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Andre Agassi’s tennis career is long over, but the fire remains

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Erik Kabik/Retna/www.erikkabikphoto.com

Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi arrive at the 14th annual Andre Agassi Foundation for Education’s Grand Slam for Children benefit at Wynn Las Vegas.

Agassi Serves an Ace

Andre Agassi Foundation for Education red carpet.

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Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi arrive at the 14th annual Andre Agassi Foundation for Education's Grand Slam for Children benefit at Wynn Las Vegas.

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Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi arrive at the 14th annual Andre Agassi Foundation for Education's Grand Slam for Children benefit at Wynn Las Vegas in September 2009.

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Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi listen to Rory Reid and Brian Sandoval during a debate on education between the gubernatorial candidates Sunday, August 29, 2010.

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Andre Agassi.

Quick list from Andre Agassi: Top 2 Phrases You Do Not Want to Hear During a Medical Procedure:

2. “Sorry, we have to reposition the needle.”

1.“Sorry, we have hit bone.”

This happened to Agassi on Tuesday morning, as he was injected twice in his right hip by Las Vegas radiologist Dr. Alan Diamond. This unkind needling, a duet of anti-inflammatory cortisone shots, was deemed necessary because scar tissue had seared itself to the bone in Agassi’s hip joint and was impinging his ability to walk straight, and maybe even think straight.

“I’m a prime candidate for hip-replacement surgery,” Agassi says, imparting the obvious, during a phone interview an hour after the procedure. “I know that day will come, though.”

One of the greatest athletes ever to come out of Las Vegas, Agassi suffered a self-inflicted pounding on the tennis courts during a playing career that spanned just about his entire life until he retired four years ago at age 36.

By his own assessment, Agassi played the game too long. Many years too long. He knew he’d pay the price later, but who can consider long-term joint discomfort when you’re swatting back the 125-mph serves of Pete Sampras in the finals of the U.S. Open?

So Agassi played and played, winning eight major tournaments, including a career grand slam (the Australian, U.S. and French opens and Wimbledon), for which you must triumph on the dicey clay of Roland Garros Stadium in Paris; the rutted grass of Wimbledon; and the hard courts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, N.Y., and Australia’s Melbourne Park.

Agassi ended his career as one of the most successful and versatile players in the history of the game, and certainly one of its most exciting.

The success and acclaim came at a heavy price, of course. If you can limp away from a sport triumphantly, Agassi did that. All that playing cost him was his ability to walk without searing pain in his back, hips and knees.

“I played with a torn labrum for the last seven years of my career,” Agassi says. “I pushed through the pain. The truth is, today I have a limited range of motion. I probably always will.”

At age 40, Agassi is still able to hustle in his philanthropic work away from the tennis court. This year, he has assembled the customarily star-studded lineup for his 15th annual “Grand Slam for Children” benefit show, set for Saturday at Wynn Las Vegas. Over the years, Agassi has raised more than $85 million for the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education and the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, where every graduating senior has moved on to some level of advanced education.

The invitation-only auction, dinner and concert stars Elton John, Rob Thomas, Jason Mraz, Jennifer Hudson and the Canadian Tenors (Tenor? I married ’er!). David Foster is again the event’s music director.

Aside from his painfully hip disposition, Agassi touched on a few other topics:

• He says he often has to pitch the headliners for his show, assuring them of the depth of his commitment to his cause (naming for himself might be the most obvious evidence of that commitment).

But this year, the show was a relatively easy sell. Thomas expressed interest during a dinner with Agassi and his wife, Stefanie Graf. John was impressed that Agassi and Graf attended his final “Red Piano” performance in April 2009 and offered his support that night.

“Sometimes the talent just falls in front of you,” Agassi says. “This was one of those years.”

• Artists are often swayed by the fact that they will receive chartered jet service, courtesy of personal checks written by NetJets founder Richard Santulli, who still underwrites the transportation even though he stepped down as the company’s CEO last year. “Richard is one of the greatest, committed, authentic people in life,” Agassi says.

• In looking back on his best-selling book, “Open,” Agassi says the notorious character “Slim” is a single, real person, a longtime friend and confidant that Agassi has lost contact with. Agassi still contends he doesn’t know where Slim is, exactly.

Those who read “Open” know Slim as the person who introduced Agassi to crystal meth in 1997, a time when Agassi’s game nearly cratered completely.

“I’m fortunate to have had just that one connection to that lifestyle.” Agassi has learned that the 14-year-old son of Slim had passed away after a lengthy illness (his life was saved once, as a baby). “But I just needed to disconnect from that world, totally.”

• A ninth-grade dropout, Agassi says getting a college degree himself in his 40s does have some appeal -- until he looks at his schedule. “I’m 100 percent hands on in all aspects of the foundation and business,” he says. “It has become my life.”

Agassi does notice a slight insecurity when in an audience of highly educated people.

“I’ve always felt overmatched by books, cultures, societies and histories, and yet I’ve run in circles with really educated people,” he says. “I feel I need to work that much harder, and I’ve done a good job of learning independently over the years. But when I have to speak in public, I really grind over my speech. I grind over my communication skills, to try to communicate in a powerful way.”

• Agassi says he has been frequently recruited to run for public office, and says the option is “tempting, but I don’t really take it too seriously. Maybe at a different stage of my life, you know, I would look in that direction.

“But now I’m too knee-deep in education. I just am enjoying my life. I’m getting a lot done, in a kind of unofficial role.”

Even if it means having to step a little gingerly.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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