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Agassi selected for International Tennis Hall of Fame

It’s supposed to be what you do on the court that gets you into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Not in Andre Agassi’s case.

The 40-year-old Las Vegan’s pending induction July 9 in Newport, R.I., is about more than his accomplishments in tennis.

Yes, the eight Grand Slam singles titles, 60 singles championships, Davis Cup wins, Olympic gold medal and No. 1 rankings are impressive. But in Agassi’s case, his work away from the court, helping thousands of Las Vegas children to get a first-class education at his private charter school, goes hand-in-hand with what he achieved during his 20-year professional playing career.

"I don’t know how you can separate the two," Agassi said Thursday after the official announcement was made inside the gymnasium at Agassi Prep in front of the entire 655-member student body. "This school gave me my career and my success in tennis gave me the opportunity to create this school. If it wasn’t for this school, I wouldn’t have had the career I had."

Agassi considered quitting tennis in 1997. His game and his life were a mess. He was struggling with injuries, a plummeting ranking and his marriage to actress Brooke Shields was foundering.

But he decided he wasn’t going to go out on those terms, so he regrouped. Agassi got healthy, battled back and in 1999 completed his career Grand Slam by winning the French Open.

"I’m most proud of never quitting," Agassi said, reflecting back on the darkest period of his life when he admitted using crystal methamphetamine in 1997. "I may have quit in a lot of battles, but I never quit on the war.

"I was too scared to quit. Fear pushes me. It drives me. It makes me fight harder."

He would play until Sept. 3, 2006 when, at age 36, his bad back finally forced him to retire after a third-round loss at the U.S. Open. That day, Agassi gave an emotional speech to the New York crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

On Thursday, it was an upbeat, relaxed Agassi who spoke to students from kindergarten to high school seniors at the school that bears his name, and he invited them to celebrate with him.

"It’ll be much more emotional at the ceremony," said Agassi, one of two individuals to be inducted July 9 (the second will be announced next week). "I wanted the announcement to be fun and make it more of a celebration."

It was a day for fun. A drum line, cheerleaders and the enthusiasm from students made the mood in the gym upbeat like a pep rally. Agassi used the opportunity to remind the students to persevere and never let anyone tell them they were incapable of achieving greatness.

Absent from Thursday’s event were Agassi’s wife and fellow Hall of Famer Steffi Graf, who was inducted in 2004, and his parents, Mike and Betty. However, brother Phil, who was along for the entire ride of Agassi’s tennis odyssey, was there for the occasion.

"It’s one accomplishment I didn’t have to stress," Phil Agassi said of his brother’s unanimous vote for induction from the 135-member panel of international tennis journalists and the 21-member nominating committee headed by Hall of Famer Tony Trabert. "I’m so proud of him and for him.

"He brought color to the tennis world. His style he played with, the flair in which he played with, he helped change the way the game is played today."

Mark Stenning, chief executive officer for the Hall of Fame, said inducting Agassi is an easy call.

"The question I’ve been asked the last four years is, ‘When is Andre getting in?’ " Stenning said. "There was never any question whether or not he was going to get in. You just counted the days.

"He is truly a renaissance man. He brings so much to the table. We’ve already sold out our dinner for induction weekend, and that doesn’t happen very often."

Hall of Fame chairman Chris Clouser said: "It was 25 years ago this day that we announced the induction of Arthur Ashe into the Hall of Fame. Those accomplishments of Arthur Ashe have been exceeded here by Andre Agassi."

Agassi was truly humbled by Clouser’s remarks.

"That was flat out shocking when I heard that," Agassi said. "One of my regrets was I never got to know and appreciate Arthur when I was younger."

And as he prepares to join the ranks of the immortals of tennis, Agassi appreciated earning a place with Ashe, Trabert, Jack Kramer, Bill Tilden, Sam Smith, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras — all legends of U.S. men’s tennis — along with his idol, Bjorn Borg.

"I always looked at myself as someone who just tried to get better," Agassi said. "But it’s a surreal experience. I know numbers, what they are and what they mean. But it’s still very humbling to be included with all of the game’s greatest players."

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@review journal.com or 702-387-2913.

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