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How Tennis Clothing Has Changed

By Jennifer Mueller

There's no sort of official uniform for tennis, which has always given players room to be creative with their clothing choices and express themselves to some extent. Tennis attire doesn't just follow the whims of fashion, however. As the game evolved from a pastime of the wealthy, leisure classes to a physically demanding sport, tennis clothing followed suit to support players' performance and freedom of movement.

Corsets and Cuffs

Tennis players of the late 1800s bore little resemblance to today's athletes. Men wore slacks and long-sleeved shirts, while women played in long dresses with high necklines, corsets and bustles. Needless to say, these costumes severely restricted their movement, leading the game to be nicknamed "pat ball" for the way ladies would gingerly tap the ball across the net. Perhaps Venus Williams meant the tennis dress she wore at the 2010 French Open, a lacy black piece with red, corset-style piping, to be a nod to the clothing of those early women players -- but her blistering 100-mph serves could never be confused with a gentle tap.

Let There Be White

In the late 1800s, white clothing was a tennis staple. White reflects light, keeping players cooler, and also shows perspiration less than colored fabric. Although tennis clothing became more casual during the 20th century, as women began wearing shorter skirts and men traded in their wool pants for Bermuda shorts and V-neck cable-knit sweaters, it remained nearly exclusively white. This tradition remains at prestigious tennis clubs such as the All England Club, which took the opportunity to further tighten its already strict dress code ahead of the 2014 Wimbledon tournament to include accessories and undergarments. "White, white, full on white," said seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer about the policy. "I think it's very strict."

Breaking the Color Barrier

Players in all-white become indistinguishable on television, however, and viewers in the 1970s complained they had difficulty telling which player was which as they watched the matches. In the early '70s, the U.S. Open became the first international tournament to officially permit players to wear colored clothing -- but the conservative pastels approved at that time were a far cry from the skintight black bodysuit Serena Williams wore for a 2002 U.S. Open match. In the 21st century, lucrative sponsorship deals and high-performance athletic apparel have increased players' desire to set themselves apart from their competitors, resulting in more colorful court attire.

The Agony of the Feet

The first shoe designed specifically for tennis and other leisure activities came in 1867, when players wore "croquet sandals" with rubber soles and laced canvas uppers. In the early 20th century, athletic footwear company Spalding introduced saddle shoes for playing tennis and squash. The leather Oxfords later became more popular with golfers, and the company added spikes to the soles. Tennis shoes remain heavier and stiffer than other athletic shoes, designed to support the feet in multidirectional movement. Their flat soles and reinforced toes give players a stable foundation as they start, stop and change direction frequently during the match.

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