part of that world is surely worse.
Perhaps, unlike Agassi, these players didn’t hate their chosen sport. More likely, they loved it too much.—