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Tennis no longer 1st in Agassi's life

| Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 12:11 a.m.

Over two decades, Andre Agassi built a legendary and often flamboyant professional tennis career during which he won dozens of tournaments, became as much a pop-culture figure as any athlete and made himself over physically, psychologically and emotionally.


These days, with life a bit less hectic, Agassi builds schools. Not literally — his hands are better suited to wielding a racket, not a hammer — but facilitating the funding and construction of charter schools across the country for kids “who want to know they have a place in the world where they feel cared for and respected,” he said.

With his wife and another former megastar, Stefanie Graf, Agassi will be part of a glittering cast at the Petersen Events Center on Tuesday for the 20th annual WTT Mylan Smash Hits, an all-star tennis event benefiting AIDS charities. Billie Jean King and Elton John are the hosts. Two teams, including two other former No. 1-ranked players, Martina Navatilova and Andy Roddick, will compete in men's and women's singles and doubles, and mixed doubles.

Agassi and Graf will be paired in mixed doubles against John (Sir Elton to you) and Navratilova. Agassi, 42, who retired in 2006 and doesn't play much these days, has been preparing “with the No. 1 priority of not shocking my body into injury,” he said. “When you know how to swing and do it the way it's supposed to be done and you're not ready for it, you can do some pretty rough things.”

In 1994, eight years into his pro career, Agassi founded the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation to assist kids in his native Las Vegas, where he still lives with Graf and their two children. Seven years later, he opened his charter school, kindergarten through 12th grade. The project led to a partnership with an investment firm to create a foundation to raise money for the construction of charter schools nationwide. The latest opened in Phoenix.

Agassi said the fund has about $550 million and “many investors.” Upwards of 60 charter schools are planned, he said.

“I'm not an operator, I'm not an educator,” said Agassi. “Am I a philanthropist? Yeah, I give a lot of money, but I feel there should be more to it. I came to the conclusion that what I am is a facilitator. I bring a lot of people together to create a vision, to get involved, to put leadership in place and get people to go above and beyond.”

He added, “I've now facilitated a way to build schools at an alarming rate.”

Agassi is trying to drastically upgrade the charter school concept. He said 85 percent are substandard, where “a lot of mom and pop operations get in over their heads.” The big problem is what he describes as the “hardware,” meaning rented temporary facilities like church basements. He is out to provide something more substantial and permanent.

“It's been a win across the board for cities, a win across the board for (school) operators, a win across the board for investors,” he said. “But more than anything, it's been a win across the board for the kids.”

World Team Tennis CEO and commissioner Ilana Koss said, “Andre has been phenomenal. I think he has set the bar for others to follow. He is an amazing inspiration. It's not anything to do with what he's done on the court. It's all off-the-court stuff.”

Agassi's career spanned steep drops and exhilarating climbs, sometimes more than once, a radical change in hair style, from flowing mullet (later revealed to be a wig) to the shaved look and interesting wardrobe choices. Immensely gifted, he dealt with injuries, frustrations, emotional malaise and a well-chronicled “private” life (including a short-lived marriage to actress Brooke Shields). But he still is considered one of the greatest ever. In 1999, he became the fifth male player to win all four Grand Slam events — the French, Australian and U.S. Open, and Wimbledon.

In 2009, Agassi released his autobiography, “Open.” Part of it is a scathing indictment of many aspects of the game, especially his pressurized tennis upbringing (and how he finally escaped its effects). But all of it is a blunt, soul-baring catharsis worthy of the title. It reached No. 1 on the New York Times best seller list.

“I always wanted to turn a hard lens on myself,” he said. “Not just through a literary lens but a psychological lens. I had a need to make sense of all the contradictions in my life.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7810.

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