August 25, 2014
Hello New York!
You’re looking good. How is it that you never change—and I keep getting older?
Thank you for this great honor. It’s something I certainly did not expect the first time I played here. I was 16. I’d just gotten my driver’s permit. I was rocking a fluffy, spiky, two-toned mullet, wearing jeans shorts. Acid washed. And I was scared to death.
People always told me back then that I knew nothing, but they were wrong. I knew less than nothing. I didn’t even know how to get here to this stadium. Day One, I failed to leave myself enough time, took a bus from the hotel, got stuck in traffic, missed my practice court. Then I couldn’t convince the woman in charge that I actually belonged here.
Sadly I could not convince my first round opponent either. Jeremy Bates of Great Britain who sent me home in less time than it takes to say Jeremy Bates of Great Britain.
Not an auspicious start. And yet I came back, year after year, no matter what, dead or alive—this was the only Grand Slam I never missed—and the reason was you.
I wish I had words to describe the sound you make during critical matches. The roar, the applause, the love. It’s like a jet engine and a giant heartbeat. I’d start to hear it down in that tunnel. In Paris players enter center court from a stairway, in London through a club, in Melbourne a hallway—but here we enter through a long tunnel, which amplifies the noise. And amplifies the love.
That sound you make is almost as powerful, almost as inspiring, as your silence. In Paris, London, Melbourne, they fall silent many times during a match. But here in New York you don’t bestow your silence on just any moment. So when you do, it’s daunting. It’s a sound, a sign, of deep respect and high expectation. And it’s deafening. Trust me when I tell you: there’s nothing so loud as 23,000 stone cold silent New Yorkers.
People always ask if I miss the game and I think of my back, and my hips, and I remember Federer taking me apart like my kids used to take apart one of their Lego toys, and I say: Yes and no. But when they ask if I miss the US Open I don’t hesitate.
I miss your sound.
I miss your silence.
I miss giving you everything I’ve got. And then a little bit more.
Thank you for giving me everything you had, for twenty-one years—and then a little bit more and thank you for giving me this opportunity to walk through that long tunnel one more and be reminded.
August 25, 2014
I’ve stood at this podium twice before.
Once to introduce my wife — Stefanie Graf. I was SO much more comfortable that day, because I felt the recipient to be far more worthy.
The second time . . . was in my father’s imagination. In his mind’s eye. From the day I was born my father Mike saw this day in my future. And described it to me. Many times. So my feeling of déjà vu right now almost rivals my feeling of gratitude. Almost.
Not long ago I was giving a talk in my hometown, Las Vegas. After I spoke there was a question and answer session. The first hand up, the first question out of the blocks, was a man in the front row. You could see in this man’s face that he was really struggling with something. He took the microphone and asked:
How do you know when to stop telling your kids what to do? The questioner was my father. I was caught off guard that night – I didn’t know what to say. I don’t remember what I did say. But afterwards the answer came to me so clearly.
Dad — when I was five you TOLD me to win Wimbledon.
When I was seven you TOLD me to win all four slams.
More times than I can remember you TOLD me to get into the hall of fame.
And when I was twenty-nine you TOLD me to marry Steffi Graf. The BEST order you ever gave me.
So Dad — please don’t ever stop telling me what to do.
If we’re lucky in life, we get a handful of moments when we don’t have to wonder if we’ve made a parent proud, and we don’t have to ask them. We just KNOW. I want to thank tennis for giving me one of those moments today.
It’s one of many things for which I need to thank this game.
I look at Simone, and the thousands of young people she represents at Agassi Prep, and I say under my breath, thank you tennis.
I look at my wife and my children, who I live for, and I say, thank you tennis.
I look to the future, my efforts to build high performing charter schools in inner cities across the U.S., schools that will impact tens of thousands of Simones. And I say, Thank you tennis, for making that possible.
I fell in love with tennis far too late in my life, but the reason I have everything that I hold dear, is because of how much tennis has loved me back.
I’m thrilled, humbled and a bit terrified to stand in front of you right now. I’ve felt vulnerable many times on a tennis court, but not like I do today.
I’ve grown up in front of you. You’ve seen my highs and you’ve seen my lows. We’ve laughed together and cried together. But what is so clear to me standing here today, is that you have given me compassion, understanding — love. More than I expected. And many times, more than I deserved.
Tennis has not only given me much. It has taught me much.
It’s no accident that tennis uses the language of life. Service, advantage, break, fault, love. The lessons of tennis are the lessons of maturity. In tennis you prepare, and prepare, and then one day your preparation seems futile. Nothing’s working.
The other guy has your number — cold. So you improvise.
In tennis — you learn — what I do instantly effects what you do, and vice versa.
Tennis makes you perceptive, proactive and reactive at the same time. Tennis teaches you the subtlety of human interaction, the curse and blessing of cause and effect. After you play tennis for a living you never forget that we’re all connected. And, there’s nothing like a
tiebreak in the finals of a tournament to teach you the concept of high risk, high reward.
Tennis teaches you that there’s no such thing as perfect. You want to be perfect. You hope to be perfect. Then you’re out there and you’re far less than perfect. And you realize:
I don’t have to be perfect today. I just have to be better than one person.
Tennis is a lonely sport, probably the most lonely. You’re out there with no team, no coach and no place to hide. That’s why tennis players not only talk to themselves, but answer.
And yet, all that loneliness eventually teaches you to stand alone.
The high standards that tennis imposes on us, the self-reliance it demands of us, that’s the reason tennis has produced so many of life’s great game-changers. One of the landmarks of our sport, our National Tennis Center in New York, is home to Arthur Ashe Stadium. What courage Arthur showed. How fair he was, while being treated so unfairly. Once Arthur grabbed hold of a truth, he was unwilling, not capable, of letting go.
Tennis gave us that man. He was and is a treasure, not just for America, but for everyone in the world. For people who have yet to be born.
The tennis center itself is the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Named after one of my personal heroes. Think of the seismic transformation Billie caused in society.
Our wives, daughters, mothers have more than a hope for equality. They have a mandated claim on it, because of Billie.
She did so much more than inspire women. She changed the way men and women think about men and women. The way we all think about equality. She woke us up. Tennis gave us Billie and tennis today is giving me the chance to say, thank you, Billie.
Tennis gave me all my personal teachers. I owe them a debt I can never repay. They lifted me up and carried me across many finish lines — sometimes literally.
My dad Mike and my mom Betty.
My big brother, Phil.
My friend, protector and trainer, Gil Reyes.
My coaches, Nick Bollettieri, Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill.
And the person who means more to me than words can express, the woman who still takes my breath away, every day. Stefanie Graf.
Each of them deserves a separate Hall of Fame speech. But of course, there isn’t time. So, I’ve written a letter to each of them.
But, they’re not private. I want the world to know how I feel. So, I’m putting them on my Foundation’s website, where I hope they’ll serve as a permanent public tribute to those who made this day a reality.
They’re the ones who made possible the highlights. They’re the reason I’m blessed with magical memories that help me sleep — or sometimes keep me awake.
Because of my father I have the memory of the 1992 Wimbledon, and the 1996 Olympics, and thrilling Davis Cups.
Because of Gil I have the memory of the 1999 French Open, his ear-to-ear smile in the fifth set, when we both thought my tank was empty, but there were a few drops of fuel left.
Because of Stefanie and my children, Jaden and Jaz, there was the day of my retirement, in 2006, when I got to walk away from professional tennis on my own terms. They were there for me that day, ready to embrace the future, whatever that might be.
These are my people, and those memories are seared in my mind forever.
One of the most influential people in my life, I met only one time. It was the most vulnerable time of my life, a time that I needed direction and inspiration. And just then, there I was shaking hands with Nelson Mandela. He took my hand, complimented my game, and in the same breath told me the reason why we have been put here on Earth. I can still close my eyes and hear his words of wisdom from that evening. He said, “We must be careful in our decisions, careful in our words, and we must be careful in our relationships. Andre, we must live our life carefully”.
Once you hear those words from Nelson Mandela, you can never un-hear them.
I didn’t always live carefully. I didn’t always pay tennis the respect it deserved. I thought it was my career that was creating my angst, that tennis was the cause of my
internal tension and disconnect. I didn’t know myself, and I didn’t recognize that my troubles were of my own making. And — that only I could solve them. Only after being broken (another tennis term) did I realize I wasn’t being careful.
But you know, rock bottom is an interesting place. I moved in and spent some time there. It’s actually not a bad place. It’s a place where you get to ask:
“Who do I want to be? Am I ready to take ownership of my life?”
For me, ownership meant growing up, focusing every day on being one day better. Ownership meant not only embracing tennis but celebrating it. Ownership meant going back to the challenger circuit, feeling honored to be my own ball boy, feeling privileged to flip my own scorecard. Ownership meant feeling grateful for being, and having the chance to start over.
Climbing out of that hole I had dug for myself, that’s when I started choosing to believe that each of us has a plan for our life. A purpose to fulfill. A body of work to create.
A reason to be.
I committed to taking care of myself and taking care of my tennis. Going from a ranking of 141 in the world, back to being ranked number 1 again was not an accomplishment, it
was the reflection of an accomplishment. It was the symptom of good choices. It was the result of ‘being careful’.
The highlights I experienced taught me what is possible. The hard times reinforced the consequences of not being true to my character — of not living up to my own expectations. These things have coalesced inside me into a kind of code. A personal mission statement. I believe we have a responsibility to each other. A responsibility to
create more than we consume. A responsibility to build things that will out live us. A responsibility to find our limits and to push through them.
Even when life’s challenges weigh us down, make us unrecognizable to ourselves, we can always begin again. There’s always time to thrive. It’s not too late to be inspired. It’s not too late to change. It’s not too late.
This honor today, leaves me deeply humbled. But, it also makes me think of others who don’t get their due. Teachers and nurses. Caregivers and struggling parents. All the people who do the right thing, who win their own private Grand Slams — they know already what took me decades to understand. That we are here to do good quietly. To shine in secret. To give when there’s no crowd applauding.
To give of ourselves to someone who can offer us nothing.
Tennis gave me the chance to meet so many of these people, to travel the world and visit places where the human spirit shines brightest because life is darkest. Tennis taught me that the needs of this world are great, but they’re no match and never will be a match for the human spirit. Thank you tennis for my life, thank you tennis for my wife, and thank you tennis for enabling me to find my life’s work.
In closing, to my son Jaden, my daughter Jaz, and to every young person listening to my voice, the world we’re leaving you is not the world we wish for you. You need to make
that world. To go places we’ve never been, to succeed in ways we’ve never dreamed.
Mandela said to me: “There is difficulty in all human journeys. But there is nobility in just being a journeyer”. From him I learned, every journey is epic. Every journey is
important. Every journey begins today.
At the beginning of my journey my friend Gil said to me:
“Andre, you have dreams. I have strong shoulders. So stand on my shoulders and reach.”
To my children, to all of our children, stand on our shoulders. Reach higher than we could. Reach for YOUR dreams. Today, as I stand here, I am living proof that no journey
August 25, 2014
Thank you for the touching video and all the kind words. I also want to say thank you for visiting our school and shining a light on the work of our Foundation. Our work in Las Vegas is a tremendous team effort. It is the generosity, compassion and hard work of an entire community that has created these success stories, in some cases miracle stories. I share this award with all of you who have been with us on this journey.
Being honored by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation is very special to me. Looking over the list of past honorees is very humbling. As a kid if you would have told me that my name would be on the same list as Jack Nicholas and John Glenn, I never could have imagined what kind of list it could possibly be. I would also like to congratulate Larry and Camille Ruvo, who truly live by the belief that anything is possible. They are giants of generosity and Stefanie and I are humbled to share the stage and this evening with them.
Woodrow Wilson was a legendary wordsmith known around the world for his many wise words, but here are the ones that I hold closest to my heart… “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget that errand”.
Many years ago, at the lowest point in my career and one of the lowest points in my life, I figured out why I was here. Years later when I continued to compete and play tennis long after my body told me to stop; I was driven by that same reason. I was here to care for children in need, to try and give a voice to those whose voices are rarely heard.
I was fortunate enough to be born and raised here in Las Vegas, I know first hand that this is a great place to raise a family and a great community in which to thrive. But the blessings have rained down unevenly. As I became more aware of young people living in abusive homes, children having little contact with a prosperous world surrounding their own, and I saw the lack of a quality education that could lift them out, I had to act. It became personal. We were losing an entire generation, a talented and capable generation, by not giving them the tools to succeed. That’s why we created Agassi Prep, to frontload our children for success.
We realized that the earlier you interrupt the downward spiral and give the tools of hope, the more powerfully you can change the course of a life. Our children may not know how to define dignity, but they know when it’s been violated, we won’t let that happen on our watch.
We are continuing to challenge ourselves to work harder and work smarter. Woodrow Wilson’s genius was his ability to combine so many passions… industry, politics, and education, all to better the world. He was an innovator but also a deep and long term thinker. It is in his footsteps that we are trying to reinvent what it means to care. By improvising and innovating, we are focused on equipping young people in a new way. We consider our school a laboratory of ideas. Our latest mission has been to pass new laws in our state to better serve the people who need it the most. I have testified more than once before our state legislature and we have been successful in creating system wide reform and in rewriting the rules to encourage fresh ideas in education. As we learn more, we intend to expand our mission to include legislation on a national level. We want others who are starting schools like ours across the country to have an easier time navigating the waters and to benefit from what we’re learning. In this arena we sometimes feel like the first domino.
In closing I want to leave you with this. Some people may choose to weep for the world, others choose to change it. It may seem the needs of our young people are overwhelming, but so is our resolve. I believe we can outwork, outsmart, and outlast the hardships they face. The oppression of poverty is thick, but there is surely enough love within us to dissolve it. Thank you again for this great honor.
August 25, 2014
On behalf of over six hundred full time students and over one hundred and eighty thousand underserved children all across Las Vegas. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I am humbled that you continue to give so willingly and freely, and that you have entrusted me and this foundation, to direct that giving in a way that reflects your values and priorities. I am more humbled to watch these children rise to the challenge, take pride in their accomplishments and forge a future of their choosing.
Tonight, I feel like I’m standing in front of a volunteer army, an army of compassion, who together are facing down poverty, hunger, disorder and brokenness, and saying “not in this city”, “not on my watch”. It’s my turn to applaud you, who in good years and tough years, never once wavered in your compassion and willingness to reach out to help rescue a child.
Tonight, the 13th Grand Slam for Children, may be our most pivotal and important night together. I wanted this evening to be a more intimate time, enjoying our new surroundings, and taking stock of the things that we have accomplished.
We’ve learned to create a culture of achievement in our young people. To overwhelm ‘where they are from’ with ‘where they are going’. We believe in them, we challenge them and we equip them to take on the world. We never lower our standards for them, we elevate their dreams. With longer school days, a longer school year, and investing in and training educators, we have become much like a second family, and these children are bringing that culture of success back to their own families every day.
We learned that demographics are not destiny. Every life is worth fighting for. A child in a broken home, a broken school, and a broken neighborhood wants to thrive, they’re looking for a way to success, and they can’t find the door. That’s why we have to find them. When we see a young person in need, we have to make a decision, that doesn’t just define us to others, it defines us to ourselves. I know that is why you step up year after year. It’s not just about what you give, it’s who you are.
With challenging news pounding our world day after day, it would be understandable for us to pull back and reign in our goals, but we know that poverty doesn’t sleep, hunger doesn’t sleep, and the battle for an impressionable young soul doesn’t sleep, and so our dreams will not sleep either. We all have many memorable pages written in our life story, but when we change the course of a child’s future, we add a historic chapter to our legacy. It may be the most important thing we leave behind.
Tonight we celebrate changing young lives forever. We celebrate the human spirit. And it’s time for the greatest entertainers in the world to take the stage to help make this night unforgettable. Ladies and gentlemen, our musical director, Mr. David Foster, and the 13th Annual Grand Slam for Children.
August 25, 2014
Thank you Governor Gibbons.
Thanks to everyone for giving me this honor tonight. Although this kind of recognition is uncomfortable, and certainly humbling, it makes me so proud of the team effort, of those that have given to my foundation and made possible our charter school. I share this moment with you.
Most of you know that I was fortunate enough to be born and raised in Las Vegas. I know first hand that we live in a great city; we have the opportunity to flourish in a great community. Las Vegas has been the launch platform for every accomplishment in my family and career. The people of Las Vegas have embraced me in a way I never could have imagined, and because of that, from early on, I wanted to make a difference, not just generally in the world, but specifically here – in my home town. The more I became aware of the struggles and needs of so many people living so close to us, especially children, their struggle became personal to me. We began to adopt a saying. “It’s not business, it’s personal.” We went from interested to committed, from bystanders to participants.
This is truly one great place to raise a family, to build a business, to make a great life, to experience prosperity. However, the blessings have rained down unevenly. There are still too many with too few opportunities, we can’t let that happen on our watch.
I believe that our community is only as prosperous as the single parent trying to make ends meet. We are only as successful as that child that has the least. We are only as healthy as the weakest among us, and we are only as educated as the one with the least chance to learn.
So I feel fortunate to be speaking to the leaders and shapers of Las Vegas, you who have the power to make a difference. Many things have gone right for each of us in our lives, and we can use our ambitions, our creativity, our drive, our leadership to make every child in this city happier, more hopeful, with a clear path toward everything they were meant to become.
In every successful life, you can look back and find a turning point, a chance, a mentor, one special break. The grip of poverty and need on a young life may seem relentless to them, but just one act of kindness can stop it in its tracks. We have the choice to make it personal, to create that legacy, to be that role model. It may be the most important thing we do with our lives.
I feel privileged to share this passion and calling with you, and I feel privileged to be partners with you, in giving back to those that are vulnerable, but so filled with potential and destiny.
This work is my greatest priority, and I look forward to seeing you here next year. Thank you.