Commentary

Andre Agassi revels in next calling

Updated: July 11, 2011, 9:32 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEWPORT, R.I. -- Andre Agassi likes to say tennis has given him everything. That would include his wife, Steffi Graf, and his life's work, the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas.

But, the question must be asked, what has Agassi given to the sport?

"Um," said Agassi on Friday, searching the air for answers, "that's a hard one to answer."

He was wearing his trademark black T-shirt and jeans, sitting in a regal chair in a back room of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The day before his enshrinement, he sat down with ESPN.com to talk about his accomplishments.

[+] EnlargeAndre Agassi
Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty ImagesAndre Agassi became the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam when he won the 1999 French Open.

"My hope in tennis was to leave it better off for me being there," Agassi said. "I think from a fundamental perspective, I came into the game and I was one of the first ones to hit the ball big off both sides. We had the big serves going, the big forehands going, but to bring that level of game to the sport -- it forced the sport to get better."

He paused and shrugged.

"That's what I gave the sport."

As usual with Agassi, this is a deliberate and seductive understatement.

He single-handedly cracked tennis' country club veneer and brought in a new, younger audience. As a 20-year-old in 1990, he reached the finals at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open and injected some energy, color and charisma into this genteel sport. Sure, in retrospect, the denim shorts and long blond hair -- hair extensions, he admitted in his extraordinary autobiography, "Open" -- were a bit precious, but most of us have pictures in the basement that look a little, well, dated.

On a glorious Saturday afternoon by the sea, tennis gave back to Agassi a small token of its appreciation. On the lush grass of center court here, looking perhaps a bit older than his 41 years, he was enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

"This is one of the rare times in my life that I come in without expectations," Agassi told me. "I want it to be what it is. It should be a powerful moment."

Oh, it was.

Agassi has actually been here before; he introduced his wife when she was enshrined here seven years ago. And, he said, he had also been to the podium in his father Mike's dreams.

His voice quavered several times during his induction speech, and he was most emotional when he referenced his family.

"I look at my wife and my children and I say, 'Thank you, tennis, for making all of this possible,'" Agassi said. "Everything I hold dear is because of how much tennis gave me back."

As he wrote in his book, Agassi has always had a complicated relationship with the sport. He learned tennis from his hard-driving father and wasn't always sure why he was out on the court. Still, he wrestled with those demons over the years and discovered that tennis was, in fact, his true calling.

Agassi has an impressive, if not eclectic, résumé. His major accomplishments are undeniable:

• Is the first man in tennis history to win a career Grand Slam and an Olympic gold medal.

• Won eight Grand Slam singles titles, the same number as Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Fred Perry and Ken Rosewall.

• Is one of only three men -- along with Roger Federer and Rod Laver -- to reach four consecutive major finals (1999-2000).

And then there are these feats that underline his longevity and consistent excellence. Agassi:

• Was the only player in the Open era who won at least one ATP World Tour title over 18 consecutive years.

• Was the oldest player to be ranked No. 1, at 33 years, 13 days, and held that spot for 14 weeks.

• Was ranked in the top 10 in three different decades: 1988, 1990 and 2000.

Agassi's association with tennis allowed him to raise $40 million a decade ago to build a model charter school in one of the city's worst neighborhoods that services 650 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. These kids from underprivileged backgrounds wear uniforms, pledge to adhere to the school's code of honor and, if they work hard, have a chance to advance in the world.

It wasn't Stephanie, as he calls her, that introduced Agassi to the adoring crowd Saturday. It was someone more telling of the direction of his life, Simone Ruffin, the salutatorian of the first graduating class at Agassi Prep in 2009. Ruffin, who now attends Concordia University, was buoyant, poised -- and thankful. She repeatedly called Agassi her "hometown hero."

There are more post-tennis goals, of course. And they will blow your mind. Although most modern, high-profile athletes have the ubiquitous foundation that benefits some local charities, Agassi -- does this sound familiar? -- is going big.

He has already raised a staggering $500 million and plans, over the next three or four years, to build 75 more schools across the country in the image of his milestone Las Vegas institution. The second, a mile from the Temple University campus in Philadelphia, is already in the initial stages of construction.

Andre Agassi
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaOne of sports' great philanthropists, Andre Agassi plans to open more schools all over the country.

And yet, it seems, it is never enough.

"There are 650 children in my school," Agassi said earlier this year at Roland Garros, where he was honored for his philanthropy. "The satisfaction is only momentary, however. There are still over 1,500 on the waiting list. Even though I am helping 650 kids, I feel like my failures are twice as great, because there are 1,500 kids that I haven't been able to help."

I was dogged by this comment for weeks afterward, wondering if Agassi was being truly honest. I asked him to elaborate Friday.

"I think that my I've always tended to revel in my failures more than my successes," Agassi said. "It's what the game taught me. In tennis, you never had to be good. You just had to figure out how to be better than one person. And as a result, you never stop pushing yourself.

"When I look at my work off the court, it's never enough. Because you never know when that child you help is going to change the world. That's how it is with these kids. You wouldn't believe the results they get when expectations are high."

This is Agassi's pitch when he meets with investors and potential donors. But in his expressive eyes and the urgency in his voice, he believes.

"They don't fail us, but we can fail them," Agassi said. "So when I look at 1,500 kids on my waiting list, I truly say that I'm failing more kids than I'm helping."

But, he added, looking me in the eye, "It would be unconscionable not to do it."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.