'Boise brings back a lot of memories' for Agassi
Andre Agassi still remembers traveling to Idaho from his hometown of Las Vegas during his days as a hard-hitting, fast-rising junior tennis player.
Now, as the 35-year-old Agassi enters the twilight of a legendary pro career, he returns to Idaho with family as his first priority, not forehand winners.
"As a child I would play in Boise quite often. It was part of our sectional," Agassi said Tuesday as he prepared to visit the Treasure Valley again for Saturday night's Rock-n-Racquets exhibition event at Taco Bell Arena.
"Boise brings back a lot of memories. I don't remember too many specific matches, but I remember the drives from Las Vegas. My parents were very committed to our lives as kids, and tennis was the biggest thing."
Agassi and his wife, fellow tennis legend Steffi Graf, will headline Saturday's event by playing as a mixed doubles team for the first time in their careers. Agassi and Graf are scheduled to play American Mike Bryan — who teams with twin brother Bob to form the world's top-ranked doubles team — and Belarusian teenager Viktoria Azarenka, the world's top-ranked junior player.
The mixed doubles match is one of three scheduled for the event. Agassi will play with fellow ATP Tour pro James Blake in a doubles match against the Bryan brothers, followed by the first singles rematch between Agassi and Blake since their magical five-set thriller won by Agassi in this year's U.S. Open quarterfinals.
Agassi said he is eager to give Idaho tennis fans a taste of world-class tennis in a more relaxed, laid-back setting.
"You will see competitive tennis, to be sure, but you'll also see a bit of the funner side," Agassi said. "It's interactive with the crowd. It's not a typical tennis setting where you have to be quiet. It's a chance to bring the whole family out and have fun."
Agassi and Graf, who married in 2001 and have two children, have won a combined 30 Grand Slam singles titles. Graf retired in 1999 with 22 Grand Slam titles, and Agassi said he expects her competitive fire to be fully stoked when she steps on the court.
"You can count on that," he said. "She doesn't get the chance to play tennis at the standard she demands of herself with the challenges of raising a family. ... To be on the court with me helps her stress level and makes up for some of her time spent away from the court lately, but she's still pretty darn good."
Tamarack Resort, located near Donnelly, is the title sponsor of Saturday night's event, and Agassi and Graf have a strong personal and financial interest in the resort. The couple is part of a development group planning to build a luxury hotel at the resort. Agassi and Graf toured the project last summer, and Agassi said he has fallen in love with the resort's idyllic setting and privacy.
"To me this is Aspen and Sun Valley 25 years ago. It hasn't been discovered yet," he said. "It's a place to take your family, your kids. I have such an appreciation for places that provide families time to spend together."
Although Tamarack sounds like an ideal place for Agassi to retreat to and relax in retirement, quitting tennis is the furthest thing from his mind right now. Despite battling a severely sprained ankle for nearly two months — and back spasms that limited his mobility over the summer — Agassi said he plans to play full time next year.
"I know the time will come, but as long as I know I can compete with the best, playing is a hard thing to pass up," he said. ... "I'm excited and eager for next year. With God willing and (if) I'm healthy, I'll be out there."
But first up is a trip to Boise, a city where Agassi honed his game as a junior and where Boise State men's tennis coach Greg Patton says Agassi showed flashes of what would be a brilliant career.
"He was a fireball, a real wild child," said Patton, who has a long career coaching junior and collegiate tennis in the West. "He was incredibly gifted, and he had a magic sparkle that made you think he was something special but didn't know where he would go."
Patton recalls Agassi beating on an umpire's chair with his racket during a junior match — with the umpire still sitting in it — and refusing to take home a second-place trophy from a match. "He just wailed on the ball," Patton said. "He was a small package, but he packed a lot in that arm."
Patton said since his days as a wildly talented junior and overwhelming success as a pro, Agassi has "transcended the sport and become a legendary figure through his spiritual and personal growth.
"I think it's a really special time for people to see him. He's still a top-10, top-five player in the world."
And that player says the biggest reason he's still playing tennis is to enhance the lives of kids through charity. The Andre Agassi Foundation, founded in 1994, has raised more than $50 million to assist at-risk kids in Las Vegas.
"To see children benefit from the fact I can still hit a tennis ball keeps me pretty motivated," Agassi said. "I push through injuries easier than ever. Educating our children is changing the future, and that's important."