Nicky Fuchs / Special to the Home News
Thursday, Dec. 25, 2008 | midnight
In the backyard of Mike Agassi's posh Spanish Hills home lies a custom-made tennis court dug deep into the ground. Ball return machines, boxes of rackets and hundreds of tennis balls are everywhere, waiting for anyone who wants to come use them.
Just ask him, and the father and former coach of tennis legend Andre Agassi is happy to bring anyone interested into his home for a free tennis lesson. Instructing Las Vegas tennis players has been a hobby of Agassi's since he moved to Southern Nevada in 1963.
At age 78, he doesn't intend to stop now.
"It keeps me young and it makes me happy," Agassi said. "What else am I going to do? Sit on my butt and watch television? I'm here with people, friends. I'll never charge a dime for a tennis lesson to any local player."
For his countless hours of volunteering to coach, Agassi was inducted to the Nevada Tennis Hall of Fame on Nov. 29.
"What Mike Agassi has done for the world of tennis is immeasurable," said Ryan Wolfington, the Nevada Tennis Hall of Fame founder. "His kindness is limitless, and this is our community's chance to thank and recognize him."
Andre Agassi is not the only player taught by his father to be successful. Mike Agassi still regularly runs into people he taught decades ago who went on to college scholarships or other successful ventures.
Niuton Koide, a cardiologist who lives in Summerlin, took Agassi up on his open invitation to the community earlier this month after attending the Nevada Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
"He is so generous, so genuine, and his passion for tennis is a beautiful thing," Koide said. "It's great to have someone like him in the community. If he can't help me fix my backhand, no one can."
Agassi didn't always have the means to teach tennis as a hobby. Rather, his life is a classic rags-to-riches story.
Born in Iran, Agassi grew up in his native country living in a dirt-floor house. Constantly bullied as a youth, he took up boxing at age 16. While he was too poor to afford a boxing club membership, Agassi earned a scholarship by entering a local gym and beating one of its resident tough guys.
A year later, he won a national boxing championship, and a year after that he was sent to represent his country at the 1948 Olympics in London and again at the 1952 games in Helsinki, Finland.
Tennis, however, was always Agassi's first love. He spent much of his youth helping a gardener at his church manicure its tennis court.
"At age 11 or 12, somebody gave me a wooden tennis racket with steel wires," Agassi said. "It was a clumsy thing, but I cherished it. I played with it all the time and brought it with me to the United States."
Agassi worked in various hotels in Las Vegas, including the Tropicana, the Landmark, Bally's and MGM from 1963 until 1991. During his first day on the job at the Tropicana, he noticed the hotel's tennis courts were rarely used and in terrible shape.
He asked if he could assume control of the courts. His bosses agreed, and Agassi began giving tennis lessons in his free time.
Agassi would end up having no greater pupil than his son Andre, who was born in 1970. When Andre was younger than 2 years old, Mike Agassi took him to a ping-pong tournament at the Frontier.
"When we were watching ping pong, everybody was moving their head back and forth, but my son was staring straight ahead and his eyes were going left and right," Agassi recalls. "I thought he had good eye coordination and told myself, 'That kid is going to make it.'"
Agassi said he would hang tennis balls from his son's crib and gave him paddles to hit balloons with while Andre was still in a high chair. When Andre began the sport, Agassi noticed his son had more speed, coordination and talent than any young player he had ever seen.
In 1973, Agassi built a tennis court in back of the family's then residence on Sahara Avenue and Rainbow Boulevard, and Andre played on it nearly every day for the next decade before he went to a tennis academy in Florida.
Mike Agassi later sold the house at $175,000 less than its worth to a family with a young aspiring tennis player. And Andre Agassi went on to win eight Grand Slam singles tournaments and an Olympic gold medal.
"I had a vision," Mike Agassi said. "I knew there was big money in tennis. I knew tennis could be played better than what they were doing at the time."
Christopher Drexel can be reached at 990-8929 or [email protected].