By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
An amazing, recurring irony found in life is that the spotlight shines brightest upon those who do not seek it.
Andrea Jaeger, a pigtailed blonde with braces, once had the talent to rule the tennis world and for a time, she did alongside legendary contemporaries such as Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.
In 1980, less than three weeks after her fifteenth birthday, she became the youngest player ever to be seeded at Wimbledon. As the wave that brought Billie Jean King, Evonne Goolagong and Virginia Wade to the forefront of the tennis world in the 1970s - all players Jaeger beat right before their respective retirements - had crested and crashed, it looked like the 1980s would be hers to inherit. In one regard, the promise has come true: Celebrating its 40th year, the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Calif. honored "Four Decades of Champions" prior to the evening semifinal match on Saturday, July 31. Jaeger, who represented the decade of the 1980s, won the Bank of the West Classic in 1981 and 1982.
As part of the ceremony and weekend festivities, Jaeger and current WTA superstar Maria Sharapova joined forces to speak on behalf of the Little Star Foundation – Jaeger’s year-round outreach institution designed to help kids beat cancer, hunger and poverty at no cost to families – and the Foundation’s "One Hour of Pay Helps a Child’s Way" fundraising campaign.
As part of her four days in California, Jaeger delivered personalized care packages to the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford on behalf of Little Star.
"My rewards on tour were not about the tennis trophies, they were more telling on the ability to go around the globe and spread goodwill," said Jaeger.
Reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals before she could legally drive a car was indeed a turning point in Jaeger’s life but not for reasons most anybody could expect.
"I really didn’t have any friends in tennis. People didn’t know what to do with me," said Jaeger, who reached two Grand Slam finals, won one Grand Slam mixed doubles title (at the French Open, with Jimmy Arias in 1982) and rose to No. 2 in the world all before the age most teenagers finish high school.
"I didn’t fit in with junior high kids because here I was now a professional athlete, and the professionals didn’t embrace me because nobody wanted to be beaten by a kid. It was scary because you’re dealing with people whose entire lives are validated by success on the court, and I just didn’t match up with that," she said. "Once, I watched an opponent of mine chugged down a bottle of wine to cope with losing to me – and here I am, fresh out of juniors, thinking this is supposed to be fun."
Jaeger, who would spend time visiting children’s hospitals because of the difference in age and attitude from the rest of the women’s tour, would have preferred to walk off the court with a draw and a hug rather than victory.
"No girl should be a professional athlete at 14 years old," she added. "It’s a sport where physical maturity should never be equated with emotional maturity. I wasn’t at the age where I needed to make a living, and I wasn’t playing to represent a city or state like you see in team sports. I didn’t recognize, nor was I prepared for, the emotional arches that came from beating an adult because for my whole life, I knew adults as people who were to be respected."
Around this time in her life, Jaeger was finding the peace she lacked from playing professional tennis inside of pediatric wards, schools and food shelters. Many times, she would bring toys bought from the winnings she had earned and present them to kids her own age. She sometimes received funny looks from parents but never missed a beat with the kids.
"If I did feel there was something my tennis career and earnings brought, it was the opportunity to share everything I had to give," said Jaeger. "I wanted to play video games with kids or simply give them friendship, and they wanted someone their own age to be there for them, or play with them and not have to worry about being sick."
Physical conflict, if not personality conflicts with the rest of women’s tennis, pushed Jaeger towards full-time humanitarianism. Seven shoulder surgeries forced her off the court after the 1984 French Open. Seeded No. 4 in the tournament, Jaeger led her first round match with fellow American Jamie Golder 5-0 in the first set when as she described it, "During a serve, it felt like Jaws had jumped up out of the water and sank his teeth in, thrashing and thrashing." She would retire after losing the set 7-5 and for good a short time later, never again advancing past the second round of a Grand Slam.
Jaeger used her winnings from tennis – around $1.4 million in all - to create what has today become the Little Star Foundation, with close friend and business partner Heidi Bookout in 1990. Located in Aspen, Colorado, the organization transported groups of young cancer patients to Aspen for trips of support and activities, including tennis, horseback riding, fishing and whitewater rafting. The foundation also provides money for reunions, family campouts, college scholarships, medical internships, and other programs for children who could not travel. The foundation reaches out not just domestically, but beyond American borders as well, with projects in Uruguay, Mexico, Croatia and Bosnia currently ongoing.
The organization had other powerful backers, both in the world of sports and elsewhere. The first true celebrity contributor was John McEnroe, who sent his first check to the tireless but struggling Jaeger - now out of the game for five years and struggling to gain high-profile contacts – and then offered infinitely more when he actively campaigned other stars in the pro game to help the cause.
"Without John, we never would have survived those first few years," said Jaeger. "The costs of what we were trying to do and all the legal hoops you have to jump through in creating and maintaining a not-for-profit organization could have easily derailed us.
"We needed someone from the tennis community to come in and give us validation. We were doing good work, but if no one knew about it, how could we help the kids we were trying to help. John’s contributions set the stage for 10 years."
In addition to McEnroe and Sharapova, many high-profile names from the sports, entertainment and political worlds have also been involved with Jaeger, Bookout and Little Star over the years. Often flying out to visit the foundation’s long-time home base, The Benedict-Forstmann Silver Lining Ranch in Aspen, the who’s who that have donated their time and funds include Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Cindy Crawford, and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"Maria and McEnroe are helping by being ambassadors of my children's program all because I hit a few tennis balls in my childhood and life," said Jaeger. "Tennis did that and the tennis community is coming together so we can continue reaching hundreds of thousands of children worldwide."