Anyone For Tennis?
Written by Nick Santora
Originally published in Sneaker Freaker Issue 23
I’ve always figured that 1986-1992 was the greatest era in the history of sneaker design. I assume most Sneaker Freaker readers would agree with me based on their knowledge of Nike brand history alone. There’s no denying the timeless brilliance of the first five Air Jordans or the magnificence of the visible air bubble in your Air Max, nor the zillion other examples I could mention. It was an incredible period of innovation and in many ways, the footwear industry is still fixated on this era, with many of today’s coveted releases originating from this time.
The main reason I love this era so much is because brands were out there pushing the boundaries of technology, performance and luxury fashion across all genres of sports. While basketball gets most of the notoriety these days, tennis style back then was a major style influence on a global scale. Aside from the shoes and apparel, one of the principal reasons was the rampant egos of the players, which were often as oversized as the new graphite racquets they were playing with.
I have to thank Nike and Wieden + Kennedy (Nike’s ad agency) for teaming up with Andre Agassi and creating the term ‘Rock N Roll Tennis’, but this story starts long before that notorious moment. John McEnore and Ilie Nastase were the original bad boys, the perfect foil to Bjorn Borg’s Nordic coolness. Jimmy Connors was another brash brawler with a major attitude. Adidas was represented by Ivan (the unlikeable) Lendl and another ice-cool Swede, Stefan Edberg. The dashing Argentinian Guillermo Vilas and his Lithuanian sidekick Vitas Gerulaitis were avowed playboys as much as tennis pros. Throw in Michael Chang and Boris (Boom Boom) Becker as a teenage prodigy and you have quite a formidable list of alpha personalities. Sampras was famously boring but as a player he was close to the best of all time. Is it any wonder that today’s bland crop of grain-fed tennis players are struggling to assert themselves as ambassadors of style?
Over in the ladies’ locker room, the disparity between eras is a little less clear. Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf may be icons of the game but Venus and Serena Williams are more than their equal- both in their records and their powder-keg urban attitude. Chris Evert and Tracy Austin brought some glamour in the 80s, but it was Gabriella Sabatini who really brought the sex appeal. Sabatini was so scorchingly hot she made Anna Kournikova look like Nancy Reagan on a bad hair day.
Let’s wind this story back to July 1976, the year Bjorn Borg won his first Wimbledon Championship while playing in his own signature line of classic Fila apparel. Borg was so superstitious, he then wore that same Fila outfit while winning five consecutive Wimbledon titles! Historical icons like Fred Perry (UK) and Rene Lacoste (France) still loom large over tennis and the sportswear industry, but Borg is crucial to this story because his success with Fila is what introduced the USA (and the world) to luxury European athletic fashion. Once Borg arrived, style and finesse became synonymous with the modern game.
Borg also torched the aesthetic boundaries of tradition in tennis, a sport that had historically been an all-white domain. As he steadily accumulated trophies, the popularity of his Fila outfit exploded, paving the way for other European luxury brands to enter the market. Borg also helped establish the idea that luxury materials and style could be infused with top-of-the-line performance sneakers. Italian craftsmanship was subsequently incorporated into performance equipment and if you think this wasn’t a significant moment, take a look at the Air Jordan II and III. The II was actually made in Italy and featured an embossed lizard skin, while the III incorporated faux elephant print.
Throughout the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s, European companies like Lotto began to emerge in the athletic sportswear market.
Interestingly, at this time most players wouldn’t usually wear the same brand of sneakers and apparel. Chris Evert and Boris Becker both won Grand Slam titles in Ellesse Apparel but Evert wore Converse sneakers and Becker wore Puma, though he did wear Diadora at other times. John McEnroe brought Sergio Tacchini into prominence in the early 1980s while wearing Nike sneakers. Borg had his own clothing and accessories collection with Fila, but his sneakers were made by Diadora, another Italian brand.
The mid-80s saw a shift in this two-brand mentality with the introduction of complete player collections from adidas and Nike. McEnroe was then dressed in Nike from top to toe while Lendl, Edberg and Steffi Graf all represented the three stripes of adidas with an incredible series of apparel prints worthy of any serious abstract artist. The character and style of players was somehow personified by their signature collections and integrated into the marketing campaigns. Nowhere was this more significant than when Nike teamed up with Andre Agassi in 1988.
ROCK N’ ROLL TENNIS
‘Rock N Roll Tennis’ and ‘Hit the ball as loud as you can!’ were a couple of the slogans in Nike’s campaign that centered around Andre Agassi, the magnificently charismatic teen prodigy from Las Vegas. Agassi was definitely an original and Nike captured his flamboyant mullet-flapping-in-the-wind style with the perfect combination of neon spandex and acid washed denim. Like Bo Jackson, Agassi was such a transcendent salesman that his fluoro Air Tech Challenge sneaker are still referred to as The Agassis 20 years after his flaming tennis ball logo last appeared on them.
More importantly, Agassi also presented a one-fingered attitude to traditional tennis sensibilities. He even had the balls to opt out of Wimbledon for three consecutive years (1988-1990), publicly stating he wasn’t playing there due to the events all-white dress code. However, in 1991 Agassi returned to Wimbledon. After weeks of media speculation as to what he would wear, he did adhere to the dress code while still generating huge publicity for Nike.
What made this partnership so powerful was the obvious affinity between Agassi and Nike itself. Brash in-your-face and determined to win at all costs, these are the characteristics that could also be attributed to Nike founder, Phil Knight. Interviews with Knight from 1991 and 1992 where he takes direct shots at Reebok, its Pump technology, Michael Chang, and Ceo Paul Fireman, underline the point that this was as much a personal battle as it was a business one.
REEBOK vs NIKE
Reebok was dominating tennis sales in 1991, while Nike was top dog overall in the athletic footwear world, thanks largely to the success of its Air soles. Reebok presented some progressive ideas, edgy products and memorable ad campaigns such as ‘Pump Up and Air Out!’ which was a dig aimed directly at Nike, something Phil Knight dismissed as lacking both brand and athlete identity. Eventually Reebok’s use of multiple marketing agencies, absence of in-house technology development, and Chang’s lack of ‘Madison Avenue’ appeal just couldn’t compare to the total entertainment package offered by Nike.
This battle for ultimate supremacy is another important moment in sneaker and athletic fashion history because it pushed these two brands to out-do each other by creating the most outrageous and technically advanced products on the market. As Nike and Reebok focused on the sport as both a performance and fashion business, it helped stimulate demand for the tennis aesthetic worldwide. When the tennis trend began to gain serious traction, smaller niche brands emerged onto the scene. Tennis racquet makers like Prince targeted teens with their bold Ace Face line. Like Ellesse and Fila, Baltimore’s HEAD started off as a ski company, before creating tennis and squash racquets and their own series of Radial tennis footwear in 1987.
European brands were more popular in the US than ever. Ellesse remained on the scene, endorsing young stars like Jennifer Capriati. PUMA had Becker and Navritalova on the payroll. Sergio Tacchini first gained attention with McEnroe but was now endorsing Pat Cash, Mats Wilander and Sabatini. Le Coq Sportif can thank Yannick Noah for its higher profile.
HIP HOP and TENNIS
Hip hop and Tennis seem unlikely bedfellows but take a look back at most hip hop magazines and album covers from the 1980s and I’m sure you’ll notice this phenomenon. It was a ‘look’ that was made famous by Run DMC and adidas and then upgraded and modified by artists like LL Cool J, MC Shan, Doug E Fresh, Chuck D, Eric B and the Fresh Prince.
In search of something they could claim as their own, rapper began rapping Euro-style, courtesy of Ellesse. At this point, the first velour suits hit the streets. That trend shifted to bolder colors with more patterns and geometric shapes on warm-ups, shirts and shorts. Much like Nike Force and Air Jordan at the time, the combination of premium materials, luxury textures and on-court performance technology eagerly adopted as standard-issue within the hip-hop fraternity.
GAME, SET, MATCH
From the suburbs to the city, fans in the 80s identified with tennis style, conferring premiere status upon those who donned the luxury Euro labels. Tennis in this era tends to be overlooked in terms of its influence and the way it changed the industry itself, even though 1985 to 1992 was a time when both the athletes and their equipment was groundbreaking, authentic and completely original. So to celebrate these historic brands and athletes, we acknowledge their contributions to sports and sneaker heritage.
By contrast, pro-tennis style in 2011 has evolved to a point that is far removed from contemporary street fashion. It is simply unimaginable that anyone would rock Federer’s Lunar Vapor Nikes in a casual setting. Ditto for the latest shirts he wears. Rafael Nadal’s ass-crack pirate pants were an embarrassing attempt to embellish his swashbuckling image and connect with a younger generation. Djokovic, Roddick, Murray, Hewitt… who can associate any of them with a brand or even a signature motif? Nope, tennis style these days is instantly forgettable. But it wasn’t always like this!