For at least some who watched Novak Djokovic win his seventh Wimbledon title and 21st Grand Slam crown on Sunday (which hardly surprised anyone), there was a largely unknown joy in the experience.
Of course there were his bulletproof defensive skills and magical return of service. Add to that the eye-watering thrill of watching Mr. Djokovic, a 6-foot Serb, shows off his Gumby-esque flexibility and shredded physique (achieved on a gluten-free diet and state-of-the-art training regimen) in a three-hour, four-set final. But for those who care about these things – fashion critics, for example – the elegance of Mr. Djokovic from an anachronism dating back to the tournament’s inception in 1877. That is, the strict white dress code still enforced by the legendary All England Club.
Modern players tend to go out of their way against the tennis white clothing originally intended to curb or hide traces of perspiration – considered inappropriate by the kinds of society that have long had their eye on this sport – and which from the beginning must be worn by players at Wimbledon at the moment they enter the court. Andre Agassi hated the Wimbledon dress code (“Why do I have to wear white? I don’t want to wear white,” he wrote in his 2009 memoir) that he refused to participate in the tournaments from 1988 to 1990, his favorite raw, colorful sportswear before he won caving and then his first and only Wimbledon title in 1992.
Rule creep is common. Some degree of pushback is understandable in light of a rigid dress code that prohibits non-white elements except in trim on outer seams, necklines and short legs, as well as in logos wider than an inch. Even cream or ivory is considered more than pale, and orange-soled sneakers got Roger Federer into trouble when he wore a pair to the 2013 tournament.
Tradition trumps comfort at Wimbledon. Look at the controversy that greeted Rafael Nadal when he wore one of his signature quarter-zip sleeveless white tops in 2005. Gentlemen, they think, don’t show off their weapons. (For current purposes, it’s the male athletes that take center stage.)
But what fascinates this observer is why — aside from paid branding opportunities or a dubious claim that emerged in the late 20th century that color reads better on TV — an athlete would want to stray from a uniform that’s simultaneously practical and cross-legged, a with a rich history of influencing style outside of sport.
Even a cursory overview of 20th century history shows how powerful tennis has had on fashion. From the 19th century, the courts have been both a laboratory for innovation and, more often than you might think, a mirror of social change. Take the elegance of players like René Lacoste, the French tennis player of the 1920s nicknamed the Crocodile, who replaced the woven or wool tennis whites common at the time with cooler and more efficient long-tailed, short-sleeved cotton polo shirts featuring the ubiquitous crocodile monogram. . The shirts would become a preppy piece of clothing with a popped collar.
Consider also the unfortunate case of Fred Perry. mr. A stylish former No. 1 in the world rankings, Perry won eight Grand Slam singles titles in the 1930s, including three consecutive Wimbledon titles from 1934 to 1936. He then found a brand best known for its white polo shirts dropped. wearing a yellow and black belt, and the company came dangerously close to sinking in 2020 when its polos were co-opted as a militia uniform by the far-right Proud Boys and it was forced to suspend sales of its polo shirts in the United States and Canada. Pull .
Paragons of tennis elegance appear in every era. In the late 20th century, for example, there is an International Tennis Hall of Fame competition such as Budge Patty – one of only three Americans to win the French Open and Wimbledon men’s singles championships in the same year (1950) – and a refined known for its easy-to-tailor style both on and off the court. Further up the arc is Arthur Ashe, the only black man to have won the singles titles at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open, and a clever image manipulator who underlined his cerebral playstyle with a cool Black Ivy – tailored shorts, cozy polo shirts, horn-rimmed glasses or oversized sunglasses—intentionally designed to counter racial stereotypes that still plagued the sport in the 1970s.
Style in those bad old days tends to get an unfair rap. And yet, while it’s true that we’re unlikely to see the grass-clad, elegant Fred Astaire of an athlete like Bill Tilden—an American champion whom The Associated Press once named the greatest player of the first half of the 20th century. – that’s no reason to forget or reject the contributions of players, known for their sex appeal or wild antics as well as for their tailoring skills.
We’re talking about John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, rivals both on center court and in the 80s fashion arena. With his shorts and striped track pants, Mr. McEnroe a banner for Italian sportswear manufacturer Sergio Tacchini; Bjorn Borg, the sexy Swedish longhair in a headband, helped put another Italian heritage label, Fila, on the map. And suddenly those retro looks and those brands — with their austere proportions and overtly sexy celebration of the athletic male anatomy — are looking fresh again for sports enthusiasts and those who wouldn’t know ace of an alley.
At other Grand Slam events, Messrs. McEnroe and Borg have pushed their Fila-Tacchini looks to the extreme, with striped sleeves, tone-on-tone jackets, pinstripe patterns, colored waistbands with tabs, terrycloth wristbands in national colors or details never have passed the official collection at the All England Club.
However, the truth is that nothing extra was really needed. Whether on clay, grass, synthetic or cracked urban concrete, trying to improve tennis whites is largely futile.