ANDRE AGASSI'S NAME is all but synonymous with tennis—and not just because of his athletic brilliance. While his career brought him the world's number one ranking, what really got everyone's attention was the way he turned a tradition-bound sport on its ear. Trading tennis whites for flashy colors, he let his long blond hair flow behind him on the court like the tail of a comet—that is, until he shaved his head clean, establishing a new benchmark for on-court cool.
For all of the media's focus on his image, Agassi won over traditionalist tennis fans with his durability and determination. After a mid-career slump in 1997 dropped him to number 141 in the world, Agassi fought all the way back to regain his number one ranking, and continued winning until his retirement in 2006 at the age of 36. His 2001 marriage to tennis legend Steffi Graf—the dominant women's player of her era—seemed to seal his destiny as the face of his sport.
Who you marry is the "biggest decision you'll make—and I chose wisely," says Agassi of wife Steffi Graf (above).
Then, in 2009, Agassi shocked the tennis world by revealing in a memoir that he had, in his words, "always hated" the game that was chosen for him. "Tennis was never how I really identified myself," he recalls today. Though Agassi still plays tennis charity tournaments, his priorities now are his enduring marriage to Graf, their two children, and his passion for helping underprivileged kids. "I think my connection to children has been my own feeling of being disenfranchised in my own childhood," Agassi says.
A Passion for Education
His interest in helping children started in his playing days, when Agassi funded shelters for abused children in a depressed section of his hometown of Las Vegas. Later, he says, he came to realize that "education was probably the only real way to make systemic change." That was when he created a private philanthropic foundation that raised more than $185 million in 2016 to support innovations in education.
Chief among the foundation's projects is his flagship charter school in Las Vegas, the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, or Agassi Prep. But Agassi's efforts extend beyond traditional philanthropy. The for-profit Agassi Ventures partnered with investor Bobby Turner's Turner Impact Capital to create the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Funds, social impact investment funds that develop charter school facilities across the country.
Agassi describes his journey from tennis champion to child advocate in conversation with John Thiel, Vice Chairman of Global Wealth & Investment Management, in "Finding Your True Purpose."
When it comes to educating daughter Jaz Elle, 13, and son Jaden Gil, 15, he and Graf (who was also pushed into tennis at a very young age) strive to lead by example rather than over-steering. Of his 15-year marriage to Graf, he says, "Who you pick as your partner in life is the single biggest decision you'll make, and I chose wisely."
For help funding their personal and philanthropic priorities, Agassi and Graf turned for guidance to Merrill Lynch Financial Advisor David Tracy, based in Los Angeles. Agassi first met with Tracy in 2008 when he and Graf sought help in establishing a financial way forward for their post-tennis lives. From the start, "I felt he was someone who would really listen to me," Agassi recalls. "And our relationship has actually grown stronger over time."
Grounded in family
"When you get to know Andre and Steffi, you respect them even more as parents, philanthropists and people, than as two of the greatest tennis players of all time," says Tracy.
Tracy and his partner, Merrill Lynch Financial Advisor Chuck Tharnstrom, have encouraged a long-term focus for the foundation, "so that Andre and people who come after him can have a legacy of giving to children through education," Tracy says.
With his life more fulfilling and balanced these days than ever before, Agassi has finally come to terms with the sport that brought him so much fame—and unhappiness. "Tennis took a lot, but it gave a lot," he says. "As a result of the visibility it gave me, I have the potential to affect people for generations."
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