Child's Play

updated 08/29/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/29/1994 01:00AM

THE FRECKLES ARE STILL THERE, and the dimples are just as cute, but on this crisp summer morning, Andrea Jaeger has serious business on her mind. Host to 20 youngsters who are seriously ill, Jaeger, 29, sits hunched over her office desk in Aspen, trying to figure out when to schedule today's balloon-tossing contest. "I know how important it is to have fun," says the woman who spent her childhood on the tennis circuit. "I'm still a kid at heart."

Perhaps, but the former prodigy has a sense of compassion that's anything but juvenile. After an injury ended her career in 1987, Jaeger committed her energies—and nearly half of her $1.3 million career earnings—to her nonprofit Kids' Stuff Foundation, which provides a support network and camp for young people with life-threatening diseases. Since 1990 she has visited thousands of children in hospitals around the world and has flown more than 100 youngsters with cancer and other grave illnesses to Aspen, where they forget, for a week at least, that they are different from other kids.

Jaeger's enthusiasm for her work is boundless. During lessons at the tony Maroon Creek Club, she tells Crystal, 17, "The best way to hit a volley is with a smile." Then as Keith, 13, shuffles to the sidelines for a whiff of oxygen, she offers a supportive salute. Says Rhea, 20: "I never used to talk about my cancer to anyone. I was afraid. Andrea has allowed me to express my feelings."

Jaeger knows the pain of emotional isolation. Introduced to tennis at 8 by her parents—Roland, a bricklayer and tavern owner, and Lise, a homemaker—in Lincolnshire, Ill., Andrea won a state championship, her first pro tournament, at 14. A year later she was ranked the world's No. 2 woman player.

A pigtailed media star with a blistering backhand and a rocket serve, Jaeger felt freakish because she was too famous to make friends at Chicago's Adlai Stevenson High School and too young to fit in on the pro circuit. "I mean, what does a 15-year-old do at a cocktail party?" she says.

The strain showed. Dubbed a super-brat by reporters who witnessed her tantrums and fistfights, Jaeger rebelled against her reputation as a wunderkind with an attitude. "I don't see how you guys can expect me to play when you rip me apart in the paper," she tearfully told the press in 1981.

Three years later her lightning ascent ended when she felt her shoulder pop during her French Open match with Jamie Golden After shoulder surgery, she joined the tour again in 1985, but the pain persisted. "I looked pretty ridiculous, winning a match and not being able to play the next day," she says. In 1987 she quit pro tennis for good, and while some claimed that psychological burnout had led to her retirement, that wasn't the case, according to Jaeger. "If my shoulder would let me, I'd still be out there playing," she says.

Looking back, Jaeger doesn't think she would have done anything differently. "If I hadn't had problems, maybe I wouldn't relate as well to my campers," she says. Still, she feels sympathetic toward troubled prodigies such as Jennifer Capriati, who recently underwent drug rehabilitation. "There was so much pressure on her," says Jaeger. "People tell you that tennis has to be everything. This should be a game for life, not something you're forced to do to live."

Eager to "be productive" and join the mainstream following her exit from the sport, Jaeger (whose seven-figure earnings were kept in trust accounts) took a $6-an-hour job as a switchboard operator and eventually became a methods analyst at subscription headquarters for Time Inc. (publisher of PEOPLE) in Tampa, where she had moved with her parents. She also continued working with children at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, where she had volunteered since 1984. "Having missed out on my childhood," she says, "it saddened me to think of kids missing out on theirs."

In 1988 after a drunk driver smashed into her Volkswagen and broke two of her vertebrae, Jaeger recuperated in Aspen, where she had a cadre of friends. While undergoing repeated surgery on her shoulder and enduring severe pain from both her old tennis injuries and the auto accident, Jaeger managed to lay the groundwork for her children's foundation. Working as an agent for Continental Airlines, she used her free time and free miles to visit gravely ill children around the country and to stump for donations from comrades—including John McEnroe, who offered guidance and wrote several checks, Andre Agassi, who snared Nike as a sponsor, and Chris Evert, who has contributed her time and energy to camp activities.

These days, Jaeger, who is single, is busy trying to raise $2 million for a year-round camp site and has little time to spend at her two-bedroom house on fashionable Red Mountain outside Aspen. This month she will provide U.S. Open commentary for the PrimeSports Network; in July she met with Paul Newman, who runs his own Hole in the Wall Gang camp for sick children, to discuss donations to her foundation. And while others may wonder about her making a comeback on the courts, Jaeger says there's only one reason she'd play again: "If I could, I'd do a few tournaments just so the kids could watch."

JANICE MIN
VICKIE BANE in Aspen

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