The Las Vegas Kid who changed the aesthetics of the racket

When we think of tennis, one of the first words that comes to mind is probably Wimbledon: an uncompromising dress code policy, the manifesto of tennis elegance par excellence. How could Andre Agassi, a punk who lent himself to the racket, win a tournament so anchored in its traditions?

In Andre Agassi’s personal story, contradictions are something annoyingly ordinary. The dad’s order and discipline guided him to a success tainted with hatred and suffering. “Dad says if I hit 2,500 balls a day, I’ll hit 17,500 a week and almost a million in a year. He believes in math. Numbers, he says, don’t lie. A kid who hits a million balls will be unbeatable.”

If, for his father, mathematics and rigor are at the base of a high level professional life, we cannot say the same for Andre Agassi, who has made of these two elements a real obsession. The escape from his father and from the ‘dragon’, the special machine that he used for practicing every shot, seem to represent the first step towards the freedom he dreams of.

From Nevada to Florida, from the magical lights of Las Vegas to the boundless green of Bradenton. His arrival at Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy, the hothouse of talents who have written the history of this sport, such as Jim Courier and the Williams sisters, was the first breath of fresh air after years of prison. Agassi is a free spirit, but he soon realizes that rules have a considerable weight even in this new context.

Andre starts to manifest his own discomfort. He starts to escape from a life that is imposed, and not chosen. The ban on wearing any kind of jewelry is the first rule Andre breaks. Shortly after his arrival at the academy, he starts wearing flashy earrings, rings and necklaces. Professors and coaches admonish him, even threatening expulsion. The opportunity to escape is real and the Las Vegas Kid is determined to take it.

He shows up at one tournament with ruby-colored nail polish, bright red Mohican hair and a flashy outfit. His father and Bollettieri are horrified, but at the same time they start to understand the origin of this behavior.

Agassi becomes the rebel tennis player par excellence. His outfits on the court are the scream of a young champion that wants to be different from everyone else: an iconic scream, like a rock star. Nike decided to dedicate an entire collection to the Las Vegas Kid. The Swoosh commercial features an unusual collaboration between tennis and rock, between the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Andre Agassi. “Hit the ball as loud as you can” says Flea, the famous bass player of the LA band.

A jacket borrowed from athletics and Lycra shorts, the shoes, the Nike Air Challenge III halfway between tennis and basketball… All this is illuminated by colorful fluorescent flashes: yellow, green, pink. The American punk culture has colonized even the most noble sport, Agassi is at the head of a stylistic and sporting revolution.

During the most important tournaments of the circuit, such as during the US Open in 1988, Andre wears unique denim shorts. What was experienced as unconventional and unique, soon became a real fashion trend: the Nevada champion inspires an entire generation, breaking down the previous stylistic canons and expressive barriers.

The only tournament that don’t completely submit to Agassi’s rebellious creativity is Wimbledon, the cradle of British tennis and nobility. After sabotaging it for years because of the inflexible white dress code, Agassi decides to compete on the most famous green court of the world with his now famous blond mane, an oversized polo shirt and a pair of glasses with particular yellow lenses.

The person who embodies perfection and elegance with a racket in his hands is Pete Sampras, the Agassian anti-hero. A personality never over the top, a human-textbook of tennis technique with a great stylistic sobriety on the court.

The relationship between Sampras and Agassi is full of mutual hatred: a utopian friendship between a rock star and an icon of the noble art of tennis. It’s extremely difficult to get two such different characters to work together, to think that they could be the actors of a commercial that will mark the history of sports marketing is simply illogical and crazy. In full Nike style, where ‘Just Do It’ represents much more than a motto, Eric King decides to hire Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras to make a commercial called ‘Guerilla Tennis’. Thanks to the skilful direction of Spike Jonze, the two champions get out of a vehicle in the middle of downtown San Francisco and while Agassi starts to plant the net on the main street, Sampras thanks to his racket paralyzes the city traffic.

The two begin an intense and passionate match, gathering hundreds of spectators enchanted by the pressing rhythm of their balls. Even in their clothing and playing style, they represent two completely opposite worlds: Agassi’s creative and unconventional genius is in the striped polo shirt matched with pants in various shades of blue, as well as in his under the legs shots. Sampras, on the other hand, shows off all his elegance by hitting precise and powerful forehands with his white polo shirt.

Tennis, which has always been a sport to be followed in religious silence, was undergoing a small but significant revolution led by its brightest stars. The umpteenth attack on the excessive traditionalism of tennis.

Andre Agassi is not only an athlete. He is not just a champion. He is a manifesto of expressive and stylistic freedom with few equals in the history of sport. His courage and his outfits will continue to fascinate and inspire entire generations.

Text by Filippo Vianello