For Las Vegas sports fans, one of those useless-but-fun bar-stool debates is, “Who is the greatest athlete ever to come out of our city—tennis legend Andre Agassi or baseball immortal Greg Maddux?” But while Maddux is putting in plenty of time tearing up the golf course, Agassi’s still feeding his competitive jones through the sport that made him famous. As a mainstay of the Champions Series, he’ll be battling it out all fall with former superstars ranging from his boyhood hero, Jimmy Connors, to longtime rival Pete Sampras. On Oct. 15, the Champions Series comes to the Thomas & Mack Center, where Agassi will be joined by Sampras, John McEnroe and Michael Chang. He recently took a breather to talk about his past, tennis’ future and his love of Las Vegas.
The Champions Series is bringing back the greats of the ’70s through the ’90s …
[Laughs] I was a little bit great in the 2000s, too.
There you go. You’ve got the 21st century covered. Still, are you guys sensing nostalgia out there for the stars of old?
Well, our objective is just to play well enough to justify that nostalgia. I grew up in front of these fans; I feel like I know them. For fans, it’s always a question of what the game meant in your life, almost the way you listen to a song that brings back a certain time in your life. And for us, we’re at a stage in our lives where we really can enjoy being together outside the lines and even inside the lines.
You stepped on the court to hit with Jimmy Connors for the first time when he was the best player in the world and you were a 4-year-old fan at the Alan King Tennis Classic at Caesars Palace. What’s it like being on the court with Connors now?
A flood of memories. You know what’s been really nice? I never spoke to Jimmy throughout my career—I should say, he never spoke to me. I looked up to him very early on, and it became something else quickly, and now to actually sit in the locker room like I did last weekend and chat as adults, it gives you a whole different perspective on somebody, and that’s been a pleasure. He’s interesting [and] intelligent, and he has a great perspective on a wide variety of topics. He’s a loyal person, a guy who isn’t quick to let you in and maybe not be quick to trust, but very loyal. I have a great deal of regard for him; I was raised by a man who had some of those characteristics.
Is the connection of the average American fan with the game as strong as it was in the glory years of U.S. tennis—the years of Connors and McEnroe or you and Pete?
I don’t think so. We have a lot of competition for heroes and entertainment in our country. I do think we have a tendency to be spoiled with those generations, and we need champions to re-create that interest here. It’s great for the game to have an American on top, and I think it’s also necessary.
Is modern equipment hurting the game?
No, I think it’s making it better. It is changing the game. And one could argue they’re not enjoying it as much, but I think it’s upping the ante from a physical and strategic perspective.
You at your best against Rafael Nadal at his best. You pick the rackets. Who wins?
So I can play with mine and I can make him play with a wood racket?
Oh, he would have no chance against me. The way he hits the ball it requires, I mean, you can’t pick up a small-headed wood racket, put on a huge Western grip, and then try to cut the ball at the angle he does. It would be a huge disadvantage to him more than it would be, say, to [Roger] Federer. I think Federer would probably beat me with anything in his hand.
In the 1970s and early ’80s, the Alan King tournament regularly drew the biggest names in tennis to Las Vegas. Is there a chance of bringing an event on that scale back to Las Vegas?
You’d hope so, but the sad reality was those stands stayed empty most of the time. We’re a town with so much competition for entertainment, and to bring a real successful tournament here, to me, you need one of two things: You need either a huge city where a small demographic can sustain an event for its full success, or a smaller city that has less competition for entertainment so that a bigger portion of that smaller city comes out to support it. We’re kind of a tweener in that regard, so I don’t know if it’s going to happen in the near future.
You could live anywhere in the world, but you’ve stayed here in your hometown. The obvious reason would be that your family’s here, but what else does Las Vegas offer you that no other place can?
I love Vegas for a variety of reasons. I start with the culture, with the can-do mentality. I could never have pulled off my school [Agassi Prep] anywhere else. I love the pulse of Las Vegas. It’s a great life, especially for someone who has lived globally. So many people come through here and visit who otherwise I probably would never get to see again. … I left Las Vegas when I was 13, and from the age of 13 it was my dream to come home. I always planned on coming home. The only thing that’s different now, in the summers I used to go to D.C. and Cincinnati and all these places, and I would come home and say, “Why does everybody complain that it’s so hot? It’s not that hot here.” But now that I live here through the summer, I’m going, “Wow, now I know what they mean!”
Editor’s Note: In addition to talking about the game he loves, Agassi spoke to Vegas Seven about his Las Vegas charter school, his ambitious plan to aid the best charter schools across the nation, and the future of public education.
In recent years, the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas has grown from 650 students to 1,045 and has become a model for how to develop rigorous academic institutions in historically underserved communities. Now you’ve developed an ambitious model—the Canyon Agassi Fund—to help fund the construction of 75 charter schools across the nation. How are the two projects related?
Agassi Prep and the Canyon Agassi Fund [are] two different functions. Agassi Prep has led me to a nationwide movement and a plan to help charter schools grow in scale. But it’s the beacon, it’s the case study, it’s the laboratory—and that, for me, is always closest to my heart; it’s my community and it’s my foundations and it’s my school. But what I’ve learned through Agassi Prep is that philanthropy isn’t scalable. The only way to really do something that’s scalable and self-sustaining is to go after the private sector, the traditional capital, and if you can create a winning formula with the traditional capital with the private sector, you’re talking about doing the thing that I think America still does the best, which is innovate. So we’ve put together a model, and we’ve taken it to the [board] rooms to raise over $500 million to deploy.
I think you’re going to see us do it bigger and bigger, because the demand is incredible. I was playing in Philadelphia recently, and I took the opportunity to head down to North Philly, where I had the privilege to see the school we just built and opened for a K-4 school, and you’re looking at this economically devastated area of North Philadelphia, and you see this little safe haven and these children who are thriving and having a future. It’s a remarkable feeling to be able to facilitate that, and we’re about to do that at an unparalleled rate.
So what kind of schools will the Canyon Agassi fund serve?
This is to help the top 15 percent of charter-school operators. And the reason I say that is because we have 5,000 charter schools in America, give or take, and 85 percent of them don’t have high-achieving results. But the top 15 percent have incredibly high-performing results, so the focus of this fund is to facilitate and help enable those operators who have proven that they know how to educate kids, and enable them to expand their footprint at a rate they never could have otherwise.
And the Las Vegas school, that’s still your baby?
That’s my home. This model that I’m doing across the country as of now wouldn’t work in Las Vegas, because there is a very low per-pupil allocation here and what I would call less-friendly charter-school legislation. So to get a great operator to come here is a challenge at the moment, but with [Clark County School District superintendent] Dwight Jones and the reform he’s bringing, we have hopes that charter-school laws and opportunities, as well as other areas, will improve dramatically.
Do you think charter schools are the wave of the future for public education, or are they a kind of case study that then helps traditional public schools change themselves?
Well, I think in anything you need competition to hold people accountable. But I also think if charter schools do work, and 15 percent of them do, what we need to do is flood the market with more of those. I believe any school that isn’t educating our children shouldn’t be in business, whether you’re charter or public; you have to educate our kids. It’s too important—you can’t fail.