For our sixth annual Heroes Issue, we’ve selected passages from the last 50 years of Tennis Magazine and TENNIS.com—starting in 1969 and ending in 2018—to highlight 50 worthy heroes. Each passage acknowledges the person as they were then; each subsequent story catches up with the person, or highlights their impact, as they are now. It is best summed up with a quote from the great Arthur Ashe, that was featured on the cover of the November/December issue of this magazine in 2015: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
Martina Navratilova quickly turned over her $1,350 award to former pro Andrea Jaeger, founder of Kids’ Stuff Foundation, an organization which supports underprivileged youths. - Mark Preston / May 1990
Andrea Jaeger seems almost frozen in time as a pigtailed, child prodigy talented enough to make wins over Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King look easy. Ranked No. 2 in the world at 16, the plucky little girl from Chicago seemed poised for a long, successful career. But Jaeger wasn’t your typical tennis pro.
“I never had the fire to be the best tennis player in the world,” she says. “For me, I was short-changing myself. Instead, I wanted to be the best at helping others to have the best opportunity in life.”
Jaeger says she always knew God existed, and felt that even before her tennis career exploded, He was calling her to help children. At the height of her fame in the early 1980s, the two-time Grand Slam finalist used her spare time to do exactly that. Still a teenager herself, Jaeger would seek out runaways on street corners in the various cities she visited, using her meal money to buy food and help them contact their families. She repeatedly visited a New York high school to talk about suicide prevention. She frequented children’s hospitals, once selling her watch to pay for gifts to donate.
“As long as I was on time to my practices and my matches, my dad was fine with whatever I wanted to do.”
According to Jaeger, the WTA tour didn’t feel quite the same way, frowning upon her lone-ranger approach to charity for fear it would make other players—and the organization—look bad.
“It’s either helping kids or playing tennis,” she was told. “But not both.”
Jaeger has no doubt that God made the decision for her when she suffered a career-ending shoulder injury at the 1984 French Open. Though she would greatly miss competing on tour, she was now free to pour all of her energy into helping others.
Within hours of her injury, Jaeger got to work creating what is now called Little Star Foundation, using all of her professional tennis earnings to provide long-term care for sick children and their families. Then she started fundraising. It was John McEnroe who first accepted the call, leading superstars such as Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier to follow suit.
Their support, along with contributions from countless other celebrities including Paul Newman, Cindy Crawford and Mike Tyson, made Jaeger’s Silver Linings Ranch retreat in Aspen, Colorado, a reality.
“Andrea Jaeger is one of the best things we have in our sport, no question,” McEnroe once told BBC Radio.
Now in its 33rd year of operation, Little Star has provided over $115 million in support to sick and at-risk youth, benefitting children in 38 states and 11 different countries at any given time. Jaeger still maintains a tour player’s schedule, traveling around 30 weeks a year to visit children and raise funds. But at 53 years old, she’s collecting far more than just wins and losses.
“Some athletes have a hard time when the applause goes away,” says Jaeger. “You have to ask where you want your applause from. For me it goes back to my friendship with God. I know I’m here to serve His purpose.”