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Two months later, on the clay he's never solved, he learns how much he can rely on himself. Down two sets against Andrei Medvedev in the final of the French Open, he wins in five sets, drops his racket and weeps: At 29 he's the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four Grand Slam singles titles. Seven years after his first attempt, he feels like a man who deserves Steffi Graf.
It's just the start of a 27--1 run in Grand Slam matches, the best since Jimmy Connors's 20--0 in '74; three majors in less than a year. On the flight to Wimbledon a few weeks after Paris, he scissors out a picture of a barn and a field from an airline menu, turns it into a birthday card, rolls it up, ties it with a ribbon and gives it to Steffi's coach to pass on. It's so sweet she has to call him. Boy, is the boy ever ready. I want no misunderstandings, he says. I'm sure you've heard by now about Brooke and me. I think you're beautiful and fascinating and I have a tremendous amount of respect for what appear to be the pillars of your life. Can we have lunch or dinner or coffee, take a walk, I don't care--I just want to get to know you better. Bull's-eye! She green-lights him to call her after Wimbledon.
One month later, two days before she plays the final match of her career at age 30, they go out to dinner in La Jolla, Calif., and Steffi gets a surprise: Andre's not at all like his image. They end up running on the beach and start discovering that somehow they're completely different ... and uncannily the same. That Steffi, too, has a foundation for children, one that addresses the psychological scars from violence all over the world. Her dad's a fanatic for tennis, boxing and soccer? Precisely the same as his! Her favorite musicians are George Michael, U2 and Prince? Exactly his! When she asks him his favorite alltime movie a few weeks later, she lets go of the phone and screams. It's hers, Shadowlands, the story of C.S. Lewis's finding his soul mate late in life and then losing her to cancer. Steffi, too, is a seeker--she planned to travel the globe to photograph animals until Andre began laying siege--but the big difference between them, the saving one, is this: Once she finds an answer, she trusts it. She leaves it alone.
She flies to Vegas to see his world. She approaches Andre's father for the first time. He's on his tennis court, of course. Andre tenses--remembering how Dad disdained his marriage to Brooke, how he walked out on their wedding reception--still yearning to be part of a family that's whole.
Steffi walks right up and wraps her arms around his father, an embrace so warm that it melts the old man ... and more of the ice between him and his son.
Here's what happens when a man finds a lens that makes every choice in his life clearer: Will it make my wife proud? Here's what happens when a boy raised to win more Grand Slam tournaments than anyone else on earth ends up with not even half as many as the woman in his own bed, and he's so damn grateful for it that at night he writes on a chalkboard in their kitchen the things he noticed and admired about her that day. Here's what happens when that gratitude begins swelling, rippling outward from that bed and kitchen.
He starts having children, and they turn his churning energy outward, and his meltdowns become rarer and rarer, and he starts playing some of the best tennis of his life, outlasting all the peers who'd been far more dedicated to the game. And in his children's faces he sees the child he didn't get a chance to be, and the faces of all the children who lose that chance, and he begins adding more classrooms to his school for kids from broken homes. He lifts his own kids to hold them so often that it aggravates a condition in his back, caused by a vertebra that's slipped over the one below it, and so then, to get things right with tennis that he got wrong all those years, he has to do it with pain shooting down his sciatic nerve.
And suddenly he's in front of the world in the first round of the 2005 French Open with his back killing him and a far lesser player taking him apart, but rather than quit and call off the embarrassment as he would've before, he fights to the end and then explains why with such conviction and such appreciation of the fans who'd paid to see him that an ESPN editor includes it on SportsCenter.
It reaches the eyes of a man on his back in California recovering from a kidney transplant, the hot television comedian George Lopez, who feels so moved that he sends a text message that ricochets from his TV producer to Perry to Andre. "Because," says Lopez, "you could tell Andre's words came from a man who has traveled the world and found compassion. A man who said Image is everything is now saying, Humanity is everything." And so, of course, Lopez accepts Andre's invitation to take the stage at his annual fund-raising gala last October, where he joins Robin Williams and C�line Dion and Barbra Streisand and a slew of other celebrities who come to Vegas to auction off their time and perform for Andre's cause, which raises $7.5 million in one night, prompting Andre to bound to the microphone and round off that number, from his and Perry's pockets, to $10 million, so that all the kids at his academy can walk into a brand-new high school that'll open this fall.
How do you move on when you've finally found the sweet spot? He couldn't say farewell to the game during the first six months of this year, even as back pain and inactivity from a severe ankle sprain kept driving him out of tournaments in the first round or before they even began. It wasn't so much the tennis he'd be losing but the cocoon of all that process. Finally on June 24 at Wimbledon, the field of grass he once couldn't bother to play, he swallowed hard at 36, said enough ... and felt liberated.