Monday, September 04, 2006

There are sports heroes and then there is Andre Agassi

One of the greatest careers in the history of modern tennis ended yesterday at the U.S. Open when Andre Agassi lost in the third round to German B. Becker, not legendary German tennis start Boris Becker, but Benjamin Becker (no relation to Boris). This B. Becker’s ranked 112th before the U.S. Open claim to fame before ending Agassi’s career Sunday was an NCAA singles title at Baylor in 2004. Becker had to qualify for the U.S. Open, winning three matches last weekend.

Andre Agassi may not have been the greatest tennis player to have ever competed on a tennis court, the mark he’ll leave on tennis is both on and off a tennis court. Andre’s greatness lay not only in ability (winning eight grand slam events), but in seemingly reinventing himself time and time again. He had a personality and charisma few athletes have ever had. Agassi’s retirement ends a lengthy list of American tennis players whose appeal was in exciting sports fans. John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and finally Agassi had the unique ability to create interest in tennis, among none tennis fans. How appealing was Andre Agassi? His secret, like Tiger Woods was his gift to not only draw non-tennis fans to his sport, but to bring people who couldn’t have cared less about sports to tennis.

“I think in the last 20 years he’s been the most important person we’ve had in our sport,” Lindsay Davenport told The New York Times Sunday. “I think Billie Jean King made huge inroads for obviously women, but Andre made our sport cool, popular with the younger crowd, exciting. He’s beloved.”

“The scoreboard said I lost today,” Agassi told the crowd. “But what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. Over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed, sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I’ve found generosity.

“You have 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 you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life.”

According to Forbes Magazine, in 2004, tennis's elder statesman became the oldest player to finish in the top ten since Jimmy Connors in 1988. His $31 million in career prize money is second all-time, behind Pete Sampras. Agassi's ten-year contract with Nike that ended this year was worth $140 million when you factor in the appreciation of Nike stock he was granted. He's now serving for Adidas, just like his wife Steffi Graf. Other endorsement deals are with Genworth Financial, Head and Estee Lauder's Aramis brand.

Last year Forbes reported Agassi earned: $26.2 million had Web Hits: 521,000, Press Clips: 16,082, TV/Radio: 69 and was on the cover of one magazine. Forbes has yet to publish their 2006 business of tennis report. Agassi earns over US$25 million a year through endorsements, the most by any tennis player and fourth in all sports (first place is Tiger Woods at US$70 million a year). Agassi ended the 2005 tennis season as the seventh ranked player in the world.

Before the U.S. Open, Agassi had earned more then $31 million on the ATP Tour:

Year
Majors
ATP wins
Total wins
Earnings ($)
Money list rank
1997
0
0
0
305,132
72
1998
0
5
5
1,836,233
9
1999
2
3
5
4,269,265
1
2000
1
0
1
1,884,443
6
2001
1
3
4
2,091,766
4
2002
0
5
5
2,186,006
3
2003
1
3
4
2,530,929
4
2004
0
1
1
1,177,254
9
2005
0
1
1
1,629,596
5
2006
0
0
0
114,700
135
Career
8
52
60
31,110,975
2

Agassi first graced a tennis court as a professional in 1986. His image – rebellious, often defiant. Agassi didn’t see himself as a tennis ‘bad-boy’ in the classic style made famous by John McEnroe, but as a tennis player who dressed with a flair to be different. He boasted of a cheeseburger diet and endorsed the Canon Rebel camera. "Image is everything" was the ad's line, and it became Agassi's as well.

In addition to not playing the Australian Open for the first 8 years of his career, in what would later become his best grand slam event, Agassi chose not to play at Wimbledon from 1988 through 1990 and publicly stated that he did not wish to play there because of the event's traditionalism, particularly its "predominantly white" dress code to which players at the event are required to conform.

After winning the 1994 U.S. Open, the 1995 Australian Open, six more tournaments that year, and an Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games, overnight Agassi’s career and life began to fall apart. He married actress Brooke Shields, that year, two years later the couple divorced. His tennis game suffered. He won no top-level titles and his ranking sank to World No. 141 in November. He may have believed he was a rebel, but he knew if he didn’t get his life together he was finished as a tennis player.

In 1998, Agassi rededicated himself to tennis. After shaving his balding head just before the 1995 Australian Open, he began a rigorous conditioning program and worked his way back up the rankings by playing in Challenger Series tournaments (a circuit for professional players ranked outside the world's top 50). Perhaps most remarkably, the one-time rebel emerged as a gracious and thoughtful athlete, looked up to by younger players. After winning matches, he took to bowing and blowing two-handed kisses to spectators on each side of the court, a gesture seen as a rather humble acknowledgement of their support for him and for tennis.

In 1998, Agassi won five titles and leapt from No. 141 on the rankings at the start of the year, to No. 6 at the end of it, making it the highest jump into the top 10 made by any player. He won five titles in ten finals, and finished runner-up at the Miami Masters.

Even before the ink was dry on his divorce to Shields, Agassi was dating Steffi Graf. With only their mothers as witnesses, they were married at his home on October 22, 2001. Their son, Jaden Gil, was born six weeks premature on October 26. Their daughter, Jaz Elle, was born on October 3, 2003. It was Graf who brought stability to Agassi’s life, giving him a sense of purpose and direction.

Since his marriage with Shields ended and his relationship with Graf began, Agassi won the French Open in 1997, his second Australian Open title in 2000, successfully defended his Aussie Open title in 2001, lost to Pete Sampras in the 2002 U.S. Open final, and won the 2003 Aussie Open. His last great moment was losing the 2005 U.S. Open final to Roger Federer.

2006 has been a tennis year Agassi would rather forget. Agassi made it clear to the Los Angeles Times there was no doubt whatsoever in his mind his last tennis match would be at the U.S. Open

"That's my home turf," he said of playing his last match in the United States, as opposed to Wimbledon. "That's where I figured it's best to end. I've had some of my best memories there, and I feel like I grew up in front of the New York fans. Playing there helped me grow up, personally and professionally. It made me a better person and a better tennis player."

Plagued by injures including chronic back problems that required three cortisone ejections this week at the U.S. Open, Agassi announced in June he would retire after this years’ U.S. Open. Agassi didn’t compete in many events this summer, resting his back and getting ready for one last trip to the Billie Jean King Tennis Complex at Flushing Meadow. After winning his first round match Monday night (the first complete opening night sellout in U.S. Open history) Agassi summoned one last match for the ages.

Agassi’s last great match was a five set thriller Thursday night at the U.S. Open. Agassi summoned something from deep inside his inner being to stun eighth seeded Marcos Baghdatis (Cyprus). The match ended close to 1 AM. When the match ended the 23,700 Agassi fans that filled Arthur Ashe Stadium refused to leave until after Agassi had completed his post match on court interview with John McEnroe.

“It means a lot to me to make a difference in somebody’s day when they take the time to come watch tennis and watch me play.” Agassi said after the win of his 21-year career. “It’s not about my experiences in life as much as it is about creating experiences for others. That’s where I find a lot of joy.”

The 36-year-old legend bowed out of the US Open and tennis on Sunday in a 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-4, 7-5 loss to Germany’s Benjamin Becker, but there was no real defeat on the day, as all 23,712 fans in attendance stood and cheered in unison, saluting the most popular tennis player of all time.

“They've pulled for me,” he said. “In many cases, how they pulled for me on the court has helped me in life. In other cases, how they've pulled for me in life has helped me on the court. Over the years, it's been hard to separate the tennis from the relationships. They got me through a lot.”

“This is the last sort of window to the whole series of windows throughout my career,” he said. “I just feel like the color on the last one can affect how you see the rest of them. I didn't want it to be tainted with a lack of desire or preparation. I'd rather just be inside the lines. …This is the place that's given me the most over the years, have the most memories that has touched me in a way that I haven't experienced anywhere else.”

Still those close to Agassi (along with tennis fans everywhere) wish Sunday never arrived.

“I don’t want him to retire because he’s such a great guy and tennis will be missing so, so much without him,” said Roman Prokes who has been traveling with Agassi and stringing his rackets for the past 15 years. “It’s not just his style of play but his personality that makes him so incredible. He has changed a lot over the years – he has matured as a person and people can relate to that. Watching him grow over the years as a person and reacting to diversity, that made me a better person too. ” Smiling, Prokes added, “I wish him all the best in whatever he does and I know he’ll be as successful at it as he has been with tennis.”

Knowing when to retire can be the biggest challenge athletes have to deal with. Agassi and his better half Steffi Graf earned hundreds of millions from tennis and endorsements in their illustrious careers. Agassi made it clear to the Los Angeles Times, he’ll follow the lessons Graf learnt when she retired several years ago.

"I think it has helped me and it helped me years ago, seeing her go through it," Agassi said in an interview with The Times at UCLA in July. "It takes a lot of anxiety away from the day when you decide to do it.

"She doesn't even recognize life … it's almost like life before kids. You can't even remember what it was like, and she has a hard time remembering the dramas of it until she obviously sees me go through it and then she's quick to remind me that it all passes by quickly."

"I think people have got to find their own way through it," Graf said. "It's your own journey of this type. You feel it and make a decision. Everybody goes through it differently. He's very prepared.

"He's so ready for it, you know, most important is how he feels about it, not my feelings about it. He's very resolved and very much at peace with his decision. From there, it doesn't matter where we go."

The true greatness in Andre Agassi isn’t in the tennis tournaments he’s won, his eight grand slam titles or all the joy he brought to those who enjoyed watching him play. Andre Agassi has given more back to the community then the community ever gave to Agassi.

The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy (AACPA) is a model charter school whose goal is to offer academic programs designed to enhance a child's character, respect, motivation and self-discipline. Located in the heart of Las Vegas' most at-risk neighborhood, AACPA was created specifically to improve skill levels and combat lowered academic expectations while creating a climate of hope among this community's most challenged children. Advanced technology, smaller class sizes and extended school hours are just some of the practices the AACPA utilizes to achieve a higher standard of education.

The school was founded by Agassi in 2001 and conceived on his belief that nothing has a greater impact on children's lives than the education they receive. "Early on, we concluded that the best way to change a child's life was through education," said Andre Agassi, a native of Las Vegas dedicated to improving the lives of at-risk youth in his hometown. Thus, the idea to establish Agassi Prep was born.

AACPA opened in August 2001 in West Las Vegas, one of the most economically depressed parts of the city. It was later named a National Model Charter School by the U.S. Department of Education.

Charter schools must provide their own facilities, so the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation became a fundraising powerhouse, raising funds to construct the school. Designed to improve educational opportunities in Las Vegas, AACPA is currently home to students in grades K, 1 and 3-9 with grades 2 and 10-12 opening through 2008.

The students attending AACPA are selected by lottery. The majority are African-American from underserved West Las Vegas. Tuition is free, maximum class size is 25, and there is a long waiting list for admission.

"Besides Lance Armstrong, I don't think there's another guy that's raised as much money as Andre," McEnroe told The Los Angeles Times. "To start a school like that. The way he's presented himself now, cut the hair and he dedicated himself to the sport, become this incredible ambassador."

Agassi's close friend and manager, Perry Rogers, who goes back to the pre-Bollettieri days, paused when asked about Agassi's ultimate legacy. He recalled in a Los Angeles Times report the time they brought comedian Dennis Miller over to the charter school in Las Vegas. They were walking out of a classroom and Rogers looked at Miller.

"I said, 'Are you OK?' He had tears in his eyes," Rogers said in the Los Angeles Times report. "I was thinking this is the way life is supposed to be. Andre's lived his life the way you're supposed to live it."

At 36, Andre Agassi is just beginning his life. His greatness, his true legacy will never be measured in the tennis matches he’s won. His greatness and true legacy will first be recognized in the children who complete his Charter school and their subsequent lives. Here’s a safe bet, Andre Agassi is capable of a great deal more. His vision, his belief in a better world and the direction he takes with his life is something we can all look forward too.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: the Los Angeles Times, The Las Vegas Review Journal, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Andre Agassi Foundation, and U.S. Open.org