My boyfriend is lucky—his sports, hockey and baseball, are back from their pandemic hiatuses. He and his friends watch the games like happy camels at an oasis. Meanwhile, tennis, the only sport I watch with any enthusiasm or regularity, is still pretty much on hold.
My favourite thing about tennis is that it’s an individual sport. Instead of rooting for a team of players who are constantly getting traded, you’re invested in an athlete’s entire career. You get to know their quirks (like Rafael Nadal’s insistence that his water bottle labels all face the same direction) and witness their tantrums and triumphs. Comebacks, rivalries and camaraderies are formed over years across the clay, grass and hard courts all over the world. Also, the clothes!
It must be said that tennis is a seriously stylish sport. Again, this is where individuality plays to its strength. There’s no set uniform; instead, players will usually reveal a new look at the start of each season. Brand partnerships are hotly discussed, and there’s no joy quite like seeing the pros step out in their crisp tennis whites at Wimbledon. Big-name designers from Riccardo Tisci to Off-White’s Virgil Abloh have lent their talents to tennis wear. As the game gets better, faster and more physically demanding each year, the tennis outfits for women get more avant-garde, inventive and futuristic, too. But through it all, one garment remains forever tied to the sport: the tennis dress.
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One cannot mention the little white tennis dress and not think of Maria Sharapova. The five-time Grand Slam champ wore many notable looks throughout her career, but her Nike dress from the 2010 Wimbledon tournament with its cascade of diagonal ruffles remains a highlight. Venus Williams’s tennis dresses by Reebok represented far more than the player’s fashion savvy. When the athlete signed a $40 million contract with the brand in 2000, it marked the highest-ever endorsement deal for a female athlete. And nearly two decades later, her sister Serena partnered with Nike and Virgil Abloh, completely rewriting the rules of on-court wear (and ruffling the feathers of the sports’ outmoded old guard) with her tutu-inspired look.
There’s something almost subversive about a sporty dress. Seeing the players bury 100mph serves and lob razor-sharp cross-court backhands, all while dressed in such traditionally feminine garments, is like an assertion of the strength and power of female athletes. Still, I sometimes wonder why more women don’t play in shorts, like their male counterparts, or even leggings. Maybe taking the dresses and skirts out of tennis would be like replacing baseball umpires with robots— it’s probably the right call, but it would undo a long-held tradition of the game. Plus, in a world where women’s choices are still scrutinized, such radical fashion choices are still criticized or even ridiculed.
Still, the tennis look remains more relevant than ever. When millennial athletic brand Outdoor Voices released its exercise dress in 2019, it became its top-selling item. And this year, when fashion search engine Lyst released data on the hottest products of 2020 (so far), Nike’s pleated tennis skirt closed out the top 10. In the context of the pandemic, athleisure has gained even greater popularity. Clothes like tennis skirts and dresses, which offer comfort and performance as well as a preppy, retro appeal, might just become sought after.
To the delight of tennis fans everywhere, the US Open is slated to start as scheduled at the end of the month. Like other sports, it will go on without a live audience, but I still expect the players to dress to impress. I’m looking forward to the dresses, of course, but I’m more keen to see what the athletes who wear them are capable of.
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