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Andre Agassi stays busy with charitable ventures after his tennis career

"I always thought I'd be better in team sports, anyway. I ended up using tennis as a vehicle to do my life's work. As a result, I grew to love the sport," Andre Agassi said. (Chris Mcgrath/getty Images)
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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 12:27 AM

The shaggy-haired, Day-Glo rebel of tennis is now 40.

And after the pounding of a 21-year career that plumbed the sport's depths and reached its pinnacle, Andre Agassi figures he has been left with the body of a 60-year-old, racked by such pain in his hip on the worst days that simply walking without a limp is an achievement.

Regardless of what Monday brings, Agassi will pick up a racket once again - along with wife Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and a half-dozen of their peers - to take part in an exhibition at American University's Bender Arena staged by Billie Jean King and longtime friend Sir Elton John, with the proceeds benefiting the fight against AIDS.

"I could have to fight through a little pain, but it's worth it. Or I could feel fantastic. I really don't know," Agassi said in a telephone interview, asked about his physical condition. "But what I try to do [in exhibitions] is play well enough to give people a little nostalgia. To expect more than that, for me, is a little too much."

The fact tennis has come to mean most to Agassi when the scoreboard matters least is yet another in a series of contradictions that have defined the former champion's life.

Retired since September 2006, when his final U.S. Open run (made bearable only by searing cortisone injections to numb the pain in his back) ended in the third round, Agassi plays these days primarily to showcase the foundation he started in 1994 to help needy children in his native Las Vegas and to support the charitable efforts of friends like King.

If he misses anything about life on the pro tour, it's the relationships he forged over two decades, most of them behind the scenes, with the trainers, coaches and tournament staff who cared for him through a life lived out of suitcases and played out on center courts. He is wistful over little else.

"As far as inside the lines, you could tell me right now [that] all I have to do is train, and I'm going to go win the Australian Open, and I'd say, 'I'm a little too focused on what I'm doing now to want to do it,'" Agassi said. "When I turned from the game, I didn't feel like I was turning away from the game but turning to something else."

If it's possible for a millionaire to feel trapped in a profession, that was Agassi for much of his life.

Almost since he could toddle and wrap his tiny fingers around a racket, tennis strokes were drilled into his muscle-memory by a domineering father who was determined, as a former Olympic boxer, to produce a sporting champion. The prodigy that resulted was shipped off to a tennis academy in seventh grade, abandoned his formal education after ninth grade and turned pro at 18.

"I found myself in this life I didn't choose," said Agassi, who detailed his love-hate relationship with the sport with disarming candor in his 2009 memoir, "Open."

So Agassi raged against the object of his scorn as any teen would - sticking a finger in the eye of the game's conventions with his irreverent garb and image-is-everything attitude, boycotting Wimbledon for a time because of its oppressive dress code and wondering, on occasion, if the player across the net shared his deep-seated resentment of the endless repetition.

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