Fashion holds court

Stylish looks on the tennis court: (from left) American Serena Williams, Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Rafael Nada of Spain.
Stylish looks on the tennis court: (from left) American Serena Williams, Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Rafael Nada of Spain. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

Tennis is having a fashion moment while designers are featuring court-length pleated skirts and polo-shirt-collared dresses in their collections

LONDON • The ranking of tennis on the fashion-sport matrix has long been a contradictory one. Tennis is arguably the most elegant and beautiful of all sports - the Wimbledon whites, the balletic grace, the absence of unsightly mud - but it has felt, in recent history, some way from the pop-cultural zeitgeist.

The very power of the cucumber- sandwich, blond-ponytailed aesthetic has kept tennis as an eternally popular catwalk reference, but it has simultaneously distanced it from the present day. Until now.

Tennis in 2016 is about more than blond ponytails. As the sport becomes more modern, more diverse and more inclusive, it becomes more relevant.

This is not, of course, primarily about fashion. But how tennis players look is crucial to the general perception of the sport because snapshot visual images are the information about tennis that reach beyond the sport's fans.

No one understands this better than Serena Williams. The winner of 21 grand slams and two-time Vogue cover girl has redefined what a tennis player looks like and what a best-dressed-lister looks like.

Already a sporting icon, a month ago she positioned herself closer than ever to the water cooler when she made a cameo appearance twerking next to Beyonce in the video for Sorry. Lemonade, the album that the song comes from, challenges the audience on issues of race, feminism and sex. That the reigning queen of tennis is right there next to Queen Bey says something about where tennis is at.

If Williams is the queen of tennis, then Anna Wintour is a powerful fairy godmother. To say that Wintour is a tennis fan understates how central tennis is to her world, and her image.

The editor of US Vogue arrives at New York's Midtown tennis club every weekday at 5.45am for an hour of tennis before work. She is a close friend of Roger Federer, sitting in his box for matches and having him along as her plus-one at fashion shows. Her commitment to tennis is so strong that she has been known to skip entire afternoons of New York fashion week in favour of the US Open.

Tennis has always been a see-and-be-seen occasion. Drake was spotted at both Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows last year. The US Open celebrity count included Justin Timberlake, Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, the Trumps and the Kardashians.

At Wimbledon, the regular patronage of London paparazzi's two favourite targets - the Duchess of Cambridge and Victoria Beckham - has made the All-England Club an essential stop on the new British season.

But the designer sundresses worn in the stands are not the clothes making tennis fashionable. The most stylish looks on the tennis court are the sweaty racer-back vests. The convergence of fashion and sport has had a striking impact on how we perceive sportswomen. Look at an image of 22-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, on court in her Nike vest and shorts: the outfit is close to what you might find any fashion-conscious 22- year-old wearing.

When young women look at images of tennis players on court, they see girls who are dressed like them. This puts tennis in a position of power in fashion.

The vogue for athleisure is never far from the pursuit of bodily perfection, or from sex, and the new connection between tennis and fashion seems also to have revived a lecherous interest in short skirts that had seemed moribund. See Calvin Klein's new advertising campaign, with "upskirt" shots that call to mind the bottom-scratching tennis girl of 1970s poster fame.

The men of tennis have more than kept pace with the 21st-century broadmindedness around what a man can wear. Rafael Nadal has made something of a trademark of wearing colours beyond those that would traditionally be considered alpha male. He often wears orange on court and flirts with purple.

Tennis is having a fashion moment and while Wimbledon runs away with the prize money for powerful brand image, the relaxed dress code of Roland Garros, which started last Sunday, and the style pedigree of the host city Paris, makes it something of a fashion week for tennis.

In last year's women's final, Williams wore tangerine-hued leopard print with matching high-tops to beat Lucie Safarova in a lilac-and-coral co-ord.

Nadal and others may rail against the strict dress code, but Wimbledon remains the most iconic fixture on the tennis calendar.

The French Open has the carnival colours, but the white-on-green of the All-England Club, dotted with strawberries, is the most classic aesthetic in tennis.

And this year's Wimbledon will have a more modern look, with Ralph Lauren having updated the uniforms for the court officials. The new pieces bring the umpires, ball boys and ball girls right in line with contemporary athleisure.

There are new performance fabrics for the polo shirts, and on-trend, wide-legged trousers for female umpires, while the navy zip-through tracksuit has more than a touch of Chloe SS16 about it.

While tennis looks more and more like fashion, this summer, fashion looks more than a bit like tennis.

Stella McCartney put polo- shirt-collared dresses on the catwalk at Paris fashion week. Uniqlo, a label with a high profile in fashion currently due to collaborations with Carine Roitfeld and Lemaire, is prominent on court as the sponsor of Novak Djokovic. The new Gucci collection features a centre court-length pleated skirt in navy with floral appliques (£595 or S$1,200) and a white gaberdine sundress with pleated skirt (£745).

In fact, sport owns fashion in 2016. Athleisure sales boom as traditional retailers struggle. A half-zip tracksuit top by Chloe does brisk business at £1,125, while Versace's summer haute couture collection hawks mesh-effect evening gowns for the price of luxury cars.

Rihanna has made the ab-baring, sport-bra-style crop top this year's red carpet update on the corset top.

As a result, tennis is finding its trendsetting form - or, rather, refinding it. The history of the game boasts a roll call of rule-breakers, after all. In the 1920s, Suzanne Lenglen revolutionised the women's game with her athletic, "unladylike" playing style, her habit of drinking brandy on court and her short- sleeved gowns. She liked to be known as the Goddess.

Almost a century later, her spirit is holding serve once again.

GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2016, with the headline 'Fashion holds court'. Print Edition | Subscribe