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 Andre Agassi described what it was like to begin hearing a soon-to-be-infamous three-word slogan shouted at him by fans in the summer of 1989. The problem was, the soon-to-be-infamous slogan was one that had come out of his own mouth.
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. But it would be a long time before he shrugged off what those three, seemingly innocuous words came to represent.
By the summer of 1989, 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 the cliché is justified—sporting acid-washed jean shorts and heavy-metal hair, and hitting his forehand, as John McEnroe would say, harder than anyone. It was surely just a matter of time, a short time, before he would be winning Grand Slams.
Agassi’s attitude and outfits only became more outrageous. He taunted Jimmy Connors before a match at the US Open, and replaced his jean shorts with pink spandex. Even his hair, we know now, went from real to fake.
But the substance below Agassi’s image failed to materialize. Tired of being asked when he would win a Grand Slam title, the 19-year-old found himself on the verge of burnout. His “image” problem was the perfect summation to 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 ad, we would say today, had gone viral. For many, the idea of an underachieving athlete passing himself off as a rebel by getting out of a Lamborghini and telling the world that “image is everything” was a fitting end to the glitz-fueled ’80s. What Wall Street’s Gordon “greed is good” Gekko was to the first half of the decade, 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 taunted him from the stands, whether he won or lost. The words hurt, Agassi admitted later, and they didn’t go away. It would be three years before he won his first major, at Wimbledon, forcing his critics to admit that there might be some substance to the man after all.
At the end of ’89, though, at the height of the Canon conflagration, 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 his slogan sound like the lie he always knew it was.