After kicking off our series on the 40th anniversary of Rogers Cup in Montréal by tracing the game’s evolution since 1980, we’re musing over some of the best tennis fashions to hit the courts in the open era.
A sport is inseparable from its setting and decorum. When reminiscing about the greatest moments in tennis, rallies, celebrations, winner’s trophies, sudden rushes, roaring crowds and rivalries all come to mind. The common denominator? It’s often related to style: a pair of shoes or hairstyle we loved or loved to hate.
No one said it better than two-time Grand Slam doubles champion, former World No.1 and all-around tennis legend Stan Smith: “A lot of people now think I’m a shoe, and they don’t even know I exist necessarily. The shoe went way beyond me.” His Romanian rival Ilie Nastase would likely concur.
If those of you who saw Navratilova, Borg, McEnroe, Evert and Gerulaitis live and in action rifled through your Polaroids, you’d likely find skirts, short shorts, headbands, perms, blunt bobs and an array of feathered 1980s cuts. Tennis apparel became more lightweight as new and more comfortable fabrics appeared, and companies designed tailored pieces to win in style.
The ushering in of the modern era and growing media interest in tennis attracted more equipment makers to the sport. They vied to sign the decade’s stars, dreaming up new lines for them season after season.
While white remained de rigueur, some players began to break free of the trend—though never at Wimbledon, the granddaddy of them all and last major stronghold. Still, some of the seeds of revolution were sown in the grass: in 1985, the aptly named Anne White of the US walked out onto the court in a white spandex unitard. Suffice it to say that the scandalous affair was followed by a call to order and a discontinuance (until Serena, that is).
— Cassandra Kirk-Gould (@KirkCassandra) April 22, 2014
The worm had worked its way in. A few years down the road, in the early 90s, another fashion-forward American named Andre Agassi premiered the tennis jean short. It was the start of a great love affair between the Kid from Las Vegas and fans, who couldn’t get enough of his showstopping kits, from purple to neon yellow.
The end of the decade saw the advent of technical fabrics like polyester, so players didn’t have to sweat it as much. Women started going sleeveless and wore shorter skirts for ease of movement. Men’s shorts became longer and less form fitting, as sportswear followed streetwear trends largely inspired by hip-hop culture and its NBA ambassadors, who weren’t shy about experimenting with trailblazing gear and cuts.
As we entered the third millennium, new style icons emerged. The coinciding arrivals of Venus and Serena Williams and Anna Kournikova foreshadowed a decade of experimentation and provocation, from micro minis and nylon to crop tops, as sport’s most lucrative apparel deals were sealed across the WTA—a trend that would endure well into Maria Sharapova’s prime (white tennis tuxedo, anyone?).
On the men’s side, the ATP looked to its new barons for inspiration. Taking his cue/cap from baseball, Andy Roddick seemed poised to lead us into the future until Federer and Nadal swooped in and divided planet tennis into two camps: polo shirts, elegant tailoring and restraint versus flashy colours, capris and sleeveless shirts. And the tie headband.
Over time, Rafa shortened his bottoms and lengthened his tops, and Roger eventually made the switch to a new clothing sponsor. With reigning empress Serena Williams, they remain the tsars of tennis fashion. If you do the math, you’ll see they collectively hold 61 Grand Slam titles. Gives credence to the old adage dress for success, doesn’t it?