AFTON, Va. - It's 4:15 in the morning, and Sister Andrea Jaeger is already in her full habit, the first prayer session of the day behind her. God speaks to her all the time, tells her what His plan is, but these early wake-ups, this is all Jaeger's idea. She has her brown leather Bible next to her - her name is inscribed on it - and so much to do: sick children to visit, a foundation to run, vows to keep.
Why sleep in when you can do good deeds, and go for a contemplative, one-hour run, too?
"I just love the serenity of the morning," Jaeger says. "The phone doesn't ring. Nobody else is awake. It makes me so excited. Here comes another day!"
Sister Andrea Jaeger is 41. She is three months into her new life as a Dominican nun in the Episcopal Church, and almost a quarter-century beyond her short-lived stint as the biggest sensation in women's tennis, a ball-bashing baseliner with waist-length pigtails that swung with every groundstroke, and braces that befit her teenage station.
Jaeger is an alternative energy source, fueled by Providence. She has a girlish voice and a big laugh, and an amped-up signoff to her cell phone voicemail ("God's love and blessings to you"). She can speak eloquently for 20 minutes in answer to a single question, and often does.
The answers always come back to her personal relationship with God, a journey that has transformed her from tennis brat into humanitarian; umpire-baiter into child-saver; conflicted prodigy into devout caregiver, all without forgetting how to be playful.
During a recent visit to the children's cancer wing of a Cincinnati hospital, Jaeger led sing-alongs and brought lightness, and roared with laughter when a little girl called her "a fun nun." She jokes about how it used to take three minutes to get dressed when she just wore sweats. Now it takes a half-hour.
"I finally understand why women were spending all that time in the bathroom," she says.
Jaeger is here in the Shenandoah Mountains, visiting with her writer friend Rita Mae Brown, having traveled from her home in Hesperus, Colo. Brown, a mentor and kindred spirit whom Jaeger first met when Brown was a tour regular as the partner of Martina Navratilova, is helping her with a children's book. Staying in a cottage at a bed-and-breakfast, Jaeger steps on her flowing black habit as she heads upstairs, briefly stumbling.
"I still have to get used to wearing this," she says with an embarrassed smile.
A first-generation American, Jaeger was a most improbable tennis wunderkind. She was raised in Chicago by her German-born parents, who came to the U.S. in 1956. Her coach/father, Roland, was a former boxer and bricklayer who ran a saloon called The Postillion Lounge. She started tennis at 8, and thanks to inexhaustible energy and abundant athleticism, took to it quickly, becoming a top-ranked junior by the time she was 13, turning professional at 14. She entered qualifying play in her first tournament in Las Vegas, a Futures event for up-and-coming players. She won 13 straight matches and captured the first of her 10 titles.
Jaeger swiftly ascended the ranks of the WTA tour, all the way up to No. 2, at 16. She was a relentless 5-5, 130-pounder who was pushed hard by her father, mouthed off to linespeople and was a regular in the final weekends of Grand Slams. The only trouble, according to Jaeger, is that she felt alone and adrift in the cutthroat culture she suddenly found herself in. She lived with a terrible secret: she did not want to be No. 1 in the world. She did not want to hone a killer instinct, or become an all-time great. As much as she loved to play, to dive for balls and set up points and reach a level few players ever get near, she did not want to do it at someone else's expense. Her conflict ran so deep that she says she intentionally lost a number of big matches, Grand Slam finals included.
When Billie Jean King expressed interest in coaching her, Jaeger wasn't even tempted.
"I saw her drive to be the best, and I did not have that drive to be the best," Jaeger says. "I know if I worked with her I would've been No. 1 in the world. I know it, but it would've come at too great a cost. I was never going to tell people what God wanted me to do - that I wanted to be of service to others."
After losing to Jaeger for the first time, Chris Evert approached her in the locker room and said, "Now that you've beaten me, will your father let me be your friend?"
Wary of Evert's motives, and her hyper-competitiveness, Jaeger replied, "This has nothing to do with my father. I don't want to be your friend."
So it went until the 1984 French Open, when Jaeger's shoulder went out, a chronic injury that had become far worse - and that would effectively end her career at 19 and ultimately require seven surgeries to repair. She had earned almost $1.4 million, but now the financial faucet was off. Her parents were devastated, Jaeger quite the opposite.
"I knew it was God saying, 'OK, now we're going to go help kids together,' " Jaeger says. She smiles. "It was an easy transition from professional athletics to charity, because it was like, 'Get me out of here.' It was such a relief I couldn't live my truth on the circuit."
From sports to charity
Jaeger sold her Mercedes-Benz and passed the money around to worthy causes, supported charities and then stepped it up, launching her Little Star Foundation in 1990, along with close friend, Heidi Bookout. The mission of Little Star was to provide long-term help and support for children afflicted with cancer, and has since expanded to reach kids suffering from abuse, neglect and all manner of mistreatment and illness. By now Little Star has helped thousands, getting generous support from luminaries such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Cindy Crawford, John McEnroe and Paul Newman. Jaeger herself has put $2 million in, including her entire pension and her investment portfolio.
"She follows her heart. She has always followed her heart. A lot of people don't have the strength to do that," says Jaeger's sister, Suzanne, 44, who played at Stanford and had a short turn on the tour.
Jaeger says that God has been directing her life, showing her the way, since she was a little girl. His message was never more pointed than it was last February, when she was on her way to work out on a stair-stepping machine when she says she could feel Jesus in her heart, inviting her to waltz with Him. She says she took a few spins, self-consciously, and said, "OK, I'm done." Her feeling was very strong, but she wasn't clear about the meaning of it until the next day - Feb. 4, 2006 - when she had a dream that she was in a convent with St. Catherine of Siena, a Dominican nun from the 14th century. St. Catherine was floating, beckoning, showing Jaeger the life she was to live.
A change of habit
Cindy Crawford was the first person she told. "It was a surprise, but not a shock. She has always been very, very devoted to her faith," Suzanne Jaeger says.
Andrea, who had earned an associate's degree in theology, found a Dominican order to study with, and began in April.
"At first I was a little apprehensive because of her celebrity status," says Father Kevin Pritchard, the priest who presides over the aspiring brothers and sisters in the Order. "But the way I looked at it, it was like a prince or merchant back in the Middle Ages, giving up everything to join our community. I think in a culture that worships celebrity and wealth what Sister Andrea is doing sends a powerful message."
Jaeger immersed herself in study and prayer, and was ordained Sept. 16, after she delivered a sermon at Pritchard's church in North Dakota. In one part of her message she said, "Everything great I received from my tennis career God gave me. He didn't take it away. He decided it was time for me to serve Him in a different way."
Sister Andrea Jaeger is officially still in the apprentice stage as a nun, but knows this is her calling. She will live a celibate life, serve God and keep helping children through her foundation.
As King says: "She has done so many good things for so many others since leaving tennis, and her journey continues today."
During her brief time on the tour, Jaeger often seemed surrounded by melodrama, sometimes of her own making, sometimes not. Once a fellow player slipped and fell in the bathroom, went to Tour officials and told them that Jaeger had assaulted her.
Jaeger says she never touched her, which didn't stop the player from serving papers to her before a U.S. Open match, and the story hitting the newspapers.
Another time, Jaeger spotted a bird on a courtside fence. She knocked a ball toward the bird to shoo it away. Before long the story went all over the world about Andrea Jaeger trying to decapitate a bird.
These days Jaeger seems to know nothing but peace, and fulfillment. She calls God "my best friend," such a palpable presence in her life it's as if He is sitting in the next chair. She prays four times a day and does her service, the latest installment which came recently when she visited a children's hospital in South Florida with Chris Evert - the same person she blew off 25 years ago. She steps outside in the bracing mountain air. Her secret is out, her torment long since gone. She feels free, ever replenished. The wind blows, and her habit billows. It's another day to do her work, spread God's love, living a life she calls "a rainbow of miracles." Sister Andrea Jaeger smiles.
"I am so blessed to be doing His work," she says.