He walked onto the court to a standing ovation, hardly the first time Andre Agassi has been warmly welcomed by a throng of tennis fans but one of the most enjoyable greetings he has ever received.
Nearly three years after he retired from competitive tennis, the eight-time Grand Slam winner dusted off his rackets to play World Team Tennis. His appearance Friday for the Philadelphia Freedoms against the Newport Beach Breakers was another step back into the world he left for charity work and family and reentered only at the request of the estimable Billie Jean King, co-founder of WTT.
His progress has been slow. Painful too, as his muscles attest.
“I thought it would be pretty easy. You play five games, you get to sit down,” he said. “But it’s highly competitive and a difficult way to tiptoe back into it.”
He’s not easing into this: He’s plunging in with the zest and showmanship that endeared him to crowds the world over.
Agassi, 39, played mixed doubles, doubles and singles Friday for the second week in a row. He also traded shots with local youngsters and bantered with fans in the lively sellout crowd of 2,000 at Breakers Stadium.
In his first match, a mixed-doubles victory with Lisa Raymond over Julie Ditty and Kaes Van’t Hof, Agassi unleashed a few nifty cross-court shots and an over-the-shoulder winner that hinted at his old command and intelligence. He and Nathan Healey lost their doubles match to Ramon Delgado and Van’t Hof, and he lost his singles match to Delgado, but that really didn’t matter.
For Agassi -- who could not remember having played in Orange County before -- the night was mainly about promoting the game to repay all it did for him. On that score it was a resounding success.
“If I can come out here and make a difference and people have fun as the result of it and I get to see a lot of old friends and get to connect with the game that’s been kind to me, then that’s a win across the board,” he said.
Although he and wife Steffi Graf -- winner of 22 Grand Slam singles titles -- played some exhibition matches on Wimbledon’s Centre Court in May and he’s due to play in an over-30 champions series later this year, he said he’s not planning a return to competitive tennis. His spirits are buoyant, but his body is less so.
“You’ve got to get to know yourself all over again,” he said. “Tennis is all about educated decisions, and those decisions are based on what kind of court you’re giving up and how well you can sort of close the gap.
“So when you used to look at a distance and think, ‘OK, this is right where I want to be,’ you realize that it’s not where you want to be because you can’t close that gap anymore. So it changes your shots. Shot selection has been a bit of a challenge, but I’m figuring it out. I have a good learning curve.”
Maybe so, but his greatest feats now occur outside of tennis through his charitable foundation and the experimental charter school he opened in his hometown of Las Vegas.
Like the kids he helps through a Las Vegas Boys’ and Girls’ Club and facilities for neglected youngsters, the kids at his school were from compromised backgrounds. “Children that society has written off,” he said.
The first senior class graduated June 12. All 34 made it. Twenty-seven will go on to four-year colleges and seven to two-year colleges.
“It’s like letting go of your own children in many respects and watching them fly off to college and go on with their lives and hopefully return,” he said. “I think that will be our clearest definition of success, when they come back to our community and contribute to the next generation.”
For that work, and so much more, Agassi will be honored on the opening night of the U.S. Open, Aug. 31, along with athletes from other sports who do similarly good works. It will be a special night for Agassi, who won two titles there and ended his career there in 2006.
“I just can’t say no to that,” he said.
Although he put tennis at a distance, he never lost touch with it. He marveled at Roger Federer’s epic five-set victory over Andy Roddick at Wimbledon, proud of Roddick as a fellow American but respectful of Federer’s record 15th Grand Slam victory. He’s also keenly aware that Roddick, ranked No. 5 in the world, is the only American man in the top 10 and that Roddick and No. 17 James Blake are the only American men in the top 20.
“We’ve been blessed with a number of generations in America and it’s very competitive internationally, probably more so now than ever,” he said. “But the truth is we have a huge population here and we have to figure out a way to get a racket in more children’s hands.”
He has had mixed results at getting a racket into the hands of his own kids, who watched Friday’s match with their mother. Daughter Jaz, 5, plays three or four times a week. Son Jaden, 7, “is entrenched in baseball,” the proud papa said.
Another fine legacy in a life full of enduring marks.