Hall of Fame Induction Speech, July 2011

August 25, 2014 speeches Comments Off

I’ve stood at this podium twice before.

Once to introduce my wife — Stefanie 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. 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.

Not long ago I was giving a talk in my hometown, Las Vegas. After I spoke there was a question and answer session. The first hand up, the first question out of the blocks, 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 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 afterwards the answer came to me so clearly.

Dad — when I was five you TOLD me to win Wimbledon.

When I was seven you TOLD me to win all four slams.

More times than I can remember you TOLD me to get into the hall of fame.

And when I was twenty-nine you TOLD me to marry Steffi Graf. The 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’ve made a parent proud, and 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 many things for which I need to thank this game.

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 I have everything that I hold dear, is because of how much tennis has loved me back.

I’m thrilled, humbled and a bit terrified to stand in front of you right now. I’ve felt vulnerable many times on a tennis court, but not like I do today.

I’ve grown up in front of you. You’ve seen my highs and you’ve seen my lows. We’ve laughed together and 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. And 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 prepare, and then one day your preparation seems futile. Nothing’s working.

The other guy has your number — cold. So you improvise.

In tennis — you learn — what I do instantly effects what you do, and vice versa.

Tennis makes you perceptive, proactive and reactive 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’re all connected. And, there’s nothing like a
tiebreak in the finals of a tournament to teach you the concept of high risk, high reward.

Tennis teaches you that 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 have to be perfect today. I just have to be better than one person.

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 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 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 everyone in the world. For people 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 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. I owe them 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, Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill.

And the person who means more to me than words can express, the woman who still takes my breath away, every day. Stefanie Graf.

Each of them deserves a separate Hall of Fame speech. But of course, there isn’t time. So, I’ve written a letter to each 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 reason I’m blessed with magical memories that help me sleep — or sometimes keep me awake.

Because of my father I have the memory of the 1992 Wimbledon, and the 1996 Olympics, and thrilling Davis Cups.

Because of Gil I have the memory of the 1999 French Open, his ear-to-ear smile in the fifth set, when we both thought my tank was empty, but there were a few drops of fuel left.

Because of Stefanie and my children, Jaden and Jaz, there was the day of my retirement, in 2006, when I got to walk away from professional tennis 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 those 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 of my life, 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 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 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 ball boy, 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 I had dug for myself, that’s when I started choosing to believe that each of us has 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 being ranked number 1 again 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 reinforced the consequences of not being true to my character — of not living up to my own expectations. These things have coalesced inside 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 out live us. A responsibility to find our limits and to 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, it also makes me think of others who don’t get their due. Teachers and nurses. Caregivers and struggling parents. All the people who do the right thing, who win their own private Grand Slams — they know already what took me decades to understand. 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’re no match and never will be a match for the human spirit. 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 to every young person listening to my voice, the world 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 nobility 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. 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. Today, as I stand here, I am living proof that no journey
is impossible.