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Agassi: 'I fell in love with tennis far too late'

Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi

NEWPORT, R.I. -- The long hair is long gone, the denim shorts have faded to memory, and there was Andre Agassi accepting induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame on Saturday with an overdue affection for the sport he once resented and a rejection of the ''Image is everything'' attitude that helped propel him to stardom.

In a tender tribute to family and philanthropy, Agassi was introduced by a student at the charter school he opened in Las Vegas and joined on center court by his wife, fellow Hall of Famer Steffi Graf.

Gone was the self-styled, long-haired rebel who rose to the No. 1 ranking in the world but, it now seems, didn't enjoy a single moment of it. Instead, Agassi turned his speech into a love letter of sorts for tennis and even the father who pushed him -- not always gently -- to play, commanding him, at the age of 5, to someday win Wimbledon.

''I fell in love with tennis far too late in my life. But the reason I have everything I hold dear is because tennis has loved me back,'' Agassi said. ''If we're lucky in life, we get a few moments where we don't have to wonder if we made our parents proud. I want to thank tennis for giving me those moments.''

Sprinkling his comments with gratitude for fellow Hall of Famers Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe and ''the woman who still takes my breath away every day, Stefanie Graf,'' Agassi also recounted a meeting with Nelson Mandela in which the former South African president told him, ''You must live carefully.''

''I didn't always live carefully. I didn't always pay tennis the respect it deserved,'' Agassi admitted. ''I didn't know myself, and I didn't realize that my troubles were of my own making.''

Also inducted into the tennis shrine was contributor Fern ''Peachy'' Kellmeyer. The first woman to play on a men's Division I college team, she paved the way for Title IX by fighting the system that prohibited athletic scholarships for women. She played in the U.S. Open at 15 and was the first employee of the WTA, sticking around for 38 years as it grew from a tour with $309,000 in total purses to one that paid out more than $89 million.

''Any women who have college scholarships should give thanks to Peachy Kellmeyer,'' said Stacey Allaster, the ninth person to serve as the CEO of the WTA under Kellmeyer's guidance. ''She has been the glue of women's tennis, holding the WTA together as CEOs and players come and go ... never letting us forget that our past is our future.''