Game, Set, Match: Tennis’ Grand Slam Impact on Sports Style
Game, Set, Match: Tennis’ Grand Slam Impact on Sports Style
- Words Gregory Babcock
- Date July 18, 2017
We give a lot of credit to baseball, football and basketball when it comes to shaping modern style, and rightfully so. As some of the biggest and most popular sports in the U.S. it’s only natural that we define sport and style around this metaphorical “big 3”. But outside of the realm of major league team competition, there’s a sport that’s had fashion at the very foundation of its game right from the start. With Wimbledon recently in the rear view mirror, we take a look back on Tennis’ ever-evolving impact on sportswear.
As wild as the late 20th Century was for tennis style, it’s always been a sport with at least some degree of a dress code. As early as the sport’s founding years in the 1500s, royal decree established that players were to wear puffed up shorts with stockings. As time gave way into the Victorian-era (spanning roughly between the years of 1837 and 1901) tennis too fell to the rigidly conservative societal codes of the period. Full-length skirts and flannel trousers, along with long sleeved shirts and sweaters were the bare minimum for proper on-court dress. Considering that the game grew in popularity as an aristocratic pastime, there was a level of propriety required for play. The traditional concept of “Tennis whites” originally rose to popularity as a way to hide sweat. Considering that tennis was a sport that both men and women could play in a time of restrictive gender roles, the dress code was always more about keeping up appearances than functionality. “Especially for the women, being seen to be perspiring was unthinkable and incredibly unsightly,” notes Ben Rothenberg, author of The Stylish Life: Tennis. This mentality of old money and aesthetic traditions color the game even today—Diddy’s incredible white parties aren’t the reason that you still see all-white wardrobes on every player at Wimbledon year after year.
But perhaps one of the sport’s most-relevant innovations—the rubber-bottomed, canvas uppered plimsole “tennis shoe”—would finally hit the court near the end of the 1860s. With Charles Goodyear paving the way with vulcanized rubber in 1839, the modern-day rubber soled shoe would grow right alongside tennis. Keds hit shelves in 1916, with Converse’s All-Star dropping a year later. By the time adidas began marketing shoes specifically for tennis in 1931, the combination canvas-on-rubber tennis shoe had crossed off the court, and would define the wider world of athletic footwear until the 1960s.
With the “roaring twenties” breaking down the codes of decades past, looser garments were finding their footing on courts around the world. One of the decade’s major stars—René Lacoste—would craft perhaps tennis’ most widely used piece of clothing: the tennis polo. Founding La Société Chemise Lacoste in 1933 with the president of France’s largest knitwear manufacturing firm, the brand began production on Lacoste’s signature piece. Designed by Lacoste himself, the tennis shirt was the remedy to the era’s starched collared shirts and ties. While sports like polo had incorporated the short sleeved oxford cloth shirt, Lacoste’s version in piqué cotton provided structure and breathability; the shirt would look starched and clean during play, but mitigate overheating and remain comfortable. But while the Lacoste tennis shirts’ most well known design feature is the embroidered crocodile on the front (a nod to Lacoste’s nickname), there’s a lot of intelligent design behind the garment itself. Cuffed sleeves were added as a result of billowy, long sleeved tennis shirts that often rolled down during play. The shorter placket and soft collar made on-court clothing adjustments a breeze for the time, while the thick, button-free collar was easy to pop up to shield the neck from the Sun. Even the extended “tennis tail” on the back of the tennis shirt had a purpose, preventing the shirt from untucking while players stretched and dove for the ball. Even though the shirt style was designed by Lacoste and saw its first uses on the tennis court, by the 1950s (and cemented in the early 1970s, thanks to Ralph Lauren) the tennis shirt was more commonly referred to as the “polo shirt.”
The 1940s saw the rise of another tennis-inspired clothing label, named after eight-time Grand Slam winner and former tennis world number one—Fred Perry. To wipe sweat out of his eyes, off his hands and his racket, Perry would often wrap medical gauze around his wrists during match play. Approached by Austrian footballer Tibby Wegner, Perry was shown Wegner's new concept: an anti-perspirant worn on the wrist. Initially built out of standard toweling material, Perry made some slight adjustments, and the modern sweatband was born. Perry would move on to produce his own tennis polo in 1952, offering slimmer cuts and more colors (which made sense considering that Perry’s second best sport, table tennis, forbade players from wearing white). While Perry—a pipe smoker—wanted to launch the line with a pipe as the logo, Wegner thought ladies would be alienated by the choice. Instead, as a nod to both his successes at Wimbledon and the traditional Greek symbol of victory, Perry adorned his product with the now-iconic laurel wreath.
The 1960s would see a return to footwear form and innovation, with one of today’s most popular sneaker styles stepping out under, not one, but two different names before the decade was up. Switching up the traditional plimsole, adidas created a leather upper for its rubber-bottomed tennis shoe. French tennis player Robert Haillet was the first to adorn this shoe in 1964. Haillet retired a few years later, and in search of a new spokesman, adidas reached out to American tennis player Stan Smith in 1971. Drawn to the then-upscale incorporation of leather on the upper, Smith would leave the shoe relatively unchanged from Haillet’s original model. However, it was Smith’s need for extra padding around the achilles that resulted in the sneaker’s now-iconic green heel padding.
By the 1970s, a younger, more vibrant era of tennis was dawning. One of the decade's’ greatest rivalries—John McEnroe and Björn Borg—showcased the start of a more modern on-court-meets-off-court style. This decade would also shift tennis style away from British and French labels, and place it into the hands of Italian and German designers. While McEnroe and Borg were fierce rivals, the one thing they could agree on was wearing Fila. The Italian sportswear label (and it’s “White Line” tennis gear) absolutely dominated the sport in the 1970s. Its position was so secure that it could even brag about being prohibitively expensive, with one ad from the time noting: “Very, very expensive. And very, very worth it.” Of course, Fila wasn’t the only Italian label taking charge during the 70s. Fila’s fellow countrymen over at Sergio Tacchini and Ellesse created court-ready clothing, while Diadora and Superga stepped in to supply pro-level sneakers that rivaled models from the three stripes.
Like the rapidly expanding color palette of tennis gear, the 1980s would see the beginning of a “changing of the guard” when it came to major tennis outfitters and brands. At the start of the decade, Ellesse was picking up as Fila was fading out of favor; with Fila losing Borg to retirement and major star Guillermo Villas signing over to Ellesse, Ellesse continued to snap up a strong roster of pros, ultimately usurping Fila’s tennis crown. German behemoth adidas also saw its light diminish in 80s tennis too. While the three stripes had Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg, their gear never quite rose to the popularity of adidas’ tennis offerings in the 1970s. That said, the German brand was forward-thinking in its choice to combine both sneaker and apparel sponsorship for its players. In decades past, pro players would often have a sneaker sponsor, a racket sponsor and an apparel sponsor—all represented by different companies. From the late 70s and certainly into the 80s, it became a norm to see players completely kitted out in one brand. While Fila catered almost exclusively to Borg in the 70s, it wouldn’t be until the 80s that brands would directly cater to their sponsored stars—crafting designs inspired by their personalities and their game. This was especially true when it came to the tennis scene’s rapidly rising star: Nike.
While Nike had found success in 1978, landing a deal with John McEnroe as he switched off his deal with Sergio Tacchini, it was his “Mc” apparel line (shouts to those NYC taxi cab-inspired black-and-blue checkerboard designs) that helped pave the way for Nike athletes that followed. McEnroe’s attitude preceded his play, and with Nike’s penchant for picking up players who were as rebellious as its clothing would be, the addition of then-16 year old Andre Agassi in 1986 was a perfect fit. Starting out in McEnroe’s Air Trainer 1—known for its 80s gym-ready, intersectional and multi-sport design—Aggasi would branch out into his own line of footwear and apparel. His neon-soaked shirts, denim-meets-lyrca bike short bottoms, long mullet, and Air Tech Challenge series of sneakers would cement his brand of “rock-n-roll tennis” from the late 1980s well into the 1990s.
But Nike wasn’t only catering to tennis’ newly discovered rebellious side. Even Agassi wowed spectators when he arrived at Wimbledon in proper tennis whites. As the 90s wore on, we received two types of things from Nike’s tennis division. For a start, Agassi’s Air Tech Challenge 2 in “Hot Lava” would become one of the most influential tennis shoes of all time—known for its intersectional design (it took cues from both McEnroe’s earlier models and the Air Jordan 4), and its intersectional influence (the Air Yeezy 2 snatched its midsole directly from this sneaker). It is the perfect embodiment of both Agassi’s amped up aesthetic, as much as his on-court successes early in the decade.
The other major push from Nike contrasted directly with Agassi’s brash nature. Embodying tennis’ traditional country club prestige, Pete Sampras was Agassi’s counterpoint in Nike’s tennis dominance. Signing with the swoosh in 1993, Sampras was known for his tactical, disciplined game—and his style and apparel with Nike would reflect that. In crisply cut NikeCourt polo designs and his clean (but still very technical) Air Oscillate, if Agassi was drawing in new tennis fans with his out-of-the-box attitude, Sampras was a player that classicists could get behind. With Agassi and Sampras facing off in numerous Grand Slam finals throughout the decade—including the 1990 US Open, the 1995 Australian Open (peak "pirate look" Agassi) and 1999’s Wimbledon—Nike was seemingly always in the winner’s circle. This rivalry was the inspiration behind one of Nike’s all-time greatest commercials, “NYC Street Tennis”.
For Nike, dominance in “tennis style” would become a mainstay. As Agassi and Sampras hung up their rackets, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—signing to Nike in 1997 and 2000 respectively—would continue Sampras’ and Agassi’s war between traditional tennis and the new. While Federer embodies the classic elegance and Swiss watch-like precision that tennis has carried for decades, Nadal chose a more explosive route. Even today, Federer continues to look like a modern tennis star from an earlier era, generally wearing polos and preppy sweaters (shout out to the cardigan from Wimbledon 2008) from his signature collection. Nadal on the other hand, continued in Agassi’s footsteps, wearing glowing colors, patterned muscle shirts and plenty of bright head bands—naturally.
As the 2000s carried into the 2010s, tennis labels have taken the focus and shifted it directly onto the players, with many stars (especially under the Nike banner) often receiving their own sub-lines and signature collections—with logos to match. Following in the footsteps of Borg, McEnroe, Agassi, Sampras, Federer and Nadal, many female players have benefitted from this directly. With Sharapova signing on in 2000 and Serena Williams in 2004, the tennis team at Nike stepped all the way out of the service box to deliver designs that didn’t just defy women’s tennis apparel, but the very history of on-court wear itself. From Sharapova’s “little black dress” at the 2006 U.S. Open to Williams’ studded crop top and denim skirt at the 2004 U.S. Open (not to mention Williams’ pre-Nike skintight Puma catsuit at the 2002 U.S. Open) tennis gear in the 21st century has taken cues from off-court style in an unprecedented way. As the game continues to be dominated as much by personality as individual players, the most successful outfitters have harnessed each person’s unique energy to directly inform (and in some cases design) the pieces worn in play.
Off the court, tennis continues reign as an incognito inspiration for sportswear. Mostly framed in a “retro homage” context, Gosha Rubchinskiy’s nod to the Italian sportswear giants of the 70s in his S/S 2017 collection at Pitti Uomo and Supreme’s country club and courtside-ready collaboration with Lacoste for S/S 2017 are two recent noteworthy examples. As always, tennis’ lifestyle aesthetics are just as relevant as the contemporary technological advancements seen on court.
From aristocratic origins to off-court implications in streetwear, tennis has always existed as a sport that embodies an athletic and luxurious lifestyle in equal measure. Progressing from Lacoste’s practical tennis polo into the garish designs of the Agassi era, “tennis style” has branched from simple functionality to embodying the unique flair of the players wearing the garments. When pairing fashion and the game of tennis, it’s always a game, set, match.