In Depth

‘SportsCenter’ Goes Behind Game

ESPN Segment Traces Path of Former Tennis Champ Jaeger

It was a story with a lot of substance bubbling beneath the surprising headline that former tennis great Andrea Jaeger had become a nun, a story that piqued the interest of ESPN producer Martin Khodabakhshian.

He and “SportsCenter” correspondent Tom Rinaldi will be honored with an Edward R. Murrow Award in the category of sports reporting for their piece “Sister Andrea Jaeger.”

Ms. Jaeger was a prodigy with a racquet, sporting long blond pigtails and braces, when she became 1980’s rookie of the year at the age of 15. A year later, she was ranked the No. 2 women’s tennis player in the world, after beating the likes of Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King.

But it turned out life on the circuit with her dominating father/coach and the fierce competitiveness with older players who didn’t accept her was not the life she wanted.

“I mean in an individual sport, where’s the joy? I mean someone’s going into the locker room as a loser, and that’s the part that I was a little frustrated with. It meant so much more to other people that I just felt, let ’em have it,” Ms. Jaeger told ESPN in the award-winning segment.

Perhaps because of her own mixed feelings about winning, Ms. Jaeger said she lost matches deliberately, including her 1983 Wimbledon final against Ms. Navratilova, who declined to be interviewed for the ESPN story.

But other tennis legends including Ms. Evert and Andre Agassi spoke on camera, along with tennis analyst Bud Collins and Ms. Jaeger’s close friend Cindy Crawford.

Now known as Sister Andrea after becoming an Anglican Dominican nun in 2006, Ms. Jaeger runs the Little Star Foundation. The international children’s charity helps youngsters who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses and has created a 220-acre retreat for them near Ms. Jaeger’s home in Durango, Colo. It’s estimated she has helped at least 4,000 young people.

“Imagine the heart it takes to actually help a child that you know you’re going to say goodbye to,” Mr. Agassi said in the piece. ”I mean to grow close, knowing that they’re going to die, and all you’re trying to do is give them some memories that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

“I think she lost her childhood. I think she never had a chance to be a child—she was thrust into an adult world at 13 years old,” Ms. Evert told ESPN. “And the innocence was gone right there, [with the attitude], ‘You should be tough.’ And I think now she can go back and be a kid with these kids.”

“There were a lot of layers to her beyond the fact that tennis wasn’t her true calling, and that transformation really fascinated me,” said Mr. Khodabakhshian. “We still talk every couple of weeks, and she’s truly one of the most inspirational people I have ever met in my life.”

Ms. Jaeger told him about visiting a children’s hospital in London when she was 15, and that’s where the seed was planted for what became her life’s work.

She retired from tennis in 1987 after suffering a shoulder injury, went to college and earned a degree in theology. She used her $1.4 million in earnings and additional money from endorsements to start her foundation.

“I’m not capable of being something extraordinary in service to God, without God. And that is what God loves to do. He will take someone who is an ordinary person and allow them to do the miraculous. And I know He’s done that in me,” Ms Jaeger said at the conclusion of the segment.

“I really don’t believe the tennis world has recognized her beyond what she did on the court,” Mr. Khodabakhshian said. “When someone does something like this in their life in sports, with such a dramatic change, and helps so many people—none of us would do this as well or as selflessly or as unconditionally as she does. She’s a modern-day Mother Teresa.”