9 July 2011, International Tennis Hall of Fame, Newport, Rhode Island, USA
I’ve stood at this podium twice before. Once was to introduce my beautiful wife, Stephanie Graf. I was so much more comfortable that day because I felt the recipient to be far more worthy. The second time was in my father’s imagination (laughter), in his mind’s eye. From the day I was born, my father Mike saw this day in my future and described it to me many times.
So my feeling of déjà vu right now almost rivals my feeling of gratitude. Almost.
You know, not long ago I was giving a talk in my home town of Las Vegas, and after I spoke there was this answer and question period. The first hand up, first questions out of the box, was a man in the front row. You could see in this man’s face that he was really struggling with something. He took the microphone, stood up and asked, “How do you know when to stop telling your kids what to do?” The questioner was my father.
I was caught off guard that night. I didn’t know what to say. I don’t remember what I did say. But the answer has come to me now so clearly. Dad, when I was five, you told me to win Wimbledon; when I was seven, you told me to win all of the four Grand Slams; and more times that I can remember you told me to get into the Hall of Fame. And when I was 29, I don’t know if you remember this, you told me to marry Steffi Graf. Best order you ever gave me. So Dad, please don’t ever stop telling me what to do.
If we’re lucky in life, we get a handful of moments when we don’t have to wonder if we made a parent proud. We don’t have to ask them; we just know. I want to thank tennis for giving me one of those moments today. It’s one of the many things for which I need to thank this sport.
I look at Simone and the thousands of young people she represents at Agassi Prep, and I say under my breath, “thank you, tennis.” I look at my wife and my children who I live for, and I say, “thank you, tennis.” I look to the future, my efforts to build high performing charter schools in inner cities across the U.S., schools that will impact tens of thousands of Simones, and I say, “thank you, tennis, for making that possible.
I fell in love with tennis far too late in my life, but the reason that I have everything that I hold dear is because of how much tennis has loved me back. I’m thrilled, humbled, quite terrified to be honest to stand in front of you right now. I’ve felt vulnerable on the tennis court many times but not quite like today. I’ve grown up in front of you. You’ve seen my highs, my lows. We’ve laughed together, we’ve cried together. But what is so clear to me standing here today is that you have given me compassion, understanding, love, more than I expected, many times more than I deserved.
Tennis has not only given me much, it has taught me much. It’s no accident that tennis uses the language of life, service, advantage, break, fault, love; the lessons of tennis are the lessons of maturity. In tennis you prepare and you prepare, and then one day your preparation seems futile; nothing is working, and the other guy has got your number cold. So you improvise. In tennis you learn what I do instantly affects what you do and vice versa. Tennis makes you perceptive, proactive, reactive all at the same time. Tennis teaches you the subtlety of human interaction, the curse and blessing of cause and effect.
After you play tennis for a living, you never forget that we are all connected, and there’s nothing quite like a tiebreak that teaches you the concept of high risk, high reward. Tennis teaches you there’s no such thing as perfect. You want to be perfect, you hope to be perfect, then you’re out there and you’re far less than perfect. And you realize, I don’t really have to be perfect today, I just have to be better than one person. It’s true. All you club players remember that, okay?
Tennis is a lonely sport, probably the most lonely. You’re out there with no team, no coach and no place to hide. That’s why tennis players not only talk to themselves but answer. And yet all that loneliness eventually teaches you to stand alone. The high standards that tennis imposes on us, the self reliance it demands of us, that’s the reason why tennis has produced so many of life’s great game changers.
One of the landmarks of our sport, our National Tennis Center in New York, is home to the Arthur Ashe Stadium. What courage Arthur showed; how fair he was while being treated so unfairly. Once Arthur grabbed hold of a truth, he was unwilling, not capable, of letting go. Tennis gave us that man. He was and is a treasure, not just for America but for the whole world, for those who have yet to be born.
The tennis center itself is the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center named after one of my personal heroes. Think of the seismic transformation Billie caused in society. Our wives, daughters, mothers, have more than a hope for equality; they have a mandated claim on it because of Billie. She did so much more than just inspire women; she changed the way men and women think about men and women, the way we all think about equality. She woke us up. Tennis gave us Billie, and tennis today is giving me the chance to say, “thank you, Billie.”
Tennis gave me all my personal teachers that I owe a debt I can never repay. They lifted me up and carried me across many finish lines, sometimes literally. My dad Mike and my mom Betty; my big brother Phil; my friend, protector and trainer Gil Reyes; my coaches, Nick Bollettieri, Darren Cahill, Brad Gilbert; and the person who means more to me than words can express, the woman who still takes my breath away every day, Stephanie Graf.
Each one of them deserves a separate Hall of Fame speech, but of course there isn’t time. So I’ve written a letter to each one of them, intimate letters, love letters, but they’re not private. I want the world to know how I feel, so I’m putting them on my foundation’s website where I hope they’ll serve as a permanent public tribute to those who made this day a reality. They’re the ones who made possible the highlights. They’re the reasons I am blessed with magical memories that help me sleep, sometimes keep me awake.
Because of my father I have the memory of the ’92 Wimbledon and the ’96 Olympics and some thrilling Davis Cups. Because of Gil I have the memory of the ’99 French Open, his ear to ear smile in the fifth set when we both thought my tank was empty but there was a few drops of fuel left. Because of Stephanie and my children, Jaden and Jaz, there was that day of my retirement in 2006 when I got to walk away from the sport on my own terms. They were there for me that day ready to embrace the future, whatever that might be. These are my people, and these memories are seared in my mind forever.
One of the most influential people in my life I met only one time. It was the most vulnerable time, a time that I needed direction and inspiration, and just then, there I was, shaking hands with Nelson Mandela. He took my hand, complimented my game, and in the same breath told me the reason why we have been put here on earth. I can still close my eyes and hear his words of wisdom from that evening. He said, “We must be careful in our decisions, careful in our words, and we must be careful in our relationships. Andre, we must live our life carefully.” Once you hear those words from Nelson Mandela, you can never un hear them.
I didn’t always live carefully. I didn’t always pay tennis the respect it deserved. I thought it was my career that was creating my angst, that tennis was the cause of my internal tension and disconnect. I didn’t know myself, and I didn’t recognize that my troubles were of my own making and that I and only I could solve them.
Only after being broken, another tennis term, did I realize I wasn’t being careful. But you know, rock bottom is an interesting place. I moved in and spent some time there. It’s actually not a bad place. It’s a place where you get to ask, who do I want to be; am I ready to take ownership of my life. For me, ownership meant growing up, focusing every day on being just one day better. Ownership meant not only embracing tennis but celebrating it. Ownership meant going back to the Challenger circuit, feeling honored to be my own ballboy, feeling privileged to flip my own scorecard. Ownership meant feeling grateful for being and having the chance to start over. Climbing out of that hole that I had dug for myself, that’s when I started choosing to believe that each of us have a plan for our life, a purpose to fulfill, a body of work to create, a reason to be.
I committed to taking care of myself and taking care of my tennis. Going from a ranking of 141 in the world back to No. 1 was not an accomplishment; it was the reflection of an accomplishment. It was the symptom of good choices; it was the result of being careful.
The highlights I experienced taught me what is possible. The hard times reinforce the consequences of me not being true to my character, of not living up to my expectations.These things have coalesced inside of me into a kind of code, a personal mission statement I believe we have a responsibility to each other, a responsibility to create more than we consume, a responsibility to build things that will outlast us, a responsibility to find our own limits and push through them.
Even when life’s challenges weigh us down, make us unrecognizable to ourselves, we can always begin again. There’s always time to thrive. It’s not too late to be inspired. It’s not too late to change. It’s not too late.
This honor today leaves me deeply humbled but also makes me think of others who don’t get their due: Teachers, nurses, caregivers, struggling parents, all the people who do the right thing who win their own private Grand Slams. They know already. They know already what took me decades to figure out: That we are here to do good quietly, to shine in secret, to give when there’s no crowd applauding, to give of ourselves to someone who can offer us nothing.
Tennis gave me the chance to meet so many of these people, to travel the world and visit places where the human spirit shines brightest because life is darkest. Tennis taught me that the needs of this world are great but they are no match, nor will they ever be a match, for the human spirit.
So thank you, tennis, for my life. Thank you, tennis, for my wife. And thank you, tennis, for enabling me to find my life’s work.
In closing, to my son Jaden, my daughter Jaz, and every young person listening to my voice, the world that we’re leaving you is not the world we wish for you. You need to make that world, to go places we’ve never been, to succeed in ways we’ve never dreamed. Mandela said to me, “There is difficulty in all human journeys, but there is no ability in just being a journeyer.” From him I learned every journey is epic, every journey is important, every journey begins today.
At the beginning of my journey, my friend Gil said to me, “Andre, you have dreams and I have strong shoulders, so stand on my shoulders and reach.” To my children, to all of our children, stand on our shoulders, reach higher than we could, reach for your dreams, because today standing here receiving this honor, I am living proof that no dream, no journey is impossible.