Page last updated at 08:22 GMT, Thursday, 26 August 2010 09:22 UK

Agassi's 'mission' takes him back to school

By Stephen Sackur
Presenter, BBC HARDtalk

Despite having earned millions of dollars and winning eight Grand Slam titles Andre Agassi now admits that he hated tennis.

Forget the eight Grand Slam titles and the Olympic gold medal, Andre Agassi's proudest professional achievement is to be found in a down-at-heel neighbourhood in west Las Vegas.

The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy is one tennis champion's answer to the most difficult question in professional sport - what happens when the body rebels and the cheering stops, when life can no longer be measured in wins and losses?

I meet Andre Agassi on the first day of a new school year. His hometown is sweltering in the August heat. Las Vegas's public schools won't be opening for another two weeks, but at the Agassi Academy they play by different rules.

"The key here is expectations," Agassi tells me as we walk through a spotless corridor toward the seniors' library.

"Our school year starts earlier and our school day is longer. We expect every child here to make the most of the opportunity they've been given."

Wide eyes

We walk down spotless corridors, past a host of giant portraits - Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King - and then a shot of Agassi saluting the crowd at the end of his final appearance at the US Open.

School children greet Agassi with a hug

Is this a project born out of vanity and ego? "I didn't want my name on this school," he tells me, "but I soon realised it was the best way to bring in the money and make it happen."

We knock on a door and walk into an airy classroom. Two dozen five year olds turn to stare. Every child is dressed in a smart burgundy polo shirt. Hands shoot up. "Miss, it's Mr Agassi," says one with wide eyes, as their teacher invites us in.

For Andre Agassi scenes like this are the culmination of a 15-year commitment to education and child development in Las Vegas's most deprived neighbourhoods.

I have a mission and tennis was the vehicle that allowed me to follow it
Andre Agassi

He raised tens of millions of dollars to get the school built and his foundation supports it with $3m (£1.9m) a year.

Ninety five per cent of the students are African American. "How many of you guys can already read?" Agassi asks the Kindergarteners. Just three or four hands go up.

"How many of you want to go to college?" Every child raises a hand.

Tennis factory

Andre Agassi's own education never strayed far from the tennis court. His father, Mike, was an immigrant from Iran, a former Olympic boxer, who was determined to turn his children into champions.

Tennis, to Mike Agassi, was the quickest route to riches and realisation of the American dream. And if his kids didn't want to play ball? Tough. It was his decision, not theirs.

Last year Andre Agassi wrote (with the help of a ghost writer) one of the more frank and illuminating autobiographies to come out of professional sport.

Andre Agassi at the US Open in 1997
Andre Agassi lied to tennis authorities about his use of crystal meth

He described a childhood and adolescence stunted by his father's maniacal insistence on tennis perfection.

Andre was packed off to Nick Bolletieri's tennis academy - a factory farm for tennis prodigies - and by 16 he had ditched high school and joined the professional tour.

The young Agassi was an on-court peacock. He won Wimbledon at 22 but made plenty of enemies along the way.

"Nothing but a haircut and a forehand," grumbled Ivan Lendl. "All hype," sniped Jimmy Connors.

And off-court Agassi was a mess. Self-indulgent, self-pitying and ultimately self-harming; by 1997 he had started smoking the highly addictive drug, crystal meth.

Unrepentant

Agassi's readiness to talk about the drugs, his lies and the tennis authorities' blind eye, has infuriated some in his sport.

Martina Navratilova compared him to the steroid abusing cheats in Major League baseball. Rafael Nadal has described his revelations as self-serving and an unnecessary stain on today's game.

"When they say that stuff they're simply showing they haven't read my book," says an unrepentant Agassi. "No drug I ever took helped me perform.

"That was the period when my game was falling apart."

I know what the money can do. I can't say no
Andre Agassi

As for the charge that Agassi is just another celebrity peddling a "woe is me" storyline, Agassi simply smiles. "I don't want sympathy," he says.

"I have a mission and tennis was the vehicle that allowed me to follow it."

This man who claims to have hated tennis "with a dark and secret passion" is now married to the uber-champion of the women's game, Steffi Graf.

They have two children, eight and six (both in private education it should be noted), who will not, says their father, be forced to pursue sporting excellence.

"My son is pretty good at baseball and right now he loves to practice," he says, "but how far does he go with it? That has to be his choice."

Andre Agassi's ambition is now to be a serious player in American education.

For years, he says, government has "failed to deliver" for the nation's children.

He wants his Las Vegas academy to be the template for a national movement. He's been to Wall Street on a fund-raising drive and claims he has pledges of half a billion dollars to build hundreds of academies in failing school districts.

As we conclude our campus tour Agassi walks slowly and deliberately.

Twenty years in pro tennis has left him with chronic back pain, but in a couple of days he is flying to Colombia for a fund-raising exhibition match with his long-time rival Pete Sampras.

"I know what the money can do," he says. "I can't say no."

You can watch the full interview on Thursday 26 August 2010 on the BBC News Channel at 0230 and 0430 BST and on BBC World News at 0330, 0830, 1530, 1930 GMT



SEE ALSO
Nadal shocked by Agassi cover-up
29 Oct 09 |  Tennis
Agassi admits use of crystal meth
28 Oct 09 |  Tennis

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