Lessons on and off the court with Andre Agassi

Back when I was 12 and gearing up for the commitment-heavy year before my bat mitzvah, I remember my parents sitting me down to address my busy schedule. Of course I took that to mean they were trying to rip my social life to shreds.

I wasn’t your typical overscheduled kid, but I can’t remember a week when I wasn’t running from a school function to a dance performance to a tennis lesson to a family get-together.     

To squeeze in weekly Hebrew tutoring and Saturday morning services to my calendar, something had to give. And it was going to involve either tucking away my ballet shoes or burying my tennis racket in the depths of my closet.

As much as I loved to dance (and still do), I stuck with tennis. At the time, there was no way of knowing how much this decision would impact my life. But as the years passed, I came to treasure the hours I spent on the tennis court. My game improved, I won matches and my confidence grew.   

Off the court, I read books about tennis, flipped through Tennis magazine and watched every televised match I could. When my friends were going crazy for the latest teen heartthrob, I was crushing on Pete Sampras, winner of 14 Grand Slam titles, and eight-time Grand Slam champion and Olympic gold medalist Andre Agassi.

I remember being captivated and a bit melancholy while each of my heroes played his final match on the professional circuit, thinking no one would ever replace Sampras’ on-court grace and Agassi’s tenacious return game — not even some Swiss guy named Roger Federer.

I all but worshiped the American duo. For an up-and-coming tennis player in the ’90s, they were the athletes to idolize.

Now I know the Torah teaches us that we are not to worship any of God’s creations except for God. But when you’re a kid playing sports, professional athletes often take on a God-like quality.

As you get older, you realize that sports stars are flawed, too, just like the rest of us.

Flash forward to September 2010. I am sitting with about 100 others at a luncheon in San Francisco listening to former world No. 1 Agassi in conversation with Ted Robinson and Barry MacKay, both notable figures in the tennis world.

Robinson is a lead color commentator of NBC’s coverage of the French Open and Wimbledon. MacKay enjoyed a pro career during which he held the No. 1 U.S. ranking in 1960.

The S.F.-based Koret Foundation is honoring Agassi with its Koret Prize, an accolade (and cash grant) recognizing him as the most charitable athlete of his generation. It’s a huge distinction — the last Koret Prize recipient was Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

Since retiring from pro tennis in 2006, Agassi has focused his philanthropy on creating opportunities for underserved youth through the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education. So far, his two graduating classes have seen 100 percent of its students go to college. 

A ninth-grade dropout, Agassi is candid about his lack of education and the effort he’s making to ensure kids who’ve been told “they don’t have a chance” go to school. He is equally open about playing a sport he often detested, and bares all in his national best-selling autobiography, the aptly titled “Open.”

“It’s a story of forgiveness,” says the 40-year-old Agassi, who briefly lived in Marin with his wife — tennis great Steffi Graf — and their two children. “It’s a story of forgiving our parents. It’s a story of searching for identity. It’s a story of waking up in a life you find yourself in. And it’s a story of taking ownership of that life. These are real stories.”

Agassi’s critically acclaimed book contains an admission he used crystal meth in 1997 and failed a drug test. The ATP reviewed the case, accepted Agassi’s explanation and ultimately threw it out.

It was quite possibly the worst of the lows that tormented him throughout his roller-coaster career, during which his No. 1 ranking plummeted 140 spots, and his winning record went down with it.

But we learn that Agassi is the epitome of resilience.   

The Koret Prize ceremony was an occasion for celebrating, a time for movers and shakers in the Bay Area Jewish community to learn about and cheer on Agassi’s many accomplishments on and off the court.

It’s one reason why I still consider Agassi one of my heroes.

Amanda Pazornik can be reached at amanda@jweekly.com.