He burst onto the tennis scene in 1986, complete with long, frosted hair, a fierce two-handed backhand, and a cool catchphrase (Image Is Everything). Over the span of his 21-year-career, Andre Agassi, 45, won eight Grand Slams and became one of the most popular athletes of his generation. These days, though, he’s into a different kind of game.
Agassi has teamed up with the Silicon Valley-based tech company, Square Panda, to promote the Square Panda Phonics Playset, a fun interactive learning system that uses phonics to teach kids, ages two to eight, how to read.
How it works: A child picks up a color-coded letter from the alphabet and puts it in a box to form a word, then the tablet pronounces any combination of letters a child creates. Agassi recently visited a classroom to test the tablet with some kids, and had as much of a blast as they were, dishing out verbal high-fives (“You’re a great speller!”) and offer a few helpful hints (“W – we need a W!”).
“I’m interested in anything that’s educationally related,” Agassi tells PEOPLE. He’s not kidding. In 1994, he started the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, which is dedicated to helping disadvantaged children get an education. Since the foundation was created, more than $180 million has been raised to improve public education in the U.S.
In 2001, he opened the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a charter school, in Las Vegas. A partnership with real estate executive Bobby Turner has resulted in some 50 charter schools being built across the country, with plans to develop as many as 130 additional schools over the next five years.
A big part of Agassi’s passion for education is personal. Sent to a tennis academy at age 13, he’s always felt that he had sacrificed his schooling in pursuit of tennis success.
“I didn’t have a choice in my life,” he says. “I just focused on tennis. And the thought of what would have happened had I not succeeded was kind of overwhelming.”
Of course, Agassi’s story had a happy ending – both on the court and off. He and his wife, former tennis star Steffi Graff, have been married for 14 years, and have two kids, 14-year-old son, Jaden, and 12-year-old daughter, Jaz. The couple has made a concerted effort not to push either of their kids into any one activity, but rather, let them find their own interests.
“My son plays baseball seven days a week and my daughter does hip-hop dance,” says Agassi, who adds that he and Graff “hold them to a high standard in everything they do,” schoolwork, included.
“Our children have had a great education,” Agassi says. “It’s my goal to get those same tools into the hands of other children. With education, there is hope, and a future of their choosing.”