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For Agassi, it's substance over style

The 34-year-old left behind concerns about his image to become one of tennis' greats as well as a philanthropist.

By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published August 1, 2004

LAS VEGAS - The words made him famous.

They also haunted him.

Fourteen years ago, in a series of commercials for Canon cameras, rising tennis star Andre Agassi, already well known for his long hair and untennis-like denim shorts, boldly looked at the world, opened his mouth and let out one lasting phrase.

Image is everything.

The campaign was an instant hit and helped Agassi become a giant in the sports world. But some thought the words were more than advertising fodder, and Agassi often was viewed as a person of style, not substance, a hollow soul more interested in looking good than being good.

Today all of the hair is gone and Agassi dresses like everyone else on the court. He is a husband, a father, a player with eight major championships and likely will go down as one of the game's greats, a fighter, a grinder, a survivor. His charitable foundation raises millions for at-risk youth and helps fund a charter school for the poor in his native Las Vegas.

At 34, Agassi is perhaps the most beloved and respected player in the world. Quite simply, he became the man many thought he'd never be.

How he got here is a unique tale. Agassi has reinvented himself as a player and a person. He changed his game, his style and even more impressive, he changed the way the world looks at him.

"What he understands now," said John Feinstein, a Washington Post columnist and best-selling author, "is that image is not everything, that substance matters."

* * *

Not far off Interstate 15, northwest of the famed Vegas strip in the part of town not shoved down a tourist's throat by the chamber of commerce, a black Mercedes glides effortlessly into the parking lot at the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. The driver's door opens, and a man's mostly bald head emerges.

Wearing faded jeans, a sweater and a pair of white Nikes, his arms move only bit, but his legs pump to a quick, smooth and unmistakable pace.

Andre Agassi looks out of place.

Then again, so does the school that bears his name. Situated in an architecturally magnificent building, Agassi Prep rests at the corner of W Lake Mead Boulevard and Concord, surrounded by run-down houses and beat-up buildings in the heart of what has been called Las Vegas' most at-risk neighborhood.

The school, which offers academic programs for the community's most challenged children, is called a "a beacon of hope" by its principal. To Agassi, it's much more. "This," the star said, "is what it's all about."

What Agassi is about in 2004 might have been hard to visualize in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The youthful Agassi had the kind of pizazz tennis had yet to see. Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, legends on the way out, had attitude, but Agassi was a rock star. He had something different, a look, a certain coolness that drew audiences toward him. He was reserved yet flamboyant. He had the hair, the flair, and the off-court relationships, which included a very public marriage to actor Brooke Shields and his unique friendship with Barbra Streisand, who once referred to Agassi as Zen-like. Even the camera he touted said something about him: the Canon Rebel.

A prodigy of famed teaching pro Nick Bollettieri, Agassi, a ball boy as a child, turned pro at 16 and grew up before the world's eyes. But only a select few were part of his inner circle and the mystery of who he really was became part of his allure. Whether you loved or hated him, Agassi had our attention. His fans cheered every move, his detractors questioned his heart, sincerity and even his intelligence.

"He was an easy target," said Perry Rogers, Agassi's agent and longtime friend.

Agassi and Rogers have worked together since 1993, but their relationship dates back to when Rogers was 12 and Agassi was 11. As youngsters growing up in Las Vegas, they formed a brotherly bond. They did everything together, from playing tennis to watching movies, and as Rogers puts it, "He was the one friend I could talk about anything to."

And vice versa. When Agassi left at 13 to train at the Bollettieri Academy in Florida, Rogers threw the going away party. While Agassi was traveling the world and Rogers was enrolled at Georgetown, they remained close, one knowing he could count on the other.

"I was in college and I had just found out that my girlfriend had cheated on me," Rogers said. "So I called him and told him what was going on. And he said, "I'll be right there.' I got a call about five hours later and he said, "Here's when my plane lands.' I said, "Andre, I'm in finals. I don't even have time to talk.' So he said, "Well, I'm going to stay at the hotel on campus and you've got to eat. So if you've got five minutes, or 20 minutes or an hour, we'll talk about it then. And I'll just go back to my hotel room and wait.' And he did that for three days."

By then, Agassi had become a star. Largely because of his colorful outfits and sometimes mangy hair, he was perceived to be a rebel, but Rogers said that couldn't have been further from the truth. Rogers points to the media and says his friend's image was the creation of agents from IMG who handled Agassi during his rise to prominence.

"IMG had their own ideas," Rogers said. "But what happened pretty quickly was that Andre said, "Wait a second.' The worst thing is when you know for a fact someone's public persona does not accurately portray who they are as an individual."

Not everyone buys Rogers' argument.

Feinstein, one of Agassi's most outspoken critics early in the player's career, called Rogers' opinions agentspeak and called the young Agassi a "a pain in the butt."

"That's pretty typical, an agent making a comment like that," Feinstein said. "That's the kind of statement that causes an athlete to live in what I call the land of never wrong. If he was misportrayed in any way, people went easy on him. When he did give people any kind of access, he was likable, so people went easy when they should have been harder. ... The whole thing with Barbra Streisand, being a Zen Master, it was laughable more than anything."

Agassi was one of the players Feinstein chronicled in Hard Courts: Real Life on the Professional Tennis Tours.

"Nick Bollettieri was involved, (trainer) Gil Reyes, and his brother Phil went around barking at people," Feinstein said. "His masseuse was there, his racket stringer ... who else, let's see, a religious guru who he once fired after a loss. He skips Wimbledon for three years and the people around him were like, "That's the right thing to do.' Nobody ever said, "It's absurd to skip Wimbledon."'

Feinstein wasn't alone.

Esquire magazine once gave "Andre" awards to the most annoying people in sports. Others chimed in, but Agassi, though upset by the criticism, bit his lip.

"Frustrated would be the word, more than mad," Agassi said. "You just always hope that your actions reflect who it is you are, but you have to be accountable to the fact they might not. I accept responsibility for a lot of things that maybe didn't represent me in the light I wished."

ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale, a former tour standout, thinks Agassi's critics went overboard. Drysdale, who has covered Agassi throughout the player's career, doesn't deny that Agassi was immature at times.

"There were those who said he was all flash and glamour and nothing else, but I never really signed on with that," Drysdale said. "He went through growing pains like everybody does."

When Rogers started working with Agassi, he set out to repair and reshape his friend's image. The key, he said, was letting Agassi be seen by the public.

"People thought he was a wild rebel, who was out there just hitting the ball as hard as he could," Rogers said. "But he liked contemporary music and was a profound thinker. Talk about opposites. He's a smart guy and I always felt that over time who he was would be discovered."

While sitting in a car together in Arizona in the early '90s, the two talked of giving back to the community, something both say was an idea hatched when they were kids. At one point, Rogers says he turned to Agassi and said, "Let's do it."

The Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation to assist at-risk youth in Las Vegas was created in 1994, the Andre Agassi Boys and Girls Club came three years later and in 2001 Agassi Prep opened.

* * *

On the drive north through Las Vegas on I-15, you catch a majestic view of the strip. Enormous shiny buildings rise from the desert much like the pyramids of Egypt. Behind them, snow-capped mountains provide the perfect backdrop.

But soon the beauty fades.

One after the other, the city's famed hotels sink into the rearview mirror. At Lake Mead Boulevard, the strip is just about out of sight. It certainly is out of mind.

Here, the air doesn't feel as fresh, and the buildings are most politely described as humble. The sidewalks need repair and weeds sprawl unimpeded through cracks. Gone are the limousines, Mercedes and BMWs. A beatup Mazda pickup putters by as a thick plume of smoke pumps from the tailpipe.

The strip has Caesars Palace and the MGM Grand. Lake Mead Boulevard sports a Long John Silver's and a sign boasting, "Fresh Catfish."

Inside Agassi Prep, built with $4.1-million from donations, federal and state money and Agassi's foundation, a dozen or so sharply dressed kids quietly work on an assignment as a teacher provides instruction. The boys wear khaki pants, the girls sport skirts. All wear a garnet polo, which bear above the heart in a circular configuration the words Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy.

Part of the public school system, Agassi Prep, for grades 3-8 (it will eventually be K-12), was created to provide recreational and education opportunities for kids that don't have much.

"You want to make sure the kids who need it the most have the chance," Agassi said. "This part of town is in the most need. It's one thing to have the walls, and the bricks up. It's another thing to have these children in here learning and catching up, in some cases, what is two years behind in school, which is incredible. It's the children that make it. I don't show this building off separate from the children. It sort of all goes together."

Classes are small, the technology is advanced. Every student is given a backpack. School days are two hours longer than others in the system. Students are chosen through a lottery system.

Several hundred are on the waiting list at any given time, principal Kimberly Allen said. Any child can apply but about 50 percent live in the neighborhood. Getting in is only part of the battle. Teachers, parents and students must follow Commitment to Excellence and Code of Respect guidelines.

"Our kids outperform every school in this area," Allen boasted.

Not all is perfect. Many children don't last, and, seventh-grader Ricky Beasley said, "If the work is hard, some want to go to other schools."

School nurse Jennifer Powers has seen it all. She said she loves her job, but at times it has frustrated her to the bone. Children are screened once a year for dental, hearing and vision, and the tests often reveal problems.

"There was a student we had last year that couldn't see very well," Powers said. "On a field trip, they walked right into a glass plate door. I told the mom to see a doctor."

The child had glaucoma.

At a dental screening, four students were found to have abscessed teeth. Some had never visited a dentist.

Agassi, who donates more than $1-million a year to the foundation, spends much of his time traveling the world, but drops by the school an estimated 10-12 times a year. Rogers, a regular visitor, is his eyes and ears. Agassi's primary role is fundraiser, and his star power talks. One charity event alone in 2003 raised $12.6-million after drawing Sheryl Crow, Billy Joel, Elton John and Robin Williams.

"I'm hands-on in many ways," Agassi said. "Guilt doesn't drive me here. What drives me here is inspiration."

The school opened two weeks before 9/11. On the day of the attacks, a solemn Agassi left his house and made the 15-minute drive to the school. After visiting with the kids, he called Rogers, telling his friend, "I needed that."

* * *

On the court, Agassi has climbed to the top and fallen flat. He has experienced the highs of major championships and the lows of being the sport's forgotten man. Few careers have had this many peaks and valleys, but after every humbling experience Agassi has returned a better player, and, some say, a more mature man.

He won his first major in 1992 at Wimbledon, but wrist surgery threatened his career a year later. In 1994, he claimed his first U.S. Open, yet within three years was out of the top 100.

It was then (in 1997) when Agassi's career appeared to be done. He married Shields that year, fell out of shape, seemed to lose interest in tennis and all but disappeared from the radar screen. His record was 12-12 (he won 73 matches two years earlier), he missed three majors and was bounced in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, finishing the season No. 122 in the rankings.

Was it simply another Agassi funk, or was it more?

"Listen, I didn't fall to 140 in the world by waking up one more morning," Agassi said matter-of-factly. "You have to work to get there. So it wasn't like that was a quick process. It was about not doing what I was doing. It was only me out there."

He was 27, and in tennis that meant he was old.

Many wrote him off.

A year later, Agassi dropped weight, dedicated himself to fitness and found his game. He was back in the Top 10.

His return to prominence shocked many, but to Agassi, "it was no surprise. It was just a refocusing. For me, it was just not giving in."

In 1999, he divorced Shields, and that year he reached his professional peak, winning the French and U.S. Opens and reaching the final at Wimbledon. The French championship made Agassi the fifth man to record a career Grand Slam (a title in all four majors), something legends Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras, Agassi's longtime rival, never accomplished.

"His place in tennis history was secured with that," Drysdale said.

Agassi added Australian Open titles in 2000, '01 and '03, has won more than 800 matches, and though he's having a not-so-spectacular 2004 it's worth noting that he has reached the quarterfinals or better in 11 majors since turning 30.

"He's pretty amazing," said Dade City native Jim Courier, a former Agassi rival.

In Agassi's early days on tour, he was not perceived to be a gutsy, grind-it-out player (some called him a quitter), but that's essentially what he has become. He's a baseline master with the ability to reach shots time and again and frustrate players across the net. His return of serve is thought to be the game's best. The key to all of this, many say, is focus.

"He's in great shape, and he's one of the best ball-strikers of all time," Tampa's Mardy Fish, the world's 18th-ranked player, said. "He's got the best hand-eye coordination and he can hit any shot off any ball."

Sampras, younger than Agassi by a year, played his last competitive match at the 2002 U.S. Open, a dramatic four-set win over Agassi. But Agassi, who is ranked No. 11 and was No. 4 when the year began, keeps on going. Most have stopped trying to guess when he will set down his racket.

"He loves it," Drysdale said. "He feels an obligation to it. I know he's not doing it for the money anymore. He's doing it for the record books. And I think it's great he does it."

Agassi credits much of his recent success to wife Steffi Graf, herself a legend. The two announced they were dating in 1999 and married two years later. The couple has two children, a boy, Jaden Gil, who turns 3 in October, and a daughter, Jaz, who will soon be 1.

"That is my life, her and my kids" Agassi said. "She's made a big difference in my career as well. She gives me the support I need to do it as I do. She's always rallying and helping me by being so supportive."

With more than $28-million in winnings and his legacy firm, Agassi still pushes himself on the court, continually trying to improve, he says, for love of the game. When asked if he works harder now than ever, Agassi doesn't hesitate.

"Yeah," he said. "For sure."

* * *

After talking to administrators at the school, Agassi slowly walks to his car and drives away, off to a life with which he says he has grown comfortable. Tennis remains a huge part of the package, but there is so much more now: the foundation, the school, and of course, his family.

In some ways Agassi is much like many of us.

He collects antiques and enjoys listening to music. And, as Agassi said, "I'll cook you the best steak you've ever had."

All these years after bursting onto the scene, he remains unique and as complex as ever. Only now, there seem to be far fewer critics. "I like to read what they've written lately," Rogers said.

People change. Opinions change. Images change.

"I thought (Steffi Graf) was substance and he was not," Feinstein said. "The fact she would fall in love with him says a lot about him because I always thought she was one of the brightest athletes I've ever known. He did a good job of growing up. I think (people) should pull for him. I wrote a column after he got back to No. 1 a few years ago and said this guy deserves all the credit in the world. Certainly, he's not doing it for the money. He cares about his legacy."

A boy's transformation to man is complete.

Image isn't everything, but it's worth noting Agassi's is pretty good.

[Last modified July 31, 2004, 23:51:23]


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