Technically, Andre Agassi is the one to bring up the mullet first, though we certainly would have gotten around to it eventually.
I’ve always been an avid fan of the so-called business-in-the-front, party-in-the-back hairdo, a style that dominated the 1980s and early 1990s and was proudly worn by many professional athletes, including Agassi and an entire league of hockey players. (Once I almost got pummeled at a gas station in Arkansas for complimenting the cashier’s. Apparently, it’s cool to have a mullet, but not okay to call it one?)
Beyond my personal fascination, the subject is simply unavoidable because the whole Lavazza coffee campaign, the one that Agassi is a spokesperson for, and the one that debuted in full force at the U.S. Open in New York City this week, is anchored, so to speak, around the former tennis superstar’s flashy signature hairstyle — the same hairstyle that, though internationally associated with the career champion, is one he has had a tumultuous relationship with.
In his 2010 autobiography Open, Agassi admitted that he had lost his natural hair at an early age and the mullet we all knew and loved was a hairpiece, worn despite his increasing fear that it would fall off during a match.
It seems strange now that someone would choose to be reminded of such a painful time in their life, especially in such a bombastic way: The art associated with the Lavazza campaign is a silhouette of Agassi’s old hairstyle, and the Italian coffee company enlisted an army of Agassi doppelgängers, complete with mullets and very short shorts, to invade public areas in New York as a promotional stunt.
When I ask Agassi if he is nervous about the proceedings, the two-time U.S. Open champion goes right for it: “I’m always nervous when I see people wearing wigs,” he says. “Brings back…makes me cringe.”
Some tennis greats can swallow their pride for a good cause: For every coffee drink sold at its cafés at this year’s U.S. Open, Lavazza will donate $1 to the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, providing funding for students and summer camp initiatives. Also, to be sure, the past is the past. Says Agassi: “To me, it’s like looking at a picture from that time. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t hang it up on my wall. But it is a part of my story, a part of my history. So if other people are dressed up like me, and walking around in a place like New York, a place that raised me, I try to find the good in it.”
In a few short years, the Turin-based 120-year-old Lavazza has made great strides aligning itself with the sport of tennis, beginning six years ago with Wimbledon and in 2015 becoming the only food and beverage brand to partner with all four Grand Slam tournaments around the world. The Wimbledon cafeteria is essentially the world’s largest coffee shop, with a staff of some 600 serving more than a million cups in a two-week period. This year, at the U.S. Open, the company is joined by a host of impressive new offerings, including David Chang’s Fuku and Ken Oringer’s Toro, and the expected 700,000 attendees can each buy a signature frozen frappe, aptly labeled “I’m Back,” with that mullet popping up again on the cup.
During our chat, I try to make Agassi complete what I think is a fun analogy, reaching for one last link between coffee and tennis. “Lavazza is to coffee as _____ is to tennis today,” I say. But I forget about diplomacy and actual knowledge of the sport: “It comes down to Murray and Djokovic,” he says, not exactly filling in the blank. “There’s always someone like a Del Potro; he did great in Rio. But I still say it’s down to Murray and Djokovic.” He finishes off with a line that is not too bad, even though I’ve heard him tell it before: “Traveling the world, I used to drink Lavazza even when I had to pay for it,” he says. “Now I hope I can get some for free.”