Originally Published: January 14, 2014 6 a.m.
If you happened to be the first born of Mike and Betty Agassi, your life was going to be as a tennis player come hook or crook. So when Rita was born in 1960, she was put on the fast-track toward that goal.
Her father's thought process was, if you breathe, eat and sleep the game of tennis, in a regimen of hitting 5,000 balls a day and constant reinforcement of good fundamentals and top play, you have to become a tennis star.
Mike, an immigrant Olympic boxer who came to the U.S. from Iran, was quoted as saying later, "I ruined Rita by pushing her too hard. I harangued her half-to-death."
By the time she was 13 she had bleeding ulcers - not to mention was headstrong, feisty, competitive and very self-motivated.
Rita was also coached by the great Pancho Gonzales who was the No. 1 player in the world for eight years, and was known as a difficult man in many ways. He was the tennis director at Caesars Palace for 16 years. As she rebelled against her father, she moved in and then married Pancho who was 32 years her senior.
They had a son, Skylar, and divorced in 1989, but remained close.
Pancho died of cancer July 3, 1995, at the age of 67.
Groomed to become a top professional player, married to one of the greatest tennis players ever, with a brother and sister-in-law who are legends (Andre Agassi & Steffi Graf) and a father who believed that tennis was the ticket for his family and now in the Nevada Tennis Hall of Fame for his work there, Rita has had a real roller-coaster life that now seems to have settled into a happy, stable routine she enjoys.
We caught up with Rita for a short interview that gives added insight to her life adventures and how she's fared.
Q. What are you doing on a day to day basis currently?
Rita: I teach tennis daily and work out four days a week.
Q. Your best tennis memory and your worst?
Rita: My best tennis memory was playing a match in Columbus, Ohio - Avon Futures. I was down nine match points and won it. One of the points she hit, a near winner to my backhand and came in. I ran over to it and hit a flying backhand for a winner and fell on my butt. I was laughing so hard and she was really pissed.
My worst match was played in Memphis, Tennessee. I think it was a semis on the Nike Circuit. I had a date the night before and we stayed out all night. Barely got back in time for my match. I walked on the court against Bonnie Gadusek and lost that match in 40 minutes 0 and 0. So sad...just liked the boys.
Q. Who was your tennis mentor as you really got into the game?
Rita: I'd have to say Pancho (Gonzales) was my mentor. He taught me how to overcome personal problems through excelling. I drove myself really hard to get as good as I could.
Q. You were married to one of the tennis greats - Pancho Gonzales. What was that like for you and can you tell us a couple memories about that timeframe?
Rita: Being married to Pancho was really good at times and really difficult at other times. I had known him for several years and we were very close friends. He was brilliant and temperamental. I think our age difference created a lot of problems, but I don't regret marrying him.
One memory I have is of him and this parrot I bought him. It was a hand-fed yellow nape Amazon I got him for Christmas one year. The bird was hand fed but was really mean. Would bite. Just nasty. He would spend one hour every morning with that bird on his hand. In time it was his best friend. He could pet it and give it kisses. It was amazing to me. I wanted to get rid of it.
Q. Your son Skylar - how old is he now and is he involved in the tennis world to any degree?
Rita: Skylar is 28 years old. He lives in San Francisco. He's not involved in tennis although he plays for fun now and then. He works for a head hunting company and loves it.
Q. After reading the book "OPEN" (Andre Agassi's autobiography published in 2009) it seems you have had an up and down relationship with your brother and family. How are things now?
Rita: Family relationships are good. It's really nice not having any family problems. I even get along with my dad - totally amazing!
Q. Looking back at your teenage years, what would you tell today's middle and high school tennis players that might help them get through that time period?
Rita: I think the only thing that got me through those years was striving to excel in tennis. There's a confidence you get dedicating yourself to something and improving that you can't get any other way.
Q. Have you ever spent any time in Arizona or been through the city of Prescott by chance?
Rita: I've been to Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Sedona. Arizona is beautiful. Never to Prescott.
Q. It would be great to have you come visit and do a tennis clinic at Yavapai College for the grand opening of their new tennis facility in August. Any chance your arm could be twisted?
Rita: No, I'm not very good with large group clinics. I don't travel much these days. Got a lot of pets and stick close to home. But thanks for the invite.
Q. How are your parents and what are they up to these days?
Rita: Parents are good - health is good. My dad still teaches tennis, watches tennis and lots of boxing. My mom does jigsaw puzzles and movies every other weekend. I see them daily.
If you happen to be in the Las Vegas area and would like to take a lesson from Rita, call her in advance at 702-400-9117 to see if she has any availability. Don't forget to tell her you're a Prescott Roughrider!
Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 40 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-642-6775 or firstname.lastname@example.org.