Scott Fowler

What was Andre Agassi doing in Charlotte Friday? Fulfilling his new mission

In the second act of his life, Andre Agassi believes he has found his true calling.

Agassi, the former U.S. tennis star and No. 1 player in the world, now builds schools for at-risk children. You may have heard about the public school he founded in his hometown of Las Vegas in 2001, which has been a huge success.

You may not know that Agassi and his business partner Bobby Turner have now built 79 other charter schools across America that serve approximately 40,000 students (and plan to build another 85 by 2020). Agassi came to Charlotte on Friday to visit the latest school that he and Turner’s partnership have built – the KIPP Change Academy in east Charlotte, which serves about 360 students ranging in age from kindergartners to fifth-graders.

Force-fed tennis by his father and focused almost entirely on tennis and hedonistic pursuits as a youth, Agassi never came close to finishing high school himself. He said he regrets that now.

“I was pretty much an eighth-grade dropout,” he told me in an interview Friday. “But listen, I don’t think anything happens by accident…. My lack of education has led to so many children having education as a result.”

‘Compelled to do something about it’

Now married to fellow tennis legend Steffi Graf, the 47-year-old Agassi said missing out on a good education himself made him more attuned to the problems of children in poorer communities who often don’t get as many choices in life as those with better economic means.

“It was my hope and dream to create opportunity for kids at a future of their choosing,” Agassi said. “In some cities, the lack of choice leads to that downward spiral they can’t seem to break out of, and I was compelled to do something about it. So I started in my hometown and figured out some scalable, sustainable ways to spread it across the country.”

To listen to Agassi now, he sounds like he’s happier than he was for much of the time during a career in which he won eight Grand Slam titles and tens of millions of dollars.

“I had to play tennis my whole life, and kind of hated it to be quite honest,” he said in a brief speech to a crowd of students, parents and administrators Friday. “Nevertheless, fear is a great motivator and I managed to succeed. But all the while I was really disconnected, and I found myself in a pretty dark and lonely place out on the tennis court.”

Deciding to help as many children as possible get a better education, Agassi said, ultimately saved him -- along with the love of his family.

Image was everything

Agassi said he had been to Charlotte and North Carolina several times before, including a recent trip to Chapel Hill to check out the University of North Carolina as a potential landing place for his son. Jaden Agassi, a high school sophomore, is a fire-throwing baseball pitcher who instead committed to Southern Cal.

Much earlier, Agassi visited Charlotte in 1993, back when he had a whole lot of hair and played in the Davis Cup for the United States. Agassi was then very much in the “Image is Everything” phase of his life.

The phrase, taken from a camera commercial Agassi filmed, seemed to encapsulate a flashy career that for many years was built on style as much as substance. He had big hair, a bigger forehand, denim shorts and pink Spandex tights.

Agassi wrote in his terrific 2009 memoir “Open” that he eventually began wearing a wig to keep up the façade of a full mane of hair once his started falling out. Now he simply shaves all his hair off, as he did for the final few years of a tennis career that ended in 2006.

Kindergartners at KIPP Change Academy had been prepped about Agassi’s visit and had been shown a video of him during his tennis-playing days. This led to a funny exchange when Agassi briefly addressed a kindergarten class Friday and then asked for questions.

One young boy raised his hand.

“Why did you used to have so much hair?” he asked Agassi.

Agassi laughed that one off – only to be asked again a few minutes later by another inquisitive student. Long ago that sort of thing would have bothered him. He could be a self-absorbed jerk in his youth; now he is a gentlemanly philanthropist dedicated to work that is helping thousands of families.

Like so many Las Vegas residents, he also was devastated by the recent shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people and wounded close to 500 more. Agassi is the voice of a new video about the tragedy called “Vegas Strong” and said Friday that the impact on his hometown has been immeasurable.

“It’s changed our city,” Agassi said. “It’s revealed our city. ... This unfortunate, horrific act is revealing just how strong we are. I’m proud of our city. We’ll get through it. And we’ll be stronger as a result.”