Andre Agassi on How Empathy Gave Him an Edge


We’ve all heard the expression that certain athletes “think the game” on a different level, or that so-and-so has a high basketball IQ. It’s a cliché, for sure, but it’s an accurate one. Some players really are better at reading an opposing team, or recognizing a shift in momentum.

Often, a player demonstrates that IQ in an obvious way, and in a moment that might later be recognized as a turning point in a game. But for every instance of in-game IQ that we do see, there might be five that we don’t. And one of the best reveals of that invisible IQ came in this interview with Andre Agassi.

He talks about coming up against Boris Becker, a German player who featured one of the biggest serves of his era. Agassi, like the rest of the men’s tour, was having trouble with Becker’s serve; it “was something the game had never seen before,” he told Unscriptd, and he lost to Becker three straight times when the two started playing each other.

Agassi committed to studying Becker’s serve. And after poring over footage of the German, he recognized that Becker had a tell: as he lifted the ball in the air, his tongue would point in the direction that he was serving. So while Becker was still able to send big booming serves over the net, Agassi now knew which way those serves were headed.

For most of us, our next thought is: Wow. That’s some next-level tennis IQ. But what made Agassi special is that his next thought was about how to keep his new knowledge secret; not from other competitors, but from Becker himself.

If Becker caught on and recognized that he was tipping his serve, he’d likely be able to identify what was happening. And the fix, of course, was rather simple: all he would’ve needed to do was keep his mouth closed while serving.

“I had to resist the temptation of reading his serve for the majority of the match,” Agassi explained. “I didn’t have a problem breaking his serve. I had a problem hiding the fact that I could break his serve at will.”

Agassi went on to win 9 of his next 11 matches with Becker. And he says that ‘solving’ Boris Becker was a matter of empathy: “The more you understand what the problem is through other people’s lens[es], the more you can solve for people.”

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