This year marks the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. To commemorate the occasion, we'll look back each Thursday at one of the 50 moments that have defined the last half-century in our sport.
“It reminds me of those Vegas windstorms, the kind that begin with a faint, ominous rustling of leaves, and ultimately turn into high-pitched, gale-force, three-day blows.”
This was how a 19-year-old named Andre Agassi described what it was like to begin hearing a certain, soon-to-be-infamous three-word slogan shouted at him by fans in the summer of 1989. The problem was, that soon-to-be-infamous slogan was his own.
A few months earlier, on the set of a commercial in the Nevada desert for a camera called the Canon Rebel, Agassi had been instructed to step out of a white Lamborghini, lower his sunglasses, and utter the words, “Image is everything.”
“Image is everything?” Agassi asked the director.
“Yes. Image is everything.”
Agassi shrugged and did as he was told. He had other things on his mind that day, anyway. An old crush, Wendi Stewart, had shown up on the set out of nowhere; not long after, they would be dating.
But Agassi couldn’t shrug off what those three, seemingly innocuous words would come to represent. By the summer of ’89, they sounded like a confession. Image, according to the media and many fans, really was everything to the kid from Las Vegas. Three years earlier, Agassi had burst onto the tennis scene—this is one case where that cliché is justified—sporting acid-washed jean shorts and heavy-metal hair, and hitting his forehand, as John McEnroe would say, harder than anyone, ever. It seemed only a matter of time, a short time, before he would be No. 1 in the world and winning Grand Slams.
Agassi’s attitude and outfits only became more outrageous; he taunted Jimmy Connors at the U.S. Open, and replaced his jean shorts with pink spandex. Even the hair, we know now, went from real to fake.
But the substance below the style failed to materialize. By ’89, Agassi, tired of being asked when he would win a major, found himself on the verge of burnout. His “image” problem only seemed to sum up his career to that point.
“Overnight,” Agassi wrote in his autobiography, Open, “the slogan becomes synonymous with me. Sportswriters liken this slogan to my inner nature, my essential being. They say it’s my philosophy, my religion, and they predict it’s going to be my epitaph.”
Andre’s Canon slogan had gone, we would say today, viral. Its notoriety quickly moved beyond tennis and into the world at large. For many, the idea of an underachieving athlete trying to pass himself off as a rebel by getting out of a Lamborghini and telling the world that “image is everything” was the perfect summation of the glitz-filled decade that was drawing to a close. What Wall Street’s Gordon “Greed is good” Gekko was to the first half of the 80s, Andre Agassi was to the second half.
As for Andre the man, the storm that those three words had caused was raging all around him. “Come on Andre—image is everything!” fans screamed at him from the stands, whether he won or lost. The words hurt, Agassi confessed later, and they didn’t go away; it would be three years before he won his first major, at Wimbledon, and forced his critics to admit that there might be some substance to the man after all.
At the end of ’89, in the midst of the Canon controversy, Agassi unwittingly turned a corner when he introduced himself to Gil Reyes, the strength coach at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas. The two, through their pioneering conditioning work, would spend the latter part of Agassi’s career turning the rebel into a champion, and making the world forget all about his image.