Agassi: 'I fell in love with tennis far too late'
NEWPORT, R.I.—The long hair is long gone, the denim shorts have faded to memory, and there was Andre Agassi accepting induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame on Saturday with an overdue affection for the sport he once resented and a rejection of the "Image is everything" attitude that helped propel him to stardom.
In a tender tribute to family and philanthropy, Agassi was introduced by a student at the charter school he opened in Las Vegas and joined on center court by his wife, fellow Hall of Famer Steffi Graf.
Gone was the self-styled, long-haired rebel who rose to the No. 1 ranking in the world but, it now seems, didn't enjoy a single moment of it. Instead, Agassi turned his speech into a love letter of sorts for tennis and even the father who pushed him -- not always gently -- to play, commanding him, at the age of 5, to someday win Wimbledon.
"I fell in love with tennis far too late in my life. But the reason I have everything I hold dear is because tennis has loved me back," Agassi said. "If we're lucky in life, we get a few moments where we don't have to wonder if we made our parents proud. I want to thank tennis for giving me those moments."
Sprinkling his comments with gratitude for fellow Hall of Famers Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe and "the woman who still takes my breath away every day, Stefanie Graf," Agassi also recounted a meeting with Nelson Mandela in which the former South African president told him, "You must live carefully."
"I didn't always live carefully. I didn't always pay tennis the respect it deserved," Agassi admitted. "I didn't know myself, and I didn't realize that my troubles were of my own making."
Also inducted into the tennis shrine was contributor Fern "Peachy" Kellmeyer. The first woman to play on a men's Division I college team, she paved the way for Title IX by fighting the system that prohibited athletic scholarships for women. She played in the U.S. Open at 15 and was the first employee of the WTA, sticking around for 38 years as it grew from a tour with $309,000 in total purses to one that paid out more than $89 million.
"Any women who have college scholarships should give thanks to Peachy Kellmeyer," said Stacey Allaster, the ninth person to serve as the CEO of the WTA under Kellmeyer's guidance. "She has been the glue of women's tennis, holding the WTA together as CEOs and players come and go ... never letting us forget that our past is our future."
But even Kellmeyer knew she was just the opening act.
Next came Simone Ruffin, a student at the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy from third grade until she graduated as salutatorian in 2009. After a gentle dig at Agassi for "the mullet-wig thing," she called him her "hometown hero" and thanked him for helping at-risk and forgotten children in the adult playground of Las Vegas.
Agassi has helped raise $150 million for education reform with his foundation. Another of the school's students, A.J. Green sang the national anthem, leaving "America the Beautiful" to blues singer Keb' Mo'.
"He gave more than just money, or material things. He gave us the tools to build our own lives," Ruffin said of Agassi. "Because of him, I will never forget to look back and lift up others."
An eight-time Grand Slam champion and 1996 Olympic gold medalist who was No. 1 in the world for 101 straight weeks, Agassi plummeted to No. 141 in the rankings and by '97 was using crystal meth "a lot." (He also admitted in his 2009 book "Open" that he wore a wig to combat premature baldness.)
Deciding to rebuild his career, he turned to tennis' minor league tour and in 1999 he won his second U.S. Open, finished second at Wimbledon and won his only French Open to complete the career Grand Slam. The women's winner in Paris that year was Graf; they started dating shortly after the winners' ball and married two years later. (Agassi's first marriage, to actress Brooke Shields, lasted less than two years.)
He reached No. 1 again in 2003 at the age of 33 -- the oldest player to reach the top ranking -- and held it for 12 more weeks.
"Rock bottom's an interesting place. I moved in and spent some time there," Agassi said. "Going from 141 in the world back to No. 1 was not an accomplishment; it was the reflection of an accomplishment. It was a symptom of good choices."
Working on the school has been a second life for Agassi, at the same time providing him with a life's goal and a vehicle to pass it on to others. At the end of his speech, he turned to his own children and the others in the crowd and told them to look at the nurses and teachers "win their own, personal Grand Slams."
"They know already what it took me decades to find out: To shine in secret, and to give when there's no one applauding," he said. "It's not to late to be inspired. It's not too late to change. It's not too late."