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Updated: September 1, 2009 12:49 IST

Agassi honoured at Open

AP
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Andre Agassi greets the crowd while being honoured on opening night of the U.S. Open in New York.
AP Andre Agassi greets the crowd while being honoured on opening night of the U.S. Open in New York.

Andre Agassi walked back onto the Arthur Ashe Stadium court and bowed and blew kisses to the U.S. Open crowd.

Then he gave a speech on education policy.

His passion made Agassi beloved among the New York fans. Now that exuberance is devoted to the public school he founded in his hometown of Las Vegas - his emotion stoked by this year’s inaugural graduating class all going to college.

Agassi, NFL player Doug Flutie, women’s football player Mia Hamm and David Robinson of the NBA were honoured as athletes who give back to the community at opening night of the U.S. Open on Monday.

The eight-time Grand Slam champion wouldn’t send his own children to the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. That’s because he can afford to send them to any school of his choosing - his goal is to serve the children whose families can’t.

“It’s just too important to me that this school reaches those children, the ones that society has written off or are quickest to write off or that are just being assumed to not have a chance,” Agassi said at a news conference after the ceremony.

Agassi returned to the stadium for the first time since playing the final match of his professional career at the 2006 U.S. Open, his record 21st straight appearance at the tournament. When Agassi made his Flushing Meadows debut in 1986, it would have been hard to believe that the rebellious teenager would one day become an education philanthropist.

He joked that “not only did I leave Bradenton Academy in the ninth grade, but eighth grade was the best three years of my life.”

“There were a lot of moments I didn’t understand, I was confused by, scared by,” Agassi said of his evolution as a tennis player - and person. “A lot of times I wanted to hide from facing it. But I’m still in process.

“So don’t believe what you’re seeing here either, because unless I continually ask the most from myself - you know, it’s a way of life. It’s a choice of life.”

These days he’s professorially serious about education. Agassi sounds completely comfortable talking about how legislative changes can improve schools, how his academy’s model can be scaled, how teachers can be held accountable.

“What Andre did in his career is incredibly impressive,” said No. 21 seed James Blake. “But to have someone who can be more impressive after their career is so rare.”

Like Agassi, Robinson opened his own school. Flutie and Hamm support medical causes that have affected their families: autism for Flutie, bone marrow transplants for Hamm.

Agassi concedes that, no different from his tennis career, he stumbled along the way as he matured as a philanthropist. At first he spread himself too thin, trying to aid too many causes at the expense of focusing on one to make the greatest impact.

Even with his academy, at times he made decisions too impulsively.

Those lessons are why Agassi founded Athletes for Hope with Hamm and other sports greats in 2007. The organisation advises athletes in their charitable efforts.

Agassi talked a little about tennis too. He was thrilled to see Roger Federer finally win the French Open, then break the record for career Grand Slams, because it erased any doubts about the Swiss star’s place in history. And he has some thoughts on why there’s no clear heir as the next great American men’s tennis player.

“We have 300 million people in this country,” Agassi said. “We got to get the racket in more kids’ hands. We have to create a grassroots level that connects.”

Agassi joked that it was nice to pull up to the stadium and no longer have to worry about how he felt physically. And he enjoyed telling the U.S. Open fans about his latest passion.

“I’ve shared all my life with New York fans, for the most part,” he said. “I mean, 21 years. They not only helped me to take a harder look at myself, they helped me grow up. They watched me and helped me.

“So at this juncture, you know, I’m ending one sort of time chapter and I’m starting another, and I’m at the beginning of it. So I can leave it to New York to scrutinise. I can leave it to New York to nurture.”

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