The last goodbye - Andre Agassi

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Daily News -

LAS VEGAS - It's 104 degrees in the desert, the Earth brown and baked, and a 15-year-old African-American girl is chilling out in the atrium of the school that has changed her life, talking about the days and years ahead.
Her name is Tamiyka Clark. She has a lean and athletic physique, and she wants to play basketball in college. Mostly she wants to be a pediatrician. She likes algebra and tolerates Latin and tomorrow she will begin 10th grade at Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. She will do it on the same day the founder of the school will begin the final tournament of a two-decade tennis career that has amounted to a miniseries with a net in the middle - rich in achievement, even richer in metamorphosis, all of it played out with much of the planet watching.
Or as Jim Courier, Agassi's contemporary and longtime rival puts it, "The world is on a first name basis with Andre."
Tamiyka Clark knows little about Andre the tennis player, or the passages he has been through, from punky prodigy to bald-headed benefactor, underachiever to overachiever, tart-tongued, denim-wearing renegade to beacon of right-thinking and measured maturity. She has no clue how he went from No. 1 in the world to No. 141 and back to No. 1, or how he came to be a zen master for Barbra Streisand or a husband, albeit briefly, to Brooke Shields. Tamiyka wouldn't know a passing shot if it hit her in the backpack. She won't be paying much attention to the U.S. Open this year, to his chances of reprising his run to last year's final, somehow shucking off the debilitating back pain that has messed up most of his farewell year.
Tamiyka will be focused more on her academic business at hand, and meeting the high expectations and rigid demands embraced by the academy - the centerpiece of the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, a public charter school now in its sixth year. It started with grades 3-5 and 150 students and has expanded to K-10 and 530 students. Within two years, the school will extend to 12th grade, a $40 million complex on eight acres in a semi-blighted neighborhood in West Las Vegas.
"Basically, what I've learned is that no matter what anyone says, you can do whatever you want if you put your mind to it," Tamikya says. "Nobody can tell you your future. You make up your future as you see it in your eyes."
Andre Agassi is 36 years old. Two months ago at Wimbledon he announced that he would retire after the U.S. Open. He has 60 ATP titles, eight Grand Slam titles and is one of only five players to win all four Slams, doing it in inimitable, pigeon-toed fashion - taking the ball on the rise, returning as few players ever have, redefining how a match could be dominated from the backcourt.
"Andre was not nice to the ball," says Nick Bollettieri, the coach who worked with Agassi for the first seven years of his career. "He was going to beat you up. This wasn't just fluffy tennis. He hit the ball early and hit it with authority."
Agassi's status as one of the all-time greats is secure, but people close to him, and in the philanthropic arena, will tell you his charitable work is what will be his enduring signature. Now 12 years old, the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation has channeled more than $60 million to worthwhile causes in the poorest parts of Las Vegas, according to Julie Pippenger, executive director of the foundation. Apart from the school, the beneficiaries include the Andre Agassi Boys and Girls Club of Las Vegas and Child Haven, a shelter for abused, neglected and abandoned children, among many others.

Says Courier, "Short of maybe the Lance Amstrong Foundation, Andre is the most impactful athlete (in the country) today. The impact he's having on people who live in Las Vegas ultimately will be a much greater legacy than what he achieved on the tennis court."
John Austin teamed with his sister, Tracy, to capture the 1980 Wimbledon mixed doubles title. Some six years later, in February 1986, he came out of retirement via wild card and was the man across the net when 15-year-old Andre Agassi played his first professional match, in LaQuinta, Calif.
Austin thought his opponent was "just a skinny punk" who would go down easily, but revised his opinion quickly, as the punk took Austin's assortment of high, loopy groundstrokes and smashed them back.
"It was just like, 'Wow, I've never seen anybody hit the ball this hard,'" says Austin. "I have so much respect for him as a human being," Austin says. "The world is a better place for him being here."
"Image is everything," Agassi used to say in commercials for Canon. It helped sell cameras, but had little to do with Andre Agassi the person, or the kid.
The fourth child of Mike and Elizabeth Agassi, Andre was cultivated for stardom in a way few athletes beyond Tiger Woods could understand. Mike Agassi, an Olympic boxer in his native Iran, didn't want his boy mauling opponents in a square ring, but on a rectangular court. He put a tennis ball on a string over his crib and honed his hand-eye coordination with a Ping-Pong paddle in a high chair. The kid won a slew of age-group titles, and after seeing a TV segment on Bollettieri and his tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla., Mike Agassi called him at 2 a.m. from the floor of the casino where he worked.
"I have a son and I know if he comes to you, you can make him the best player in the world," Bollettieri recalls Mike Agassi saying. Andre left home at age 14. He had a half-scholarship, until Bollettieri saw him hit a few balls. Bollettieri returned Mike Agassi's check. "The boy is here for free," he said.
In 52 years of teaching the game, Bollettieri says Agassi is unlike anyone he has ever worked with, in flamboyance and charisma, in the all-absorbing gaze of his big brown eyes, and the way he could see a ball and hit it. To say Agassi chafed under the structure of Bollettieri's boot-camp-like approach is like saying Roger Federer can play a little bit.
"He was like 10 wild stallions wrapped into one," Bollettieri says. He also was as sensitive a person as the coach had ever worked with.
Before going to South America for his first overseas tournament as a pro, 16-year-old Andre saw his older brother, Phil, and Bollettieri laughing together in the gym one day. Andre was convinced they were making fun of him and stormed out, declaring that he wasn't going to go to the tournament. A year later, at 17, Agassi lost at the Tour stop in Washington, D.C. to a German veteran named Patrik Kuhnen. Bollettieri found him crying in the woods of the district's Rock Creek Park. Bollettieri told him he believed in him.
"Do you really mean that?" Agassi said, through his tears.
Says Bollettieri now, "Andre may have come across as confident and a rebel, but the guy was a little boy who never had a chance to be a little boy."
He concealed his neediness beneath his blow-dried hair and phosphorescent clothes, and vast celebrity, but for long stretches of his early career you could feel him searching for himself. He developed the rep of being a Vegas showman, a player with a huge game but dubious grit. Even after Agassi started winning Grand Slams, at Wimbledon in 1992, and at the U.S. Open in 1994 (when he was coming off a wrist injury and became the first unseeded Open champ in nearly three decades) you couldn't always be sure of the player who would show up.
Brad Gilbert, who coached him during the most productive years of his career, recalls when an unfit and unmotivated Agassi sank to No. 141 in the world in 1997, a bottom he began to climb out of by playing two matches on the challenger circuit.
"When you put in 10-cent effort, you get 10-cent results," Gilbert says. "He lost interest. Once he rededicated himself and started training harder than he'd ever trained, he was able to achieve the results that were always there."
A year later, Agassi jumped from No. 122 to No. 6, then captured the French Open in 1999, coming from two sets down against Andrei Medvedev, and his second Open title, over Todd Martin. In between, he made it to the Wimbledon final, losing to Pete Sampras, the rival whom he is most often measured against.
And so began one of the greatest second acts of any sports career in memory.
"He took this dramatic shift and started owning up to his skill set," Courier says. "He went from being a guy who probably underserved his talent to a guy who said, 'I'm going to do the best I can every day.'"
Andre Agassi comes into his 21st U.S. Open with a 77-18 lifetime mark in Flushing Meadows, and a rank of No. 37. People closest to him say they've never seen him more at peace, more contented, than he is now, with his wife, Steffi Graf, and two children, Jaden Gil and Jaz Elle. "He has met the person who made him everything he wanted to be, and more," Gilbert says of Graf.
Gil Reyes has been Agassi's trainer and confidant for 17 years.
Says Reyes, "He's feeling okay, but he's not 100%. We've dealt with the back as thoroughly and carefully as possible to enable him to bring it all and leave it all."
Whatever happens in Agassi's first-round match against Andrei Pavel of Romania, nothing figures to alter his stature as perhaps the most beloved player in Open annals. After Arthur Ashe Stadium rocked with chants of "Andre, Andre," during Agassi's championship round loss to Roger Federer last year, the people gave him a standing ovation. "I love you, too,' Agassi told them. It will rock again this year, and then he will make his trademark bow to all four corners of the room.
"When he does take that final bow, whatever round it is - hopefully the seventh - it will be tough," Reyes says. "My knees will not be steady and my eyes will not be dry."