Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

David Johnson PhD
David Johnson Ph.D.

What Do Agassi and the Menendez Brothers Have in Common?

Agassi had a tyrannical sports father. So did the Menendez brothers.

Advanced excerpts from Andre Agassi's autobiography Open offered three provocative revelations. Yet only two of them managed to garner much public attention. His admission that he used crystal meth during his annus horribilis in 1997, failed a drug test, and successfully hoodwinked the Association of Tennis Professionals into believing it was an accident shocked the sports world. That anxiety over a failing toupee cost him the 1990 French Open also surprised many. But the core revelation of the book was lost in the Agassi media hoopla (with a few notable exceptions): that he hated tennis "with a
dark and secret passion," thanks to the trauma he suffered under the regimen of his brutal father.

Mike Agassi (who published his own autobiography) was just one among many notorious parents I knew while growing up in the Southern California junior tennis circuit. Another was Jose Menendez, the father of Lyle and Erik Menendez, who moved the family from Princeton, New Jersey, to the greater Los Angeles area when Erik, the younger sibling, was a teenager. Jose Menendez is the only sports parent I know who was murdered by his children. In all the reporting about the Menendez murders, the tennis angle was never properly fleshed out.

I have written about the events from my own personal perspective, as one among many teenage players with similar, though far less grim, parental issues. I have decided to inaugurate my blog by posting my account of the Menendez murders, in two parts, as a companion to Agassi's brave and salutary confessions.

DOUBLE FAULT: Tennis, Murder, and the Menendez Brothers (2006)

On the night of August 20, 1989, Lyle and Erik Menendez shotgunned their parents, Jose and Kitty, in the den of their Beverly Hills mansion. The brothers were arrested a little more than six months later. Shortly before their first trial, which would end in a hung jury, they admitted killing their parents, but claimed they did so after years of sexual abuse. In a second trial, they were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The murders shocked the nation. They especially reverberated in the Southern California junior-tennis community, to which I belonged. Lyle and Erik Menendez were tennis players, and Jose and Kitty Menendez were tennis parents. Although I didn't know them personally, we shared hitting partners.

The killings left many of us conflicted. On the one hand, it was unimaginable how two sons could so brutalize their parents. The brothers shot them repeatedly, including pointblank in the head and face. The bodies were unrecognizable.

But while the crime was unthinkable, we somehow "got it." The murders marked the extreme limit of familial tensions and breakdowns that we, in more limited ways, also experienced and understood. We were all tennis parents and tennis children, sharing in the ambition, resentment, and abuse.

I've recently called my junior-tennis friends and asked each of them the same question: "Do you believe that Jose Menendez sexually abused Lyle and Erik?" "No," each responded. "He was just a tough tennis dad." And that's all that needed to be said.

To be the child of tennis parents was to compete for affection every time we entered the court. It was to hear constantly how we didn't measure up. It was to feign injury, so that they wouldn't hold us responsible for failure. It was to feel ashamed at squandering their support. It was to angrily defy their wishes, and then to mumble apologies for not being more appreciative.

When I was a teenager, I trained at a clinic at the Los Angeles Tennis Club near Beverly Hills. I played there with Lev Shvarts and Billy Wright, who became teammates of Erik Menendez at Beverly Hills High School.

We all found Lev's father amusing. He was always there to remind Lev, in his thick, Russian accent, of the tennis wisdoms he had gathered. Like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, and the Menendez brothers, Lev was the son of an immigrant who saw tennis as a path to success. He did not take Lev's tournament losses lightly: "I drive a Bentley off a cliff every six months for your tennis, and this is how you play?"

As overbearing as Lev's father was, Jose Menendez far surpassed him. Jose would come to Erik's practices and berate him. "The dad was a pain in the ass," Lev said. "He was a tennis dad. My dad was a tennis dad too, but I didn't kill him."

Then Lev paused.

"There were times I thought about it, though," he continued with a laugh.

Lev and Erik used to go to the movies or dinner together, even after the murders. Lev didn't talk about what happened, unless Erik brought it up first. When he did, he spoke awkwardly about his parents' deaths. He even cracked jokes. Erik had always hated Jason Newman, the tennis coach at Beverly Hills High School. "Maybe it was Jason Newman who killed my parents," he once quipped.

Lev also noticed how Erik began spending his inheritance. He quickly bought a Rolex, a Jeep, and an apartment in Marina Del Rey. But Lev gave this little thought. " I probably had too much of my own shit going on," he says, referring to conflicts with his own father.

After the arrests, Lev visited Erik twice in L.A. County Jail. Erik looked pale and wore an orange jumpsuit. They talked about tennis. Erik anticipated begin released and going with Lev to the movies. The situation was too surreal for Lev to question Erik's optimism. He never thought that Erik was guilty. Once the Menendez brothers publicly admitted killing their parents, Lev never returned for another visit.

After those confessions, he reconsidered events that initially hadn't seemed significant. He remembered, for example, a practical joke Erik had played on their teammate, Danny Roberts. I knew Danny from practicing at his family's sunken court in the Beverly Hills highlands. I especially recall his father bellowing critiques from above as we played.

One evening after practice, Danny asked Erik for a ride to his car, three blocks away. Lev was sitting on the passenger side. Danny refused to sit in the back. "Erik had a piece-of-shit Escort," Lev explained. So Erik suggested that Danny ride on the hood. He promised to drive slowly.

Erik drove a couple of blocks and then accelerated. Then he slammed on the brakes. Danny flew off the car and landed on the pavement. The whole side of his body was scraped and bloodied. Enraged, Danny rushed to his station wagon and rammed it into Erik's car.

Most players I knew had an overbearing father who fancied himself a coach. The only thing more dreadful than losing was the hour-long drive home afterwards. The mothers would witness the abuse and say nothing.

My family was different. My mother was the one who castigated me to tears after losses. When my father was present, he said little, but his silence gave tacit endorsement to my mother's ranting. He had been a national junior champion and had played at U.C.L.A. for a national championship team—standards to high for me to equal. He didn't need to voice his dissatisfaction for me to know how he felt.

After years of resenting my parents' discontent, I broke down at a tournament in Santa Barbara when I was about sixteen. They angrily watched as I intentionally lost my first-round match, sometimes crying during changeovers. Another parent suggested to my mother than perhaps I needed counseling—a comment she repeated afterwards to shame me.

After Santa Barbara, my parents palpably lost interest in my pursuits. My father said he had never been more disappointed in me than on that occasion. I never had the courage to say that I had never been more disappointed in him, either, since even then he didn't understand.

But when it came time to apply to colleges, my father lobbied on my behalf to David Benjamin, the Princeton men's tennis coach. Although I had done well in high school, my grades and test scores weren't quite good enough for Princeton. My father hoped Benjamine could pull strings with the admissions department. He sent me on a visit. There I met Lyle for the first time.

When I arrived, I was introduced to the tennis team in their indoor facility. Unused to the New Jersey cold, I was wearing a parka. "Look who's here: the ski instructor," Lyle said.

I often practiced with Michael Joyce at his parents' court, a couple of blocks away from Aaron Spelling's mansion. Of all my hitting partners, Michael wound up becoming the best player. He refused a scholarship to U.C.L.A., turned pro, and reached the top seventy in the world.

Many juniors hit at the Joyces' house. Erik Menendez—a hot-tempered "hypermaniac" even during practice, says Michael—came regularly. Andre Agassi would travel from Las Vegas and stay over to play Southern California tournaments—that is, before he moved to Florida at fourteen to train at Nick Bollettieri's academy. "I've just got to get away from my father," Agassi told Michael's father. "He's driving me nuts."

Joyce Sr. owned a movie-camera company that rented to some of the same production companies with which Jose Menendez dealt as CEO of LIVE Entertainment. The business enabled Joyce Sr. to watch us practice and criticize our "dumb" mistakes. When Michael was ten years old, he told me that his father had once pushed him up against a wall because he was so angry about his play.

The tension between the two would continue even into Michael's pro career. During a match at the L.A. Open at U.C.L.A.—a home tournament for Michael—his father started coaching from the stands. "I can't take it anymore!" Michael yelled at him. No one remembered ever seeing such an incident on the men's professional tour.

Michael retired two years ago and began coaching junior players in Southern California. But he soon wearied of dealing with the adults. "I actually almost feel sorry for the kids, because it's the parents pushing it," he says. "It's almost like child abuse." He now travels with Maria Sharapova as both her hitting partner and shield from her maddeningly intrusive father.

The Joyces and Menendezes were friends. Michael's father used to say, half-jokingly, that he should have been tougher like Jose, who often videotaped Erik and then micro-analyzed his game's shortcomings.

Two weeks before the murders, Michael and Erick played doubles and warmed up together at the National Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Erik was always with his mother, whom, Michael recalls, he often hugged.

At Kalamazoo, Jose told the Joyces that Erik wanted to turn pro, but that he would make him go to U.C.L.A. instead. Erik, he said, "didn't have the brain" for tennis. That kind of oppression, Joyce Sr. said, is "probably what drove him crazy."

Ten days after the murders, the Joyces were in New York where Michael was playing in the U.S. Open Juniors. His father was chatting with another player's father, when someone tapped his shoulder. He turned around. It was Erik.

Why is he here? Michael's father thought. Erik and Lyle said they were in town on business and had purchased box seats. Erik didn't mention the specific business they had—namely their parents' funeral in Princeton, New Jersey, where the family had lived until 1986. He didn't mention the murders at all.

[To be continued ...]

About the Author
David Johnson PhD

David V. Johnson, Ph.D., is a writer and magazine editor in San Francisco and a former professor of philosophy.