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Turns out, authenticity is everything

Disclaimer: I am not a sportswriter (although it would be fun).

On the edge of my couch, I watched as a pain-wracked Andre Agassi gutted out a thrilling late night victory over a valiant Marcos Baghdatis — the No. 8 player in the world, and 15 years Agassi’s junior. In five grueling sets, Agassi broke down his opponent. It was the last great match in a legendary career. Two days later, in his last match as a professional, Agassi fell to a young German in the third round of the U.S. Open. In a tearful address to a packed stadium, Agassi said, “The scoreboard says I lost today. But what it doesn’t show… is how I feel.”

Twenty-one years after first turning professional, we witnessed an Agassi that was both the same flashy rebellious teen that enthralled a generation of tennis players, and a man and athlete that had grown to be so much more.

As a tennis player for the better part of my life, I feel it only right to offer my tribute to one of the heroes of my youth. However, in the life and career of Andre Agassi, there is also an interesting case study in brand evolution which can be applied outside of the world of sports.

I think I was around 11-years-old when Agassi first made a splash in professional tennis. I had recently started playing the game in the hopes of one day making my high school varsity team. At the time, my intentions were more focused on getting a letterman jacket than actually being good at the sport. Professional tennis was Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander and a few other players who were world-class athletes, but seemed to have little personality.

Then came Agassi. Long mullet-style hair, neon-colored shirts and shoes and a raw, rock-n-roll attitude. The rumor was that he didn’t play Wimbledon because he wasn’t about to adhere to their “predominantly white” dress code. What young adolescent wouldn’t admire these qualities? Agassi was the man because he wasn’t about to conform, and he wanted everyone to know it. At the time, the Agassi camp, with great help from Nike, created the best branded athlete on the planet.

I remember in the 1991 U.S. Open when Jimmy Connors made his improbable run to the semifinals at age 39, his opponent was Agassi. At one point during the match, a fan shouted, “Come on Jimbo. He’s a punk, you’re a legend.” And the guy was right — Agassi was a punk. That’s why we loved him, and the establishment didn’t.

But no one could argue the guy was great for youth participation in the game. Kids’ involvement spiked upwards for the first time since the heyday of the McEnroe era. And I got caught right in the middle of it. I remember the first “big” tournament I played — the State Qualifying in Jackson. By that time, I had been playing regularly for a couple of years. Coming from a small town, I was considered by most everyone to be “pretty good.” I also considered myself to be pretty good. So much so, that in my first round match I walked on the court, complete with the neon-pink Agassi-style shirt, denim-and-spandex shorts and Nike shoes. I sized up my opponent — a 10 year old (he was playing up an age division), about a foot shorter than me, with glasses. I felt sorry for the kid. I felt so sorry for the kid, apparently, that I think I only won one game (maybe won a game). While Agassi was under contract from Canon camera touting “Image is everything,” that match was my first real lesson that image was not, indeed, everything. I put up my day-glo Agassi shirt, and started actually working on my tennis game.

But I didn’t blame Agassi. He was still my favorite player, still the most fun to watch. And something happened to him, too. As a few years went by and he still didn’t have a grand slam win (eclipsed by Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, etc.), Agassi seemed to focus more on his game, too. He still had the flare and showmanship that endeared him to his teen fans, but looking back, you can see he was beginning to develop an authenticity that would ensure these teen fans would become lifelong fans. His breakthrough came, ironically, in winning the 1992 Wimbledon. Wrist injuries almost put him out of the game after that, but he came back in dramatic fashion over a year later. A few years following that, some trouble in his personal life combined with still more injuries set him way back — from the top player in the world, to a dismal ranking of 141. But true to his showman style, he came back again, winning another grand slam, and re-capturing the number one ranking. An amazing feat. He became one of only four men to win every grand slam (something even Pete Sampras didn’t do). Along the way he collected an Olympic Gold Medal, and helped the United States recapture the Davis Cup.

Along the journey this man, once the rebellious teen, founded an academy in Nevada for underprivileged youth. He sponsored tennis camps for the same. He and wife Steffi Graf have two children (who I’m certain Nike already has under contract) that are the major focus of his life.

In this last U.S. Open, in his last match against the youngster Benjamin Becker, I couldn’t help but think, “Come on Andre. He’s a punk, and you’re a legend.”

Agassi’s brand started out exactly as it needed to — hip, rebellious, anti-authority. And he never really lost that attitude. It just matured, as did he. This is why he has kept his original fan base — think of them as “loyal customers” if you want — from beginning to end.

Agassi was the last of the great American players I grew up with. I’ll have to admit, I feel a little older now. But the ride was worth it. I look at my kids — a girl and a boy — and I wonder who their sports heroes will be. I hope they can find someone as good as mine.

Andre — thanks for all the years, the screaming forehands, the ups and downs, and all the thrills. We were with you all the way. God bless.

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