A year into his retirement, tennis great Andre Agassi is proving that his game may be even better off the court.
Photographs by Brad Hines.
Andre Agassi is standing there bare-chested, and everyone is looking but pretending not to. Agassi, though, clearly doesn’t notice that they’re noticing but acting as if they’re not. Why should he? This is not the first time he’s been sans chemise in front of people. Back during his more hirsute days (before he shaved both head and chest) he regularly flung his sweaty shirts into the crowd at the end of matches. He was also famously shirtless in one of those famously unfortunate Canon commercials — the ones with the irritating “Image is everything” slogan.
At the moment, there are only a dozen people, um, not looking at Agassi. They’re all here, in Las Vegas, inside the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, to take his picture for the cover of the very magazine you are holding in your hands. As Agassi swaps out his own powder blue T-shirt for a white John Varvatos tee that he’ll wear in the pictures, someone finally admits to seeing what we’re all seeing. “Andre,” says Rob Powers, the communications director for the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, a group USA Today has called the “gold standard” for celebrity-run charities, “every time I see you, you look more bulked up.”
“Bulked up” is a good way to put it. “Huge” would work too. Agassi, at 37 and just a year into tennis retirement, is the textbook example of fit, tan, and rested. The last time most of us saw him, a year ago, he was none of those things. He was literally hobbling toward the end of his 21-year career, suffering from an irritated sciatic nerve during the 2006 U.S. Open. He won two matches, including a classic five-setter against Marcos Baghdatis that ended in the middle of the night. But the pain was too much, and Agassi lost in the next round to a walking trivia-question answer named Benjamin Becker.
Even so, he says the 2006 U.S. Open ranks as the most treasured moment of his career. That is no small statement. After all, Agassi is a guy who won eight Grand Slam tournaments, and he’s one of only five players who’ve won each of the four major titles. All this and an Olympic gold medal. The great Pete Sampras didn’t manage that, and so far, neither has the potentially greater Roger Federer. Yet to Agassi, despite his third-round exit, last year’s U.S. Open was better than kissing the French Open trophy at Roland Garros. “That was the best tournament,” Agassi says. He’s speaking deliberately, still sounding overcome by the experience. “That last tournament was everything to me. That moment out there in New York was worth every bit of work for 21 years. It was worth every … single … day for 21 years.”
Those 21 years are over, though, and he’s let them go. He doesn’t miss the game. Even though the game was at the center of his life for much of his life — ever since his dad hung tennis balls over his crib — he doesn’t miss it. Agassi turned pro when he was 16; came of age on Centre Court when he won Wimbledon; and then, after sinking from No. 1 to No. 141 in the world, remarkably and respectably came back and won the French Open and four more majors. All of that, he says, was just a prelude to what he is now and will be for the next 21-plus years. And what, exactly, is that? He can’t say. “I’m just a person with a passion,” Agassi explains, looking resplendent in an all-white ensemble of a Varvatos T-shirt and his own cotton pants. “I have a passion to do something that leaves a mark, that affects people in the right way. I don’t know what you call that.”
Whatever you do call it, you most certainly don’t call it “tennis player.”
“As far as I’m concerned, tennis has only been a vehicle for me to do what we’ve done here,” Agassi says, pointing out the window to the $40 million five-acre campus of Agassi Prep, which has been built in the middle of one of Vegas’s poorest neighborhoods. “The achievements I’ve had in tennis are not even in the same stratosphere as what we’re doing here.”