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.
The irony, of course, is that Agassi became the world's best tennis player despite his rage, his pigeon-toed shuffle and his unremarkable 5-11, 180-pound frame - routing more physically imposing foes by pouncing on his groundstrokes a split-second early and blistering his return of serve.
Agassi's dramatic competitive arc is well known. After winning Wimbledon in 1992 (the first of his eight majors) and reaching No. 1 in the world in 1995, he tumbled out of the top 100 and into irrelevance in 1997, the year he married actress Brooke Shields. But presented with a ready-made excuse to quit, he chose to claw back up the rankings through the humbling Challenger circuit. Two years later, he became just the fifth man in history to complete a career Grand Slam, winning the only major to elude him, the French Open. (Agassi has since been joined in this elite company by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal).
The tumultuous arc of Agassi's romantic life has been chronicled with equal intensity. The marriage to Shields, over in two years, was followed by a more lasting union with Graf, whom he wed in October 2001. Their son, Jaden, is nine; daughter Jaz Elle, 7. And last month they were joined by a long-awaited puppy named Buster.
But the transformation within Agassi, in which tennis turned from a bane to a blessing, forms the more compelling narrative. It began when he started his foundation in 1994 when his tennis career was going full tilt.
Ever since he was a boy, Agassi had a vision of doing something for youngsters in need - a wish, though not articulated at the time, to provide from someone else the nurturing childhood he had been denied.
Starting the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation not only fulfilled that impulse but it also gave meaning to his tennis, transforming a profession that had been foisted on him into one of his own choosing. Tennis became a platform for raising money and awareness of the needs of Las Vegas's children.
Only then, Agassi said, did he begin to live life on his own terms.
"When I finally took ownership of [my life], it came through finding a reason to care about the sport of tennis and attaching the idea of 'team' to it," Agassi said. "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. And in falling in love with the sport, I not only played longer than my body told me to, but the game gave me peace."
The synergy was evident to Darren Cahill from the moment he started coaching Agassi in 2002, the year after the foundation opened the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas, a public charter school for at-risk children. In 2009 it graduated its first senior class.
"He has a great sense of responsibility, of taking care of the people around him," Cahill said. "He has done that with the people he has employed - the coaches, trainers and everyone. He has this idea of building the perfect team and then taking care of that team, of jumping into the trenches together and leaning on each other during the low moments. It transcends tennis, and it transcends the foundation."
To date, the foundation has raised more than $60 million for needy children in southern Nevada. Agassi estimates it accounts for 70 to 80 percent of his time.
A life, finally, in balance.
"I spent year after year reminding myself that tennis happens to be what I do; it's not what I'm ultimately called for," Agassi said. "My sport was an opportunity to impact people. My life after is a bigger canvas to impact people."