Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011 | 6 p.m.
Beyond the Sun
Andre Agassi was right at home.
The gymnasium at the school bearing his name was packed with students enthusiastically cheering Thursday as the tennis legend walked to the podium to speak at a ceremony in his honor.
Agassi was formally introduced as the newest member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, capping a lengthy career in which the 40-year-old Las Vegan won eight grand slam championships and compiled a record of 870-274 with 60 tournament titles.
But it’s his work outside of tennis he’s most proud of. Fittingly, he picked the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy for the announcement, which was a pep rally of sorts complete with performances from the school’s band and cheerleaders.
The tuition-free public charter school was founded by Agassi in 2001 on West Lake Mead Boulevard in one of Southern Nevada’s most at-risk neighborhoods. It is for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, with smaller class sizes and longer school hours.
Agassi is the lone 2011 inductee into the hall’s recent player category, and additional inductees will be chosen later. The induction will take place July 9 at the hall in Newport, R.I. Representatives traveled to Las Vegas to make the announcement.
“Thanks for choosing to come here to share this special news with me, with all of you (the students) because this is my family,” Agassi told the representatives.
“Tennis has given me many things in my life,” he continued. “It has given me my wife (tennis star Steffi Graf). It has given me my life’s worth by allowing me the resources to build this school for you.”
Christopher E. Clouser, chairman of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum, compared Agassi to tennis great Arthur Ashe — both on and off the court.
“They said there would probably never be anyone like Arthur Ashe who played the best tennis in the world and cared about humanity and his fellow person a great deal,” Clouser said. “Arthur accomplished a lot. I want to tell you, those accomplishments of Arthur Ashe have been met and exceeded.”
Agassi, who plans on opening more schools under the current Agassi Prep model in other cities, told the students never to give up on their dreams. He used examples from the trials and tribulations of his career.
He told them about the 1999 French Open final against Andrei Medvedev when he lost the first two sets. The French Open was the only one of the four majors Agassi hadn’t won, but after a pep talk from his coach, he rallied to win the last three sets and claim the title.
“I was really nervous. I was really scared. I got down two sets to love, and I couldn’t even move,” he said. “I was so scared my feet wouldn’t even move.”
That victory helped mark Agassi’s return to elite status. He went from being ranked No. 1 in the world to falling to No. 141, as he battled much-documented personal problems.
“I had to climb all the way back up to No. 1 and that was a very difficult thing to do because when you’ve been at the top, and now you are at the bottom, you are always aware of where you are not and how long that road is,” he said.
Agassi turned professional in 1986 at age 16, eventually winning four Australian Open titles, two U.S. Open crowns and one championship in the French Open and at Wimbledon. He also won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
He was ranked No. 1 for 101 weeks, including in June 2003 when the then-33-year-old was the oldest player to hold the ranking.
His efforts off the court have been equally impressive, highlighted by his work with the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education. He’s helped to raise more than $150 million for the foundation, with the direct result seen at his school. He proudly bragged about a 100-percent acceptance rate for higher education.
In 1997, he opened the Andre Agassi Boys & Girls Club, which supports 2,000 programs and has a top-notch youth tennis and basketball program.
While Agassi is known as being one of the greatest tennis players of all time and for his contributions to the world, he’s simply “Mr. Agassi” to the children at his school.
“He is an athlete, humanitarian and philanthropist matched by no one else,” Clouser said.
Spend one minute watching Agassi interact with the children and that claim is verified.
“What’s up Agassi Prep?,” he playfully greeted the students, flashing his trademark smile in addressing the crowd. A student presented him with an award for being selected for the hall, and Agassi hugged him to say thanks.
Yes, he was right at home.