Monday, Dec. 6, 2004 | 10:52 a.m.
On the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, the pro tennis star laments that he's not celebrating the 15th.
"The only regret I have is that I did not start the foundation sooner," Agassi said last week following an event to thank volunteers at Andre Agassi College Preparatory, a charter school he founded in 2001 to help disadvantaged youths excel in technological studies.
"Unfortunately I listened to advisers who told me that I should start a foundation near the end of my career."
The foundation, which has raised $42 million to help more than 184,000 Southern Nevada youngsters, began at a crossroads in Agassi's life -- a time when he was shedding his bad boy persona -- and much of his hair -- for a more mature, conservative image on and off the court.
Still, 34-year-old Agassi, who has more than $29 million in career match earnings, says starting the foundation was not the result of an epiphany.
"The only epiphany I had was that my hair fell out," said Agassi, who was born and raised in Las Vegas.
"As teenagers, Perry (Rogers, his agent and head of the foundation) and I discussed plans to one day help other kids. As time went by and I came to realize (in 1994) that I had to make the foundation an objective then. But by waiting so long I missed out on helping a lot of other kids who needed help."
In addition to the school on Lake Mead Boulevard and J Street, the foundation assists nearly a dozen local charities, including the Andre Agassi Boys & Girls Clubs that he opened in 1997, also in economically depressed West Las Vegas.
Still, the winner of 59 major pro titles, including eight Grand Slam events, said he has learned in his 18-year pro career that "timing is most important" and that things have fallen in place during the foundation's first decade.
Agassi vowed to the first Agassi Prep students in 2001 that the school would grow from the original third through fifth grades and, in 2009, many of those students would be part of the institute's first high school graduating class.
To accomplish that, the final phase of a $12.5 million expansion project to build the high school is under way to go with the second phase's 6th-8th grades and the original elementary school.
Today 300 students attend the school. By 2008, 500 are expected to be enrolled.
Agassi said the pressure on him to keep the school's growth on the scheduled pace is intense, perhaps as intense as any of the 822 pro singles matches he has won or the 254 he has lost.
"I made a promise to these children and they expect me to keep it -- they expect to graduate from here," he said.
Skylar Dunn, 13, a seventh grader at Agassi Prep, and, like Agassi, a native Las Vegan, has attended the school since Day 1. He says he expects the promises that were made to him and his family to be fulfilled because he is fulfilling his end of the bargain by working hard at his studies.
"Of course I will be disappointed if I put in all of the time here and then get told I have to graduate somewhere else because of construction delays or other problems," said Dunn, who wants to be a sports agent like his mentor, Perry Rogers.
"But I don't think that (delays) is going to happen, at least hopefully not."
To help ensure that there is enough money funding to finish the project, Agassi, for nine years, has hosted the Andre Agassi Grand Slam for Children spectacular.
This year's event in October raised $6.1 million, down slightly from the $6.3 million raised in 2003. The gala included an auction, gourmet dinner and a concert at the MGM Grand Garden that included performances by comedian Robin Williams and country music superstars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw.
Despite his demanding schedule on the pro tennis circuit, where he is ranked as the eighth best men's single player in the world, Agassi visits both the school and clubs as often as possible and has a deep understanding of what is lacking in his community.
"My dream is for this school to be a footprint for the nation's education system," Agassi said. "We fund this school to the national average ($7,200 per pupil, compared with the Clark County School District at $5,200).
"Southern Nevada is a leader in all of the wrong statistics -- high school student dropout rates, teen pregnancy, drugs and crime. Something has to be done to turn that around."
Agassi, who has two children with his wife, tennis legend Stefanie Graf, said the foundation already has accomplished far more than he had dreamed.
"Based on our original goals we figured we would have raised about $10 million by now," he said. "I'd be a fool to guess where this will go in the next 10 years. But I know that to be successful, we have to stay focused."
It is that focus and drive that has influenced many of the students who attend Agassi Prep to make the school and themselves a success.
"This is an opportunity for me to get a better education so that I will be somebody," said 11-year-old MeShayla Ennis, an Agassi Prep sixth grader and native North Las Vegan.
"This is much better than my old school. We had no textbooks there, just photo-copy handouts (from texts). Here we have textbooks for every subject."
Kiara Taylor, who was born a year after Agassi started his foundation, says she believes the school exists because its founder cares.
"I think Andre Agassi loves kids and wants to help us," said the fourth-grader and lifelong Southern Nevadan.
Future sports agent Dunn says that while Agassi might not be the best tennis player in the world, "he plays the best players and he always gives 110 percent" -- something Dunn says Agassi Prep students emulate.
Agassi has been recognized for his philanthropy. He won the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award in 1995 and 2001 for helping local disadvantaged youths and was honored along with pro basketball star Alonzo Mourning as the 2001 USA Today WEEKEND "Most Caring Athletes."
Rogers says when the high school is built it will have a sports program, including eight-man football, basketball and, of course, tennis.
Reminded that a large segment of the public probably would expect a school named for Andre Agassi to win a string of state prep tennis titles, Agassi laughed and said, "That's all I need -- more pressure."