x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Hall of Fame shows Agassi as the rebel with a good cause

Andre Agassi, the new entrant to the select club of tennis, has gone from a bad boy to hero.

Andre Agassi blows a kiss to the crowd after being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Andre Agassi blows a kiss to the crowd after being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Thanks to his generosity and unremitting candour, Andre Agassi seems to enjoy greater popularity in retirement than while he played, and he was a popular champion.

The former world No 1 was inducted into the sport's International Hall of Fame over the weekend, and his latest round of unvarnished revelations continues to endear him to fans who, refreshingly, seem to value hard truth over polished fancy.

"I fell in love with tennis far too late in my life," Agassi said. "But the reason I have everything I hold dear is because tennis has loved me back."

Agassi was an edgy rebel in his two decades among the global elite: the denim shorts, the earrings, the mullet of blond hair, the sponsor-created declaration that "image is everything".

He entertained with well-rounded, intelligent tennis and still is one of only three men (Roger Federer and Rod Laver are the others) to play in four consecutive grand slam finals (1999/2000).

His 2009 autobiography, Open, was so brutally honest as to verge of self-flagellation, but after the initial shocks of revelations involving crystal methamphetamine, hair extensions and his loathing for tennis, it was realised that he was stripping away many of the false assumptions of a sport that often inhales childhoods.

Open, wrote the New York Times, is "one of the most passionately anti-sports books ever written by a superstar athlete … Agassi's announced theme is that the game he mastered was a prison he spent some 30 years trying to escape".

With his wife, Steffi Graf, and two children serving as emotional anchors, Agassi seems to have called a truce with the game and self-absorption, and his primary activity since he stopped playing in 2006 is raising money to build schools for inner-city youth.

He was introduced at the Hall of Fame ceremony by a student from the 650-pupil school he opened in Las Vegas, the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy.

"He gave more than just money, or material things," said Simone Ruffin, who graduated from Agassi Prep in 2009. "He gave us the tools to build our own lives."

The new Agassi rues that he cannot reach all the needy children. "When I look at my work off the court, it's never enough," he told ESPN.com. "Because you never know when that child you help is going to change the world."

He now seems intent on making the planet a better place, a rare approach for our retired athletes.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae