Imagine my reaction upon learning about Ronald Agénor, while roaming the Internet. Agénor is one of the world’s biggest tennis champions. According to the book Blacks at the Net: Black Achievement in the History of Tennis, the now tennis-legend was the first known Haitian to win a gold medal at an international event when he won the men’s title at the 1982 edition of the Central American and Caribbean Games. That triumph was to be one of many in his career as a tennis athlete. The following year, he competed in the Port Washington Junior Championship after having reached the semi-finals at the Orange Bowl in Miami, and winning matches at the Monte Carlo Juniors and the famed Astrid Bowl in Belgium.
Agénor retired at 38, having turned into a millionaire over the years thanks to prizes he earned for his skills on the court—and after having had one of the longest careers as a tennis star. In the early 2000s, Agénor left France for the United States, and competed first at the Birmingham Finals, then at the French and U.S. Open. In the aforementioned book Blacks at the Net: Black Achievement in the History of Tennis author Sundiata Djata points out that Agénor’s rejection of French citizenship and his insistence on playing under the Haitian flag cost him a lot of career-furthering sponsorships from France, but that decision doesn’t really top the tennis legend’s regret list one bit.
Today, Agénor is the proud father of two daughters, and lives with his wife and proud supporter Tonya Williams in Los Angeles. He is not only a world class tennis champion, but also an activist (he is a member of Champions for Peace club) and remains loyal to the game, having founded the Ronald Agénor Tennis Academy in California. He also mentors up-and-coming stars in the world of tennis. Among them is Takangi Garangawa, a native of Zimbabwe who’s making major noise in the world of tennis. Beyond the court, the tennis champ has always loved music and actually plays the guitar. This year, he’s releasing Strings of My Life, an 11-song set of songs in English and French.
Here he is, reflecting on his life, career and tennis.
You were actually born in Morocco.
Yes, in Rabat in 1964. My parents, my three brothers and two sisters were all born in Haiti. My dad—Frédéric Agénor—moved from Haiti to Morocco as he was developing a project for the Moroccan government. In 1974, he became a diplomat at the United Nations and I spent another four years in the Congo before going to Bordeaux in 1978 where I lived for 19 years.
He was directing projects for the FAO—the Food Agriculture Organization—and became Minister of Agriculture in Haiti in 1989.
How did the love for the court develop in you?
In the Congo, I was going to school only in the morning and I got the opportunity to play tennis almost every afternoon. My older brother Lionel who became my coach and mentor was sending me the French tennis magazines and I was dreaming about competing against the best French players of my age. I was also looking up to Arthur Ashe and Bjorn Borg.
In your career as a tennis champion, is there one moment of triumph that you will always hold close to your heart?
Winning my first ATP World Tour Event was a great moment but winning the Gold Medal for Haiti at the Caribbean Games in Havana, Cuba in 1982 was something very special as well as winning my first ATP point in France in 1983 that gave me my first world ranking. Reaching the quarter finals at the Grand Slam of Roland Garros in Paris was was also very intense. <a
Why did you choose to represent Haiti, though you had never really lived there?
It was not a choice but more of something that was natural as after winning the gold medal in Cuba in 1982, I became the sensation in Haiti as this feat was never achieved before I did it. Upon my return from Cuba, so many people were waiting for me at the airport and from there I represented Haiti during my nineteen-year career. I never really lived in Haiti, I would just go every year to spend the holidays with my family or train with my brother Lionel.
Looking back now, and knowing all you do now, are there certain things that you regret, or wish you had done differently?
I don’t regret anything. I would certainly do certain things differently today with the experience I have.
Did you encounter any racism over the course of your career?
I did from time to time in Europe and in America as well, but racism is a disease and if you look around today it keeps spreading around the world. All forms of racism should be eradicated.
Sports celebrities are often hounded by a lot of female fans, especially off the court. Was that the case with you?
I was no exception to the “rule”, but I always kept my head on my shoulders.
Did your father ever give you any advice on how to manage your career?
Sometimes I would not listen really and it makes me upset when I think about it today. He did have a great vision for me and always said that tennis was not the end, just a mean to getting somewhere else in life. When he was Minister of Agriculture in Haiti in 1989, I was named Honorary Consul of Haiti in Bordeaux. He always thought that I would be a great Diplomat for Haiti and do big things for the country when my tennis career was over, but the reality of Haiti caught up with me and I have not been able to do anything.
You have two daughters Sascha Lourdes Agénor and Chloe Iman Agénor. If they showed interest in tennis, would you be willing to groom them to be like Althea Gibson, or Venus and Serena Williams?
Absolutely. Sascha is the oldest and will start to play some 10 and Under tournaments in 2013. They both have been playing consistently, but with me back traveling this year, it has slowed their progression down a bit. I will support them whether they want to pursue a professional tennis career or play for one of the top colleges and universities in America. If they don’t want to play tennis further down the road that is also not a problem.
You’re a member of the Champions for Peace club.
This is basically an organization based in Monaco and presided by SAS Prince Albert of Monaco II. The Champions for Peace club is composed by a few current and, or former world class athletes and they give their time or image to promote Peace through Sport around the world especially in countries that have been ravaged by war.
When was the last time you went to Haiti?
It was in 2009. Prior to that I came back in Haiti in 2008 for the first time since 1998, so almost 10 years. I started a project to build a tennis complex and set up a tennis academy for young Haitians so they could be well-prepared to compete in international events, but most importantly pursue tennis college scholarships in the USA. This was in collaboration with the Haitian government, but after a good start everything collapsed in 2009. It was a very big disappointment for me.
Is that something you still would like to pursue?
The tennis project I had for Haiti is not something I want to pursue at this present time, but who knows one day if the will is there from the rulers of sports in Haiti maybe I will pursue it again.
Not too long ago, I came across the story of this guy, a Jean-Claude Armand, who was Haiti’s outstanding tennis champion in the 1950s. Did you know about him?
I knew Jean-Claude, he was a great guy, a great athlete and he had an incredible passion for sports especially tennis and body building.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in life?
Don’t take anything for granted.