Game, set, style

Tennis’ “uniform” has influenced fashion in a far more significant way than the ubiquitous mesh tank top of other sports.

For starters, you probably aren’t wearing a Chanel tennis dress to a tailgate. If you are, we salute you, and – let’s face it – you probably have box seats. But for better or worse – we’ll consider both – tennis fashion today would probably have its forefathers (and mothers) volleying in their graves.

The sport has always had a reputation for a highbrow approach to dress – see the kerfuffle over the orange-soled Nike shoes worn at this year’s Wimbledon by no less a clotheshorse than Roger Federer. Horse racing may be the sport of kings, but tennis – which has its origins in medieval France, from the French verb “tenir,” meaning “to hold”– was a favorite of Louis X, Charles V and England’s Henry VIII.

Modern lawn tennis was born on the croquet fields of 19th-century England. Imagine holding your racket in one hand and the train of your gown in the other, volumes of fabric sweeping about you on the court. The impracticality is mind-boggling. We only hope there were fainting couches – or Rafael Nadal water bottles – nearby.

It wasn’t until Wimbledon 1919 that a gartered knee appeared (hurrah). It belonged to French tennis sensation Suzanne Lenglen, winner of more than 30 championships and the original on-court drama queen. Her “shockingly” short frock by French designer Jean Patou, rival of one Coco Chanel, was the ultimate in form meets function. She needed lighter, looser clothing for her graceful court action but wouldn’t compromise on style. With the help of mass media, the look doubled Lenglen’s international fame as the first athletic fashion plate. Before long, her bare arms, knee-length skirt, bright bandeau and gartered stockings became the emblem for the ’20s flapper.

Chanel, of course, kept pace with Patou, releasing her own pleated tennis skirt for the active, modern woman – whether she knew her way around the clay or not – which helped secure the designer a place in fashion history. Roughly a century later, the tennis skirt has been reimagined from the court to the runway and continues to gain traction among the fashion savvy.

While visiting Paris in June, Rihanna got into the spirit of the French Open by sporting a Chanel-inspired all-white ensemble with a lacy, midriff-bearing bandeau top, a white blazer with chunky Chanel broaches and a high-waisted pleated tennis skirt. Later that month, Stella McCartney dressed three of the seeded women – Laura Robson, Maria Kirilenko and Caroline Wozniacki – in their Wimbledon whites from her recently released high-performance Adidas tennis line that features slick styling and some flirty pleat work near the skirts’ hemlines.

Serena and Venus Williams are among those of the fashion vanguard, with bold colors, asymmetrical, peekaboo designs and flesh-colored undies. Trained in fashion institutes, the sisters often wear their own creations – Serena’s line is Aneres and Venus’, Eleven – though selections sometimes translate into more shock value than fashion prowess. Can we forget Venus’ red satin French maid getup at the 2010 Sony Ericsson Open? Or Serena’s futuristic Tinker Bell at the 2005 Australian Open? Perhaps not surprisingly, neither line has proven substantial in the consumer sector.

Still, wherever they go – including all the way to The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Galas – they make a strong statement that has taken their sport beyond the Chris Evert diamond tennis bracelet and challenged others to step up their fashion game. Some players – Bethanie Mattek-Sands for one – have taken the dare, though at Wimbledon 2011, she looked like Lady Gaga sucked into a serve machine. Her tie-dye My Little Pony hair didn’t fare much better this year, though the pop of color under her white cap was kind of a fun backhand to Wimbledon’s all-white rule.

There is, however, only so much you can do sartorially when trying to return a 100-mph serve. Where most female players score are with crisp, vibrant color block dresses, outfits that Maria Sharapova pulled off at this year’s French Open and Wimbledon. At the French, Serena also aced an Adidas’ slate-colored V-neck dress accessorized in orange. She looks great when she toes the service line of style.

The women are such standouts – withness Anna White’s 1985 white Wimbledon jumpsuit – that the men tend to get lost in the shuffle. But they have certainly come a long way from long pants, ties, cardigans, vests and caps, sometimes by being throwbacks, as in the case of the elegant Federer – he of the crested blazers and Rolex watches. On and off the court, he has for years been the preppy yang to Rafael Nadal’s rebel, pirate yin – clam-diggers, muscle Ts, bandanas. That look is as sensual as Rafa’s Armani jeans and undies ads.

Yet it is on FedEx that Vogue’s Anna Wintour has bestowed her fashionista blessing – sending a rack of suits to Federer’s hotel suite for him to try on when he’s in New York, hosting his birthday party before the US Open last year with the likes of Diane von Furstenberg and Oscar de la Renta, providing him with a front-row power seat at many a fashion show and sitting in his box at the Slams.

Anna – who’s as good at undressing male tennis players as she is at dressing them – has been cheating on Fed of late with the Uniqlo-sleek Novak Djokovic, putting nifty Nole in a black Speedo for the May 2011 issue of Vogue and supporting him in his first gala for the Novak Djokovic Foundation after the US Open last year.

Now there’s a new guy on the rise, Andy Murray, and while we don’t know much about his fashion taste yet, he cleans up real good on the July cover of British GQ.

Leaving just one question: Will Anna be calling?

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