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Schooled the Agassi way

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Jonathan Overend | 20:30 UK time, Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The taxi route from McCarran International Airport flirts with the centre of Las Vegas, brushing past the strip's famous casinos - Caesar's Palace, The Bellagio, Mandalay Bay - all dripping in dollars.

Inside, millions are at stake with dice, cards and slots. Outside, massive billboards promote the latest money-spinning shows of Celine Dion or Elton John.

You find yourself hanging out of the window gawping at the latest over-the-top hotel, but quickly the Vegas we've all heard about is left behind. The architecture returns to normal. We come off the I-15 for West Lake Mead Boulevard and we're in a different world.

We're still in the heart of the city but now the streets are tough with many of the houses ramshackle structures, on some children are on the steps, seemingly oblivious to the excesses down the road. Welcome to Las Vegas.

As we turn the corner, in this mostly deprived neighbourhood, a smart building looms - "The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy". Agassi Prep, for short.

I've been looking forward to visiting this place for a long time. Some people think it's a tennis academy, others that it's a fee-paying private establishment. But in simple terms, it's a primary school, albeit a primary school set up and funded by a successful tennis player with the aim of improving underprivileged children's lives.

I'm here to talk tennis with the 1992 Wimbledon Champion and mark the 20th anniversary of the time he defied the odds, and a self-confessed dislike of the place, to win the greatest tournament.

First I have a little time to look around the school, with its colourful, welcoming classrooms and meet a few of the polite and respectful pupils. This year, the head teacher tells me, has seen the biggest rise in pupil numbers since the school moved from three grades only to full 5-12 age groups.

Then Agassi arrives, without fanfare, wearing a black polo-necked sweater and jeans. He looks in great shape, five-set shape and is softly spoken and welcoming.

Andre Agassi wins Wimbledon in 1992

Andre Agassi defied the odds, the establishment and his own expectations to win Wimbledon in 1992

He's here at least once a week and continues to play an active role in the school's development, indeed a few hours after my visit he is in a meeting room with the head and a couple of service providers.

"I was fortunate enough to have tennis to fall back on, I was a ninth-grade drop-out," he says. "When I think about these children and if they get into a life that they don't choose, where do they end up? Prison, gangs? To give them a future that they can choose is, for me, the best of all of it."

On to tennis. Amazingly it's 20 years since the mullet (wig) held on by the white trucker's cap and the pigeon walk on the grass he claimed to despise.
Back-to-back wins from the baseline, over three of the great serve-volleyers in Becker, McEnroe and Ivanisevic - secured a very unique place in Wimbledon history.

"I felt like it was my worst surface at the time," he says in an interview to be broadcast on 5 live at 21:30 BST on Wednesday. "But Wimbledon became a shot-making tournament for me, a place where if you hit one good ball you could take the lead in a point."

"When I played Becker in the quarters, that was his court at the time. He was the one to beat. When I beat him five, I was thinking 'is this possible for me to win'? The best thing that could have happened to me was to be the underdog in the final."

I knew playing Ivanisevic that I was going to have to do something special and I assumed I was going to lose. I went out there and let my shots fly and it taught me how to win."

We also talk about his nightmare debut in 1990 when he was thrashed by Henri Leconte in the first round and what he regarded as a massive missed opportunity the following year when beaten by David Wheaton.

"I told [coach] Nick Bollettieri that I was never going back. I felt like I was intruding on the event. There was different locker room for the seeds, and they got the practice time on the courts. I had to carry my badge everywhere I went, showing it to get in the club. I felt that, not only did I not want to be there, but they didn't want me there."

We talk about the influence of his father, who made him "hate" the sport we thought he loved, and about his recent, brutally honest book that contained the staggering confession he had covered up a positive drugs test, lying to authorities to avoid a ban.

He knows he has made mistakes. He knows he has lost admirers in the last couple of years. But he will return to Wimbledon this summer knowing, whatever people think of him, his school continues to change lives for the better and his Wimbledon win continues to inspire tennis challengers to this day.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I was an admirer of Agassi during his playing years. He made the most of his abilities - and was there ever a greater returner of serve? He was a class act.

    His devotion to assisting less privileged children resonates even louder than his tennis career, methinks. He could rest on his millions until old and grey if he wished, but he uses his time and fame to improve the lives of others.

    Hats off to you, Andre. There are thousands of celebs out there that could learn from your example.

  • Comment number 2.

    Easily the biggest tennis legend of the 90s. Sampras probably deserves more accolades for his achievements, but its the old debate, like stephen hendry ronnie o sullivan.

    The fans prefer a flawed caring genius to a consumate professional genius.

    This appears in every sport over and over again. Maybe its because people can relate to a flawed person more, I dont know, or maybe because when the flawed person digs deep they can play at a higher level than anyone else. Im not sure, sport psychologists will have a field day.

    I just know one thing for sure, in the future there will be many more situations like this, where the most successful guy is not necessarily the most popular. Also include Mike Tyson in this theory.

    Maybe there is a link between being flawed and being an ultimate genius, but that is a whole other debate...

  • Comment number 3.

    Just to extend on from point 1, I think it's a shame more successful people from all walks of life don't put as much back - probably naive to say but wouldn't it be great if our top earners were admired more for what they put back than for what they took out. Agassi is up there on both counts - well done to him - I admire and respect him all the more because of it.

  • Comment number 4.

    Totally agree with all of you. People need to put so much back when they have so much. I believe his wife also does a great deal for wildlife which is my world out here in Africa. What an amazing couple. He made some mistakes. Who hasn't?

  • Comment number 5.

    Yeah, glad to see Agassi helping out. he was a great player and i liked his style. i wonder if Steffi and his kids play.... wowzers!!!!! but then sometimes talent can skip a generation suppose we will find out soon enough.

  • Comment number 6.

    I wonder how many know that Agassi's father, was an Olympic boxer for Iran...when it comes up in a pub quizz you can thank me!

  • Comment number 7.

    I think i liked Agassi because he was the guy who shouldn't have won, yet did. He was flawed and he knew it, tried to be a good guy, yet failed as much as he succeeded, but it didn't matter. His tennis was at times amazing - he used to stand inside the baseline against Sampras to receive serve. Sheer talent and guts to give it a go.

    What makes him so special now though is the way that away from the limelight and pressure, he has become even more remarkable. His marriage to Steffi, his work with the school (I've read about it in much more detail elsewhere) and the fact that he gets involved personally, not just giving money have given his life purpose and direction. Long may it continue.

    I love serve and volley players winning Wimbledon - McEnroe, Becker, Edberg were hugely impressive and stylish players, playing amazing tennis. Yet I'm really glad that Agassi is also a winner, and hope he gets the recognition and respect that is now due to him.

  • Comment number 8.

    Whilst I never bought into Agassi the showman at the time, I appreciated his play more retrospectively.

    It's always great to see people who have reached the top give so much back. I know many of the current top players have their own foundations and work extensively for their charities. Their rewards are high, so it's nice to see they appreciate their good fortune and utilise their positions to advocate good causes.

    It is a shame some of our more prolific sportsmen do not follow their lead.

  • Comment number 9.

    I wonder if any of these children have read his biography. Agassi is a fake.

  • Comment number 10.

    "The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy"...

    Is this the real-life "The Derek Zoolander Center For Children Who Can't Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too"?

  • Comment number 11.

    #9 - Is fake the right word? How can you be a fake tennis player that won 8 GS titles?!

    And is this school not really his at all? :)

  • Comment number 12.

    #9 - can you please evidence that ridiculous statement? I recently read his autobiography, what exactly is fake about the man?

  • Comment number 13.

    Agassi was sheer class, a great character as well, although perhaps a bit over-provocative at times! Can't wait for wimbledon again this year...

    http://samhopwood.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/wimbledon-2012-those-four-again.html

  • Comment number 14.

    @12 Might not be too late to join the Agassi Education Foundation, they teach reading there. "Fake" obviously refers to the hypocrasy that was Agassi throughout his career. Meth user and generally unchivalrous character. "I hate tennis" puh-lease, you loved the adoration and groupies and the leniency fame brought you when it came time to be judged. I never liked him as a player, I think he overachieved by a wide margin and I confess to cheering wildly every time Pete demolished him.
    What I don't understand is why people choose to make heroes? There are enough genuine hard-working men and women who go without any recognition.

  • Comment number 15.

    RJ@14

    No one is making out Agassi was perfect but are we so cynical that we cannot give credit where it is due?

    Whatever Agassi has done in the past, this seems a fine endeavour and we should give him some credit for it.

  • Comment number 16.

    #14 - oh dear, you really do have a chip on your shoulder don't you? Anyone who wins a grand slam - 7 best of 5 set matches in 2 weeks - does not overachieve, they deserve it. Anyone who goes on to win 8 grandslams also does it because they deserve it. Besides, why is overachieving a negative anyway? It's better than underachieving. Given Agassi's abusive childhood, it's a miracle he grew up to be anything close to normal, so I think we should forgive him for being human and making a few mistakes. If I was forced to play as much tennis growing up as he was, I'd hate it too, but who wouldn't love the adoration of the fans and the money that goes with it? Fair play to him for being a great champion and now trying to give something (a lot) back.

  • Comment number 17.

    I was never an Agassi fan at the beginning of his career - Sampras was always my boy, but I warmed up to Andre towards the end of his career. However, after reading Agassi's autobiography last year he gained my utmost respect because he spoke honestly and from the heart, told all re good / bad, warts and all, and called a spade a spade. Pity most other sportsmen don't take a leaf out of his book and tell it like it is. Sampras's autobiography was boring as, McEnroe's not too bad. Currently reading Rafa's - again, too sugar coated. Post-playing years, Agassi's legend will grow for his philanthropic contributions whereas others will be remembered for their sporting prowess only. Good on you Andre! Wish you all the best in the future. Great to see someone giving back to your community like you are

 

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