Court couture: Why tennis and fashion mix

Twelve years ago, Madison Keys picked up a tennis racket. Last week, the 16-year-old impressed the pundits by reaching the second round, perhaps offering a glimpse of the future of the American game with her powerful serve and groundstrokes.

The tale of how Keys took up the sport is already widely known in tennis circles. "I was 4, and I walked through my parents' bedroom. I think they were watching Wimbledon or something, and I decided I wanted Venus' dress," she recalled. "They told me if I played tennis they'd buy me a tennis dress. I said, 'All right, I'll try it.' I have been playing ever since."

The moral of the story? "I think it just kind of shows how important outfits are," quipped Keys.

Another young hopeful making an impression last week was 18-year-old Sloane Stephens, who reached the third round. "What do I like most about Venus?" Stephens said. "She's beautiful. I like how she's willing to take risks with her outfits. That's definitely something that most players won't do, so that's a step up."

Individual expression in an individual sport

Of all the sports that don't award style points, is there any that puts clothing as front and center as tennis? The reasons for this focus are both practical and cultural. Tennis is an individual sport, free from the constraints of uniforms. Its one-on-one, theatrical, combative nature encourages competitors to take full advantage of the opportunity for expression.

Ask any player: Tennis is as psychological as it is physical. The winner must establish her presence and impose her will on her opponent. Clothes may not make the player, but from Tracy Austin's pinafores to Serena Williams' catsuit, they can help define who the player is. In this era of big money, ratings and stadiums, clothes can establish a connection with the crowd.

Or not.

"I was watching a match. Two girls were playing dressed the same head to toe, both with blonde ponytails. And you couldn't tell who was who," said Bethanie Mattek-Sands, an American whose outrageous outfits have garnered her as much attention as her tennis. "I was like, 'OK, I never want that to happen to me.' And I don't think it has, so far."

At this year's U.S. Open, Mattek-Sands came on court in knee-high stars-and-stripes socks with stars-and-stripes eye black while wearing a one-sleeved shirt. It all began several years ago when Mattek-Sands' clothing sponsor decided not to renew her contract, prompting her to hit the street in search of on-court wear. The results have included leopard print and evening wear, making Mattek-Sands a cult figure on the tour -- and earning her new clothing contracts with Under Armour, Drymax Socks (which came up with the stars-and-stripes theme) and her eye black company.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Ranked No. 39, American Bethanie Mattek-Sands garners more attention for her outrageous get-ups than her tennis.

"It's really me. I'm not trying hard to force anything," Mattek-Sands said. "You know, I play that way. I like different shots, I play aggressive, I come to [the] net, try between-the-legs shots. And even off the court, I love shopping. I like finding new trends, like boutique stuff.

"I'm like that, I think, in my whole life. Most people see it out on the court."

She has even brought her own touch to the eye-black look, which she borrowed from her football-playing husband. There is now a line of Mattek-Sands leopard-print eye black.

"Tennis is cool in the fact that we kind of get to pick what we want to wear ... conservative or classic, go a little bit punk, or whatever," she said. "Tennis kind of has a name for being a little bit more stiff and conservative, and I'm kind of the opposite of that, so that's what I like to bring to it."

Few players have pushed the envelope like Mattek-Sands, but many of the big names draw on outside influences to create distinctive looks and announce their presence at a tournament. In addition to the catsuit, Serena Williams has worn a denim skirt and knee-high warmup boots for Nike. She has incorporated an actress theme into this year's outfits. The pink dress she would have worn at the French Open, for example, was designed to evoke Brigitte Bardot.

Then there is Serena's older sister Venus, who was grabbing more headlines for her clothes than her play until she announced that an energy-depleting autoimmune illness has been affecting her performance. Wearing her own EleVen brand has given her free rein to experiment with lace dresses and nude-colored undershorts, and she has produced some highly unconventional looks in the past couple of years. Maria Sharapova has had a slew of memorable Nike outfits, including an Audrey Hepburn-inspired dress at the U.S. Open and tuxedo and swan looks at Wimbledon.

During Grand Slams, the sideline chatter about what players are wearing can resemble the fashion critiques that take place on the Oscar red carpet. It's a level of attention that comparable women's sports, like golf, get noticeably less of.

Maybe it's simply that tennis is bigger, offering the status and the stage for such displays. Perhaps golf doesn't have as many Serenas, Venuses or Marias -- top players who have an interest in fashion and design and use their outfits to make a statement. Or many Mattek-Sandses, either.

"I'd do the same thing I do now," Mattek-Sands said, grinning at the possibilities of a turn on a country club course. "I think I'd go old school -- you know how they had the socks, argyle socks up to the knees with the [knickerbocker] pants."

(Newsflash: She's planning a little argyle for the tennis court next year.)

A fashionable sport, from the Victorian era through the modern age

Fashion has never been far from tennis. The game's roots as a Victorian garden party pastime meant that, early on, appearance was as important as performance. Women wore corsets and long dresses over petticoats, not ideal for moving quickly about the court. Men wore long pants and shirts. The all-white motif, still associated with the game, was established during this period.

With serious competition came a shift from form to function, but style was not left behind. The 1920s and 1930s saw the arrival of the game's first icon, Suzanne Lenglen. Her graceful movement and French flair made her an international celebrity, instantly recognizable in her thick, white headband and pleated skirt. Rene Lacoste and Fred Perry, two male players who would come to be better known as clothing brands, debuted their now-familiar shirts on the tennis court.

In 1949, Gussie Moran scandalized the Wimbledon crowds by wearing lace-trimmed panties under her dress, a risqué touch from famed tennis designer Ted Tinling that would eventually land the outfit in the hall of fame. Tinling's boldest creations would have to wait till the 1970s, when he was hired to put the newly turned pros in dresses that would appeal to the ticket-buying public. There was silver, sequins and velvet. "Can you imagine sweating and playing tennis in velvet?" Val Ziegenfuss, a pro of that era, recalled in 1987. "But we were putting on a show. We were trying to put people in the stands."

As the game became more professional and commercialized in the 1980s, clothing companies took over, dressing the players in blander outfits designed for sale to the tennis-playing masses. Fashion consciousness returned with a bang toward the end of the 1990s with the arrival of glamour girl Anna Kournikova and would-be designers Serena and Venus but with as much of an eye on the bottom line as the service line. Skin was in, and clothing sizes shrank as the rush to find the next "it" girl began. But soon, with Kournikova turning into a symbol of hype over achievement, on-court results regained their currency.

These days, the tennis fashion industry has become increasingly professionalized, with clothing companies using players as brands within brands and developing a design cycle built around the sport's various seasons. Partnerships with professional designers have emerged, a trend that began in 2003 with Venus playing Wimbledon in a Reebok dress designed by Diane von Furstenberg. Currently, it is best exemplified by the Stella McCartney adidas line worn by No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.

Even the guys are getting into the act. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal wear distinctive gear for Nike that reflects their personalities and image. Nadal has transitioned from his trademark bicep-baring shirts and piratas (remember those?) to more traditional shirts in bright colors. Federer has his RF logo on his clothes and isn't afraid to make a fashion statement, wearing a white jacket and cashmere cardigan at Wimbledon during his No. 1 days. James Blake has a Fila line benefiting his father's foundation, and Andy Roddick recently launched his own line with Lacoste.

As yet, no other player has followed Venus by launching her own independent clothing brand. It's an experiment that seems to have become a largely private endeavor for the American -- the discount retailer that originally carried the line went bankrupt in 2008.

"I asked her in the locker room at Wimbledon ... 'Do you actually sketch it out yourself?'" said Mattek-Sands. "She was like, 'Yeah, I just draw it and then go and get it made.'"

Whatever the sales, few are doing better when it comes to getting the attention of fellow pros -- and would-be pros.

Maria the maven: Sharapova sets trends, reaps financial rewards

"Unfortunately you didn't look close enough, because that wasn't a dress."

Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Among the Nike-designed outfits Maria Sharapova sported in 2011 was this buttercup-colored dress she debuted at Roland Garros in May.

When discussing clothing with Sharapova, it's best to use precise language, as one questioner at the Cincinnati tournament found out after casually referring to her outfit as a dress. It was actually a top and a skirt.

When it comes to blurring the line between tennis and fashion, Sharapova is at the vanguard. The Russian works on coming up with her own ideas but uses the commercial heft of her sponsors to execute and profit from them.

"Center court is like her runway. It's the way she likes to express herself," said her agent, Max Eisenbud. "She does a lot of tears of fashion magazines, and she also has a sketchbook she's very private of. She comes to the meetings, the design meetings, a lot.

"She puts her vision -- this is what she's looking for, the fashion. They come back with sketches, and she makes changes and they go back and forth."

Nike creates four outfits per year for Sharapova, each produced as a full-length dress and a not-to-be-confused two-piece outfit. Unlike in the past, these are available for retail sale, and Sharapova reportedly collects a percentage of the profits.

Other players are also wearing her outfits. There are five official "Maria girls." The most prominent is German Julia Goerges, though they are allowed to wear the two-piece only. The dresses are off limits for everyone but Sharapova. It's the beginning of what Sharapova hopes will be an extended run. "The Sharapova collection can go past [Sharapova's career]. The next generation of Nike girls can wear it," Eisenbud said.

She has also branched out beyond tennis, designing a line of shoes and bags with Nike-owned Cole Haan. Its success has surprised even her -- a flat ballerina shoe introduced at the insistence of the 6-foot-2 Russian is one of the company's top-selling shoes.

"It's a really big project, and in the fashion world, it's not like you're doing something little. In the U.S., it's a pretty big brand as well as some countries in Asia," Sharapova said this summer. "I had a lot of hesitations, and I actually said no a couple of times.

"Actually Anna Wintour, she told me, 'You don't want to start with something that fails in the beginning.' I was like, 'Oh, great, that's a great boost when I'm really hesitant on something.'

"It was actually during the time I was injured and I had a lot of time on my hands, and I just started really brainstorming. I got so much, things that I collected over the years that I was able to pull out and my terrible drawings and ideas. I had so much of it, and I was really confident in what I had. And it kind of took off."

Only a select few players can operate at this level. For rank-and-file pros wanting to make a statement on court, personalization has been an easy route. Names on shoes and racquet bags have become common, and the "Believe" printed on Melanie Oudin's shoes during her 2009 U.S. Open run eclipsed everyone's efforts that year.

Then there are the elaborately painted nails, which have become a bit of a craze on the WTA tour. Up-and-coming Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is famous for sporting a different color and style almost every day. Trust Serena Williams to take things a step further. Having been professionally certified as a manicurist and launched her own line of OPI nail polish, she has been playing with inch-long nails this summer. It doesn't seem to have hurt her tennis, and it might be helping her products.

"Your nail polish is great," Goerges wrote in a tweet to Serena before the tournament, "bought it yesterday and loving it;)"

"aaah!!!are u trying to have a competition with me or something?!!" wrote Pavlyuchenkova.

They may not be taking over the runways just yet, but tennis' fashionistas do seem to be setting styles within their own sport -- and a little beyond. Where does it go from here? Maybe Keys will show us.

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