Another Wimbledon, another clothing controversy. Which, let’s face it, is just as much of a tradition as strawberries and cream.
Back in 1919 the female winner, Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen, was raising eyebrows for competing in a short-sleeved, calf-length dress without a petticoat. (She also made something of a statement by rocking a thick headband on court.)
In 1949 the All England Club overreacted only slightly by accusing doubles finalist Gorgeous Gussie Moran of bringing “vulgarity and sin into tennis” with her short dress/lace knicker combo.
It was a case of all style and no substance for Linda Siegel in 1979; she competed against Billie Jean King in a low-cut top that became lower and lower as the game went on.
American player Anne White’s 1985 shiny white catsuit caused a stir by apparently distracting her opponent Pam Shriver so much that she lost. Shriver even lodged an official complaint, saying White shouldn’t be allowed to wear a catsuit ever again.
It’s not only the women of Wimbledon who’ve caused a fuss with their on-court attire. In 1987 Pat Cash broke one of Wimbledon’s rules (accessories must be predominantly white) by wearing a black-and-white-checked bandana. And Andre Agassi, lover of fluorescent cycling shorts under demin hot pants (because why not?) actually refused to play at Wimbledon because of the strict dress code. However he broke his ban in 1991 and made sure he played by the rules, turning up in regulation tennis whites.
Arguably the most fashion-forward Wimbledon players are Serena and Venus Williams. In 2008 Serena warmed up in a white trench coat. In 2011 Venus wore a white playsuit with gold underpants. The same year American player Bethanie Mattek-Sands became the Lady Gaga of Wimbledon, wearing a coat made of, um, tennis balls.
However this year’s controversial garment is a little different. At first glance the Nike “Premier Slam” (£75) looks like a simple white tennis dress.
Bucking the figure-hugging trend favoured by female players, it’s super flimsy — so much so that it’s been dubbed the Nike “nightie.” It was worn by several players during the tournament’s opening matches, including Brit competitor Katie Swan, the Czech Republic’s Lucie Safarova and China’s Saisai Zheng.
Swan, 17, was beaten by Hungary’s Timea Babos 6–2 6–3 and several commentators and spectators have speculated that the Premier Slam dress was so ill-fitting that it actually contributed to her defeat. She was seen to be struggling with the dress throughout the game and eventually was forced to tuck it into the bottom of her shorts.
The 440th ranked player revealed that the dress had to be adjusted before she took to the court but played down its effect on her game. “There was a slit in the sides before,” she said. “I think they fixed that. I found it comfortable. I was fine in it. It was like floating a little bit, so I just kind of tucked it under.”
Before the alterations were made other female players in the run-up to Wimbledon had to improvise. Brit Katie Boulter, 19, fashioned a belt from a hairband to keep it in place and Czech Lucie Hradecka, wore hers with knee-length leggings underneath.
Others refused to wear it, such as Germany’s Sabine Lisicki, who wore a skirt and vest top instead for her victorious first-round match. “I tried it on but didn’t feel comfortable showing that much,” said the 26-year-old former Wimbledon finalist. “For me, the most important thing is to feel comfortable and not to think about anything.”
Comfort has to be key when it comes to sportswear (for women and men) but the issue here shouldn’t be how flimsy or revealing the dress is. What’s the big deal if female players show their shorts underneath their dress? What’s far more important is whether a garment affects a player’s game so much that they lose focus or are actually physically restricted from playing to their full capability. You’d think a company like Nike would spend the necessary time and money testing their garments to make sure wearing them can be nothing but a positive experience.