Andre Agassi brings his love for education to Milwaukee
MILWAUKEE - He doesn't hear the roar of the crowd anymore. Today, tennis legend Andre Agassi is more interested in hearing the sound of children learning.
Monday afternoon, the eight-time Grand Slam winner was in Milwaukee, opening up his latest charter school, Rocketship Southside Community Prep. Founded in San Jose, California, Rocketship has become the highest growth charter school system in the country, and is funded by the nation's first market-driven real estate fund.
"The facilities hurdle was so overwhelming," Agassi said. "If we could reach out to private, for-profit capital, someone who says 'I'm not looking for a big return, but I want a huge social impact.' Getting that model ironed out (has) been a win for everybody."
It might be surprising to know that the man once known for his brashness and flamboyance on the court has become as invested as he is in education. In 2001, he opened his first school, the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a tuition-free charter school for at-risk kids in his hometown of Las Vegas.
"I think there is a lot of overlap," Agassi said of the links between tennis and education. "You spend your life [with] discipline, you spend your life pushing yourself past your own expectations. There are a lot of muscles that are built. The question is where do you direct it?"
For Agassi, that very question nearly led to his undoing. Two years ago his book, "Open", detailed sordid tales of his misguided youth, including his use of crystal methamphetamine during his playing career. It was a controversy that he welcomed.
"The point of the book was to say that nothing is as it seems," Agassi said. "My life wasn't as it appeared.
"I believe that we all live in this similar journey. We all have these different fronts and these different things we put on, but down deep we're all living with the same fears and the same trials and tribulations. If I could... reveal that, I felt like I could make a stronger connection."
The stronger connection Agassi has always made is with kids, particularly ones that come from humble means. The International Tennis Hall-of-Famer won the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award nearly 20 years ago and in addition to founding charter schools, he opened his own Boys and Girls Club in Las Vegas.
Another initiative Agassi and his wife, Steffi Graf, have been advocating is the United States Tennis Association's push to make tennis courts smaller for kids 10 and under.
"I think that's important," Agassi said of blended lines for kids being installed in USTA-supported tennis courts. The initiative also calls for smaller nets and racquets, and larger, softer balls. "Kids need to feel success at every level of their development. Every other sport grows at the rate of a child. Fields get bigger in baseball. Goals get bigger in soccer. The kids take it in bite-sized pieces. Then they start learning the game subtlely at a young age. It helps with their mind, and their processing, and their thinking and their shot selection. I think it's a big step forward."
But what about Agassi and Graf's own kids, blessed with possibly the greatest bloodlines in the history of tennis? The question is impossible not to ask, even though the two tennis superstars, with a combined 30 Grand Slam championships between them, took great pains to not push either of their kids, son Jaden, 11, and daughter Jaz Elle, 9, into the game.
"My daughter plays a couple of days a week," Agassi said, his trademark smile lighting up the gymnasium of the Milwaukee charter school where kids his own children's age are milling about. "I've got to say, for playing just a couple of days a week, she plays pretty well. But she does it just for fun."