Agassi's grand slam for children

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The Independent Online

It was Andre Agassi's third wedding anniversary yesterday. While his wife, Steffi Graf, was taking care of their two children, Jaden and Jaz, the indefatigable 34-year-old from Las Vegas was battling for ranking points at the Madrid Masters here.

It was Andre Agassi's third wedding anniversary yesterday. While his wife, Steffi Graf, was taking care of their two children, Jaden and Jaz, the indefatigable 34-year-old from Las Vegas was battling for ranking points at the Madrid Masters here.

Agassi thanked Steffi "for the light you've brought into my life" in a speech at her induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame last July. He has enhanced his own reputation by demonstrating that while charity begins at home, it can be spread generously.

He has raised more than $42m [£22.9m] from his annual "Grand Slam for Children" benefit concert, including $6.1m from the most recent event after last month's US Open. Two months before his wedding in 2001, he launched the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy for at-risk youth.

A journalist covering the tournament here asked him if he was helping children to play tennis and develop as human beings because of his strong personal beliefs, or as a way of saving taxes.

Agassi paused, smiled and replied, ignoring the tax element of the question. "Actually," he said, "tennis is a very small part. I have a programme that brings tennis to the inner city. But the bulk of my work is done through education. The preparatory academy educates children that don't have that opportunity. It takes children a year to two years behind in school and has managed to bring them back to grade level inside a year.

"We clothe over 3,000 children a year. We help a group called Child Haven, which is a shelter for abused, abandoned kids. I built a school on the premises there so that these children can continue their education while they wait for their parents to get out of courts, or jail, drug rehab, whatever it may be."

He regarded the questioner and added: "I think the better question is, 'Why not do it?' Because it's changing lives."

On the subject of changing lives, Agassi was asked his thoughts on the United States Presidential election. "I'm voting for Kerry for sure," he said. "And I wish everybody would."

Returning to tennis, the second biggest issue here this week, after the model ball-girls, was the no-shows by the world's top four players. "I assure you," Agassi said, "that every top player's agenda is to keep themselves at their best. It's an ongoing balancing act to make the best possible decisions for yourself. Playing too much is a risk for any player.

"No matter what you do with the schedule, you're always going to have issues with basic health needs and the demands on your body. It's a short career."

Agassi's career has stretched longer than most, and he is as fit as his younger rivals. "Knowing me," he said, "I'll be 80 years old still saying, 'I can get better, I can get better.' I say I'm going to play a full schedule next year. You hope you stay healthy and you hope this is possible."

Tim Henman, the 30-year-old British No 1, would say amen to that, having experienced a sudden loss of energy for the second time since June. Henman, unable to give his best while losing in three sets to Ivan Ljubicic in the third round on Thursday, awaits the result of a blood test. For the moment, Henman plans to compete in Basle next week and then defend his Paris Masters title in the quest for points for qualification for next month's Masters Cup in Houston.

Ljubicic advanced to the semi-finals, defeating Joachim Johansson of Sweden 7-6, 6-7, 7-6. Attrition? There were no breaks of serve and only three break points in 36 games. Ljubicic plays David Nalbandian of Argentina, who defeated the American Taylor Dent, 7-6, 6-3.

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