“I fell in love with tennis far too late in my life, but the reason I have everything that I hold dear is because tennis has loved me back. I’m thrilled, humbled, quite terrified to be honest, to stand before you. I felt vulnerable on the tennis court many times, but not quite like today. I’ve grown up in front of you. You’ve seen my highs and lows. We laughed together, cried together, but what is so clear to me standing here today is that you have given me compassion, understanding, and love – more than I expected, many times more than I deserved.”
Those words are part of the speech given by eight Grand Slam tournament winner and Olympic gold medalist, Andre Agassi on July 9, 2011 when he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island.
Andre remains one of the most beloved players in the history of tennis and thousands of fans demonstrated their love the day he played his last game on September 3, 2006 at the U.S. Open.
After suffering for years from a condition he was born with called spondylolisthesis, which is a displaced vertebra at the bottom of his spine, Andre’s body finally had enough of, as he says, “sprinting, stopping on a dime, jumping high and landing hard,” and he lost to Benjamin Becker in the third round.
After congratulating his opponent, Benjamin Becker, Andre walked away from the net and sat on a nearby chair. At first he thought the wild cheering was for the winner, but when it didn’t die down, it became obvious they were cheering for him.
As Andre realized the enormity of the moment, one can only imagine what thoughts ran through his mind. It was the end of a life he’d been primed for ever since his father shoved a racquet into his hands when he was just one year old.
Twice he got up, walked to center court, bowed and sent kisses in all four directions to the masses of people in the stadium who continued to cheer.
It was obvious they did not want it to be over; they did not want to let Andre go.
For three minutes they gave a standing ovation to the once rebellious teenager from Las Vegas, who turned the staid, conservative game of tennis upside down when he walked onto the court with long hair (though he later admitted they were extensions) and an earring, wearing stone-washed denim cutoffs or flamboyant neon-colored, skintight, Nike-sponsored compression shorts. Tennis had never seen anyone like Andre Agassi.
They paid homage to the tennis legend who has evolved into a mature statesman and an eloquent, effective ambassador for underprivileged children.
In 1994 he started his own nonprofit, The Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, and since then he has become a major philanthropic contributor to his own and other worthy organizations, like Child Haven, the only residential facility for abused and neglected children in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In 1997 Andre donated funding to Child Haven for a six-room classroom building now named the Agassi Center for Education.
That same year he also donated more than $1 million to the Andre Agassi Boys and Girls Club which opened in the economically-challenged neighborhood of West Las Vegas.
His foundation also provided $720,000 to assist in the building of the Andre Agassi Cottage for Medically Fragile Children. This 20-bed facility opened in December 2001, and accommodates developmentally delayed or handicapped children and children quarantined for infectious diseases.
That momentous day back in 2006 when Andre played that final game, Benjamin Becker acknowledged that Andre had been his idol when he was growing up.
Then Andre stepped up, and in the most heartfelt way he told everyone what all their years of love and support meant to him.
“The scoreboard says I lost it, but what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I found. Over the last 21 years, I found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I’ve found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I have found generosity. You’ve given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I could never have reached without you. Over the last 21 years I have found you, and I will take the memory of you with me for the rest of my life.”
Three years later the public was shocked to learn in Andre’s unvarnished, insightful and inspiring 2009 autobiography Open that he “hated tennis, hated it with a dark and secret passion” during most of his illustrious career. It was understandable when he candidly explained how his father Mike, a hard-nosed former Olympic boxer from Iran who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s, dangled a tennis ball over his crib and eventually forced him to hit 2,500 tennis balls a day, 17,500 a week. His father’s brutally simplistic mantra was “put a blister on the other guy’s brain,” and he told his son: “You’re going to be No. 1 in the world. You’re going to make lots of money. That’s the plan and that’s the end of it.”
In the book he wrote, “I’m seven years old, talking to myself, because I’m scared and because I’m the only person who listens to me. Underneath my breath I whisper, “Just quit, Andre, just give up. Put down the racket and walk off the court, right now. Wouldn’t that feel like heaven Andre? To just quit? To never play tennis again?
“But I can’t. Not only would my father, Mike chase me around the house with my racket, but something in my gut, some deep unseen muscle, won’t let me. I hate tennis, hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing, keep hitting all morning, and all afternoon, because I have no choice. No matter how much I want to stop, I don’t. I keep begging myself to stop, and still I keep playing, and this gap, this contradiction between what I want to do and what I actually do, feels like the core of my life… Bad stuff happens when my father is upset. If he says I’m going to play tennis, if he says I’m going to be No. 1 in the world, that it’s my destiny, all I can do is nod and obey.”
In Andre’s case, doing what he hated paid off in terms of fame and fortune. But Andre is so incredibly humble that fame and fortune only mean something to him in that they provide him with a platform to fulfill his true purpose – which is helping underprivileged kids reach their full potential by getting a good education.
In 2001 Andre started building a high performance, state-of-the-art, tuition-free charter school, again in the at-risk neighborhood of West Las Vegas. It started with grades 3-5 and every year Andre worked tirelessly to produce the most extraordinary fund-raising event, known as the Grand Slam for Children, that allowed him to continue building until the school went from K-12.
The school has a document called the “Commitment to Excellence” which lays out what is expected of the teachers, the students and their parents. There is also a “Code Of Respect” that the students must adhere to as part of the school’s efforts to enhance every child’s character, respect, motivation and self-discipline.
On June 10, 2011 Billie Jean King gave the commencement speech to the third graduating class at Agassi Prep, as it is fondly called. Thirty-three seniors, who had little chance of higher education are all going on to college. With that kind of success Andre hopes to take that model to other inner cities across America and benefit tens of thousands more children.
Andre Agassi has found fulfillment and purpose in trying to improve the schools in this country, and for that he thanks tennis.
But he’s also very honest about the price he paid both physically and emotionally to get where he is.
The first lines in his autobiography Open, read, “I open my eyes and don’t know where I am or who I am. Not all that unusual – I’ve spent half my life not knowing. Still, this feels different. This confusion is more frightening. More total.
“I look up. I’m lying on the floor beside the bed. I remember now. I moved from the bed to the floor in the middle of the night. I do that most nights. Better for my back. Too many hours on a soft mattress causes agony.
“I count to three, then start the long, difficult process of standing. With a groan, I roll onto my side, then curl into the fetal position, then flip over onto my stomach. Now I wait, and wait, for the blood to start pumping. I’m a young man, relatively speaking. Thirty-six. But I wake as if 96.”
With age comes distance and perhaps a different perspective and a degree of wisdom. On the day of his induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Andre had only gratitude for the game and only gratitude to his father who forced it upon him at such a young age.
Before delivering an incredibly moving speech Andre had a particularly sweet moment when he was introduced by Simone Ruffin, the first Valedictorian from Agassi Prep’s 2009 graduating class. In introducing Andre, Simone called him her hometown hero.
Andre is a hero to a lot of people. In his speech he said:
“Tennis has not only given me much it has taught me much. It’s no accident that tennis uses the language of life – service, advantage, break, fault, love – the lessons of tennis are the lessons of maturity. In tennis you prepare and prepare and one day your preparation seems futile – nothing is working and the other guy’s got your number cold. So you improvise. In tennis you learn that what I do instantly affects what you do and vice versa. Tennis makes you perceptive, proactive, reactive all at the same time.
“Tennis teaches you the subtlety of human interaction, the curse and blessing of cause and effect. After you play tennis for a living you never forget that we are all connected. There’s nothing like a tie-break that teaches you the concept of high risk, high reward. Tennis teaches there’s no such thing as perfect. You want to be perfect, you hope to be perfect, then you’re out there and you’re far less than perfect. Then you realize, I don’t have to be perfect today, I just have to be better than one person.
“Tennis is a lonely sport, probably the most lonely. You’re out there with no team, no coach, no place to hide. And yet all that loneliness eventually teaches you to stand alone. The high standards that tennis imposes upon us, the self-reliance it demands of us, that’s the reason why tennis has produced so many great game changes.
“Tennis gave me all my personal teachers that I owe a debt that I can never repay. They lifted me up and carried me across many finish lines sometimes literally. My dad Mike, my mom Betty, my big brother Phil, my friend, protector and trainer, Gil Reyes, my coaches Nick Bolletara, Darren Cahill, Brad Gilbert, and the person who means more to me than words can express, the woman who still takes my breath away every day, Stefanie Graf.
“Each one of them deserves a separate Hall of Fame speech, so I’ve written a letter to each of them, intimate love letters but they’re not private. I want the world to know how I feel so I’m putting them on my foundation’s website where I hope they will serve as a public personal tribute to those who made this day a reality.
“They’re the ones who made possible the highlights, they’re the reasons I’m blessed with magical memories that help me sleep, sometimes keep me awake. Because of my father I have the memory of the 1992 Wimbledon, the 1996 Olympics, and some thrilling Davis cups; because of Gil I have the memory of the 1999 French Open, his ear-to-ear smile in the fifth set when we both thought my tank was empty but there were still a few drops of fuel left; because of Stefanie, Jaden and Jaz there was that day at my retirement in 2006 when I got to walk away from the sport on my own terms. They were there for me that day ready to embrace the future whatever that might be. These are my people; these memories are seared in my memory forever.
“One of the most influential people in my life I only met one time. It was the most vulnerable time when I needed direction and inspiration. There I was shaking hands with Nelson Mandela. He took my hand, complimented my game and in the same breath told me the reason we have been put here on earth. I can still close my eyes and hear his words of wisdom from that evening.
“‘He said, ‘We must be careful in our decisions, careful in our words. And we must be careful in our relationships. Andre we must live our life carefully.’
“Once you have heard those words from Nelson Mandela you can never unhear them. I didn’t always live carefully. I didn’t always pay tennis the respect it deserved. I thought it was my career that was creating my angst. That tennis was the cause of my internal tension and disconnect. I didn’t know myself and I didn’t recognize that my troubles were of my own making and that I and only I could solve them.
“Only after being broken did I realize I wasn’t being careful. But you know rock bottom is an interesting place. I moved in and spent some time there. It’s actually not a bad place. It’s a place where you get to ask who do I want to be? Am I ready to take ownership of my life?
Only after being broken did I realize I wasn’t being careful. But you know rock bottom is an interesting place. I moved in and spent some time there. It’s actually not a bad place. It’s a place where you get to ask who do I want to be? Am I ready to take ownership of my life?”
“For me ownership meant growing up, focusing every day on being just one day better. Ownership meant not just embracing tennis, but celebrating it. Ownership meant going back to the challenges circuit, feeling honored to be my own ball boy, feeling privileged to flip my own score card. Ownership meant feeling grateful for being and having the chance to start over.
“Climbing out of that hole I had dug for myself, that’s when I started choosing to believe that each of us have a plan for our life, a purpose to fulfill, a body of work to create, a reason to be. I committed to taking care of myself and taking care of my tennis. Going from a ranking of #141 in the world back to #1 was not an accomplishment; it was the reflection of an accomplishment. It was a symptom of good choices; it was the result of being careful.
“The highlights I experienced taught me what is possible. The hard times reinforced the consequences of me not being true to my character, of not living up to my expectations. These things have coalesced inside of me into a kind of code, a personal mission statement.
“I believe we have a responsibility to each other, a responsibility to create more than we consume; a responsibility to build things that will outlive us, a responsibility to find our own limits and push through them. Even when life’s challenges weigh us down, make us unrecognizable to ourselves, we can always begin again, there’s always time to thrive. It’s not too late to be inspired; it’s not too late to change; it’s not too late.
LIFE LESSON: I love that Andre says it’s never too late. When he went from #1 to #141 he could have said, ‘That’s it, I’m done,’ especially since he hated tennis so much. But somehow he dug deep, tapped into that inner strength, got disciplined, changed bad habits for good ones, contained his ego, and didn’t mind being a superstar who was his own ball boy as he worked his way back to #1.
Begin today. No matter how old you are, do something that moves you in the direction of your dreams, your passion. You will feel empowered if you do just one new thing, whether it’s registering for a class, joining a club, learning and developing a new skill. Turn a hobby into a part-time business, hop on a bicycle, learn a new language, save for a specific goal, cut your hair, clean out your closets, travel to a place you’ve always wanted to go, volunteer for a worthy cause, or mentor someone. Shake things up. Live life fully. Andre had to reinvent himself after tennis and we can reinvent ourselves too.
“This honor leaves me deeply humbled, but also makes me think of others who don’t get their due – teachers, nurses, caregivers, struggling parents, all the people who do the right thing to win their own private Grand Slams. They already know what took me decades to figure out – that we are here to do good quietly, to shine in secret, to give when there is no crowd applauding, to give of ourselves to someone who can offer us nothing.”
We are here to do good quietly, to shine in secret, to give when there is no crowd applauding, to give of ourselves to someone who can offer us nothing.”
“Tennis gave me the chance to meet so many of these people, to travel the world and visit places where the human spirit shines brightest because life is darkest. Tennis taught me that the needs of the world are great, but they are no match nor will they ever be a match for the human spirit.
“So thank you tennis for my life. Thank you tennis for my wife. And thank you tennis for enabling me to find my life’s work. In closing, to my son Jaden, my daughter Jaz, and every young person listening to my voice – the world that we’re leaving you is not the world we wish for you. You need to make that world, to go places we’ve never been, to succeed in ways we’ve never dreamed.
“Mandela said to me there is difficulty in all human journeys, but there is no ability in just being a journeyer. From him I learned that every journey is epic, every journey is important, every journey begins today.
“At the beginning of my journey, my friend Gil said to me, ‘Andre you have dreams and I have strong shoulders, so stand on my shoulders and reach.’ To my children, to all of our children – stand on our shoulders, reach higher than we could, reach for your dreams, because standing here today receiving this honor I am living proof that no dream, no journey is impossible.”
Stand on our shoulders, reach higher than we could, reach for your dreams, because standing here today receiving this honor I am living proof that no dream, no journey is impossible.”