By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star
I am not a tennis buff. And I have not followed the career of any of the Grand Slam champions, whether in the French Open, the Wimbledon, or the US Open. My acquaintance with the game and its international stars — such as Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal — has been by incidentally watching some of their games on cable tv.
Agassi’s handsome mien, with fully bald pate, has appeared in full-page ads of the International Herald Tribune. The ad promotes the Longines wristwatch, the official timekeeper of the French Open. I paid but cursory notice to him and the ad’s message.
But when I read last week a feature on Agassi in the IHT sports page, I was impressed.
What he says in the article sent me back to the Longines ad, showing the star smiling while conversing with a little girl. “Elegance is an attitude,” reads the text printed beside his head. Below it is a one-liner quotation from Agassi, with his signature. It says, “It’s time to give a little bit of your time to others.”
That quotation substantially weaves into the lengthier quotes from Agassi in the feature article, aptly titled, “After retirement, Agassi’s work is just beginning.” I decided to share with you, dear readers, my agreeable take on the character of this retired tennis champion, who’s now devoting his uncommon zeal to educate more poor American children who may otherwise be left out of school.
Agassi placed his name permanently in the firmament of tennis stars when he completed his collection ofGrand Slam singles titles by winning the French Open in 1999. In that same year Steffi Graf also won her sixth and final singles title for women’s tennis in Paris. The two champions are now married to each other and have two children.
Retired from competition five years ago at 36, Agassi, backed by a $20-billion investment firm, Canyon Capital Realty, is focusing on financing the construction of 75 charter schools in the United States in the next many years.
A charter school, says my dictionary, is “an alternative school that is founded on a charter, or contract, between a sponsoring group and a government unit and is funded with public money.” Because of the prolonged US economic crisis, President Obama has allocated “a large sum of stimulus money” to support charter schools, originally meant to serve the poorest of the low-income students.
You may ask: If charter schools are funded with public money, why does Agassi need to tap a private investment firm to finance the construction of 75 schools? He points out that many state governments cannot afford to finance the building of new school facilities, although they are able to allocate funds for children who go to charter schools.
Ergo, Agassi struck up the idea to convince private investors to finance the construction of the schools by ensuring a good return on investments. It looks like he succeeded with Canyon Capital. The tennis champion proves he possesses a truly innovative mind, and not just in tennis. In the interview, he explains:
“So if you can find a way to actually build the facilities and find a way to actually create a return for investors, you have now access to a pool of resources that has traditionally never been invested in the space. So it’s very innovative, it’s very visionary, and it’s incredibly timely.”
Actually Agassi isn’t new in this enterprise. In 2001, while still playing tennis, he opened a charter school in Las Vegas, the Andre AgassiCollege Preparatory Academy. It now has an enrolment of 650 students, he says, with a waiting list of over 1,000.
Agassi points out that, in the 10 years that his school has operated, “I’ve learned . . . that I’m not an educator, and I’m not an operator [administrator], I’m a facilitator. I facilitated what we’re doing in Vegas, and I believe I can facilitate it on a national level.”
The ones he’ll build will not be Agassi schools though. He elaborates:
“I will partner with the best-in-class [charter school] operators, so these won’t be Agassi schools. Now, charter schools as a whole aren’t necessarily high performing because there are so many mom-and-pop shops, but the top 10 percent… are incredibly high performing. So what we want to do is help them expand their footprints.”
Asked if he should stay in the public eye “through senior tennis” to promote his educational goals, Agassi retorts, “I don’t need to be visible for the sake of being visible.” Yet he concedes that being visible may have more positive impact on his mission. On tennis, he remarks:
“…You’ve seen tennis create a lot of amazing people throughout history that changed the way we look at ourselves and look at each other. And my hope [is] that I can help influence the way we as a society choose to look and address ourselves.”