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With Tennis Style, It’s Hard to Ace the Classics


For no less than some watching Novak Djokovic win his seventh Wimbledon title and twenty first Grand Slam crown on Sunday (surprising almost nobody), there was one largely unacknowledged pleasure within the experience.

Sure, there have been his bulletproof defensive skills and wizardly return of serve. Add to that the eye-candy thrill of watching Mr. Djokovic, a 6-foot-2 Serb, flaunt his Gumby-like flexibility and shredded physique (achieved with a no-gluten food regimen and a state-of-the-art training regimen) in a three-hour, four-set final. Yet for many who care about this stuff — fashion critics, as an example — the elegance of Mr. Djokovic’s play benefited from an anachronism dating to the tournament’s starting in 1877. That’s, the strict white dress code still enforced by the storied All England Club.

Modern players are likely to bristle on the tennis whites that were originally conceived to curb or conceal evidence of perspiration — considered unseemly among the many society sorts who long had the lock on this sport — and which can be required to be worn by players at Wimbledon from the moment they enter the court area. Andre Agassi famously so disliked the Wimbledon dress code (“Why must I wear white? I don’t need to wear white,” he wrote in his 2009 memoir) that he refused to play within the tournaments from 1988 to 1990, holding out for his preferred raucous, colourful sportswear before caving after which occurring to win his first and only Wimbledon title in 1992.

Rule creep is common. A level of pushback is comprehensible in light of a rigid dress code that forbids nonwhite elements except in trim on outseams, necklines and shorts legs, in addition to in logos which can be wider than a centimeter. Even cream or ivory is taken into account beyond the pale, and orange-soled sneakers landed Roger Federer in trouble when he wore a pair to the 2013 tournament.

Tradition trumps comfort at Wimbledon. Look to the controversy that greeted Rafael Nadal when he wore considered one of his trademark sleeveless white quarter-zip tops in 2005. Gentlemen, the considering goes, don’t showcase their guns. (For present purposes, it’s the male athletes who’re the main focus.)

Still, what fascinates this observer is the query of why — except for paid branding opportunities or a dubious assertion that took hold within the late Twentieth century that color reads higher on TV — an athlete would need to deviate from a uniform that’s concurrently practical and sartorially foolproof, one with a wealthy history of influence on style outside the game.

Even a cursory survey of its Twentieth-century history demonstrates how potent an effect tennis has had on fashion. From the nineteenth century on, the courts have been each a laboratory for innovation and, more often than you may imagine, a mirror of social change. Take the elegance of players like René Lacoste, the French tennis player of the Nineteen Twenties nicknamed the Crocodile, who replaced the woven or woolen tennis whites that were then customary with cooler and more efficient long-tailed, short-sleeved cotton polo shirts with the ever-present crocodile monogram. The shirts would turn out to be a popped-collar staple of preppy wear.

Consider, too, the unlucky case of Fred Perry. A classy former world No. 1-ranked player, Mr. Perry won eight Grand Slam singles titles within the Nineteen Thirties, including three consecutive Wimbledon titles from 1934 to 1936. He went on to found a brand best known for white polo shirts trimmed with a yellow and black band, and the corporate got here perilously near foundering in 2020 when its polos were co-opted as a militia uniform by the far-right Proud Boys and it was forced to withdraw sales of its polo shirts in the US and Canada.

Paragons of tennis elegance appear in every era. At one end of the Twentieth century, there may be, for instance, an International Tennis Hall of Fame fixture like Budge Patty — considered one of only three Americans to win the French Open and Wimbledon men’s singles championships in the identical 12 months (1950) — and a sophisticate renowned for his easy tailored style each on and off court. Further along the arc stands Arthur Ashe, the one Black man to have won the singles titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, and a canny image manipulator who underscored his cerebral sort of play with a Black Ivy cool — tailored shorts, snug polos, horn-rimmed glasses or oversize shades — intentionally engineered to counter racial stereotypes that also plagued the game within the ’70s.

Style in that bad old era tends to get an unfair rap. And yet, while it’s true we’re unlikely to see the lawn-trousered, Fred Astaire elegance of an athlete like Bill Tilden — an American champion whom The Associated Press once voted the best player of the primary half of the Twentieth century — that is not any reason to forget or dismiss the contributions of players as well remembered for his or her sex appeal or wild antics as for his or her sartorial savvy.

We’re talking here about John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, rivals each on center court and within the ’80s fashion arena. Together with his bum-hugging short shorts and banded track tops, Mr. McEnroe became a poster boy for the Italian sports apparel maker Sergio Tacchini; Bjorn Borg, the sexy Swedish longhair in a scarf, helped put one other Italian heritage label, Fila, on the map. And suddenly, those retro looks and people brands — with their taut proportions and overtly sexy celebration of the athletic male anatomy — look fresh again each for sports aficionados and for many who wouldn’t know an ace from an alley.

At other Grand Slam events, Messrs. McEnroe and Borg each pushed their Fila-Tacchini looks to the boundaries, with banded sleeves, tone-on-tone jackets, pinstriped patterns, coloured tab waistbands, terry wristbands in national colours or details which will never have passed official muster on the All England Club.

The reality is, though, that nothing additive was really needed. Whether on clay, grass, synthetic or cracked urban concrete, it is basically pointless attempting to improve on tennis whites.

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