Agassi took his own path to tennis Hall of Fame

Posted July 08, 2011, at 9:56 p.m.

NEWPORT, R.I. — Walk through the museum at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, past the walls of wooden rackets with their yellowing, natural gut strings, past the pictures of women in full-length dresses and men in pressed white slacks, and you come to the room honoring new inductee Andre Agassi.

Suddenly, everything goes from black and white to Technicolor.

The blue denim shorts are there, beneath pictures of Agassi with a goatee and a purple bandanna. There is a shot of him as a towheaded 9-year-old meeting Bjorn Borg, and others with the flowing, highlighted hair that twice shocked the tennis world. In a Plexiglas case, treated with the reverence usually reserved for crystal bowls and silver trophies, is a pair of autographed hair clippers Agassi used to switch to the stubble-headed look he still sports today.

“What I hope is that I brought in that tent, I opened the sport up to people who might otherwise not have been interested,” Agassi said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday. “I hope I brought people to the game. I hope I inspired kids who are out there now doing it better than I ever did it.”

An eight-time Grand Slam champion and Olympic gold medalist who was the No. 1 player in the world for 101 straight weeks, Agassi will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Saturday along with former WTA executive Fern “Peachy” Kellmeyer. Agassi joins wife Steffi Graf, who was inducted into the Hall in 2004, and dozens of men with handlebar mustaches who would, frankly, be shocked at his inclusion among them.

“I think they would get shocked at the state of the world all the way around — including me being in the Hall of Fame,” Agassi corrected, with a laugh. “I had, certainly, a rebellion in me. But different than that, I had a fundamental belief that, ‘What’s wrong with this? There’s nothing wrong with this.’ If anything, I saw that some people liked it, that people were getting intereste d.”

If John McEnroe shook up the gentlemanly game with his cursing and his combative behavior, Agassi injected it with a sense of style. Refreshing to some, subversive to others, Agassi jolted the tennis world with the way he dressed, the way he talked, and the way he played.

As is often the case in matters of style, it wasn’t for everyone.

“When I wore jean shorts on the tennis court, a lot of people said, ‘It’s the wrong thing to do,”’ Agassi said in the Hall’s Woolard Library, a dark-paneled room next to his exhibit that is decorated with sepia portraits and a marble bust. “I had a fundamental belief that it’s going to have an ability to impact more people, to bring people in. It’s going to do good. I think it make pe ople identify with tennis players more profoundly. In all ways, I tried to leave the game better off, and will continue to do so.”

Wearing a black T-shirt, faded and frayed jeans and black boots, Agassi explored the artifacts from a career that took him from child prodigy to the No. 1 singles player in the world. With his powerful groundstrokes from both sides, Agassi won 60 tournaments, including each of the Grand Slam events. He was a member of two U.S. Davis Cup-winning teams, and he won the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta in 1996.

After dropping to No. 141 in the world, Agassi returned to have perhaps one of his most productive years in 1999, winning his second U.S. Open, finishing second at Wimbledon and winning his only French Open to complete the career Grand Slam. The women’s winner in Paris that year was Graf, and the two were married a couple of years later. (Agassi’s first marriage, to actress Brooke Shield s, lasted less than two years.)

Now 40, Agassi remains fourth on tennis’ all-time money list, with more than $30 million in earnings, and he took in millions more with endorsements that both played off and enhanced his rebellious image while making him the most popular player of his generation.

“I was surprised by every victory I ever had on the tennis court. So this moment is surprising to me,” Agassi said. “As a whole, it’s just overwhelming. To be standing alongside some of the others that are here, it’s a big moment.”

Almost as surprising as Agassi’s career was his 2009 book “Open,” in which he revealed that he used crystal meth — and talked his way out of a failed drug test — and that he grew to hate the sport he was pushed into by his father. Agassi criticized several opponents, but the most talked-about news was that the flowing locks that were so much a part of his early image were enhanced by a toupee to counteract premature baldness.

Describing his legacy as “falling from grace, hitting rock bottom and figuring out a way to do it all over again,” Agassi now devotes his time to his foundation. He has raised $150 million to reform public education, opening a tuition-free public charter school in an at-risk Las Vegas neighborhood; he is at work on another in Pennsylvania.

“The body of work, and all those hours, all those detours, the trials and tribulations, the wins and the losses — for it all to equal this is overwhelming to me,” he said. “I don’t know how it’s different than anybody else that’s in here. But I know it was my journey.”

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