Let rackets do the talking - not outfits
Female tennis players can't complain about sexism when they wear negligees on court, writes Donal Lynch
Published 03/07/2016 | 02:30
In a week of cataclysmic world events it was almost comforting to see that certain seasonal trivia can still make headlines. The British media was so throughly bored by the start of Wimbledon that it made the first two days all about arse. Tennis once again was deep background in a narrative dominated by frills, legs and peek-a-boo midriffs.
In previous years this had to be achieved by focussing on the colour of knickers the female players are allowed to wear or on "smouldering" photoshoots, which the likes of Caroline Wozniacki recently did for sundry men's magazines. But this year there was no need for any of that.
The jaw-dropping impracticality of Nike's new dresses - which look like translucent baby doll nighties - did the trick. Cue a million pieces gasping at how the sportswear giant could have clad the players in garments that make them look more like centrefolds than elite athletes. The Sun fretted about whether Serena could have her hemline adjusted in time. The Mail worried about British player Katie Swan who "had to tuck her nightie into her shorts." With accompanying glossy pics, naturally.
What seemed extraordinary was there wasn't a peep out of the players themselves. Every year we get perilously closer to the day when the likes of Nike send their players out in just nipple tassels and thongs, but the players obediently accept the sponsorship dollars and pour their million-dollar bodies into streetwalker outfits.
Writer Caitlin Moran says that the litmus test for sexism is "are men doing it?" In this case that would be as though Roger Federer decided to show up to SW19 as a Chippendale in just a dicky bow. It wouldn't mean he wasn't the best player in history but it would suggest that he accepted that his tennis by itself was not the primary source of entertainment for the average viewer. The male half of the Wimbledon draw is working a respectable white-collar job, the other half has the same dress code as Hooters.
What's ironic is that the female players - particularly the Williams sisters, who lead the baby doll charge - are acutely sensitive to all other evidence of sexism in tennis. Last month it was revealed that much more men's matches are featured on centre court and court number one and there was widespread muttering of how much equality is still left to achieve. The sisters publicly campaigned for, and subsequently got, equal prize money, in the face of objections that they spend less time on court than the men and that the women's tour pays out less prize money than the men's tour.
Male commentators now have to watch the words they call the female players ("sometimes we're ladies, sometimes we're girls, except when we're bitches", doubles legend Pam Shriver once quipped). Any reference to their looks is strictly verboten as John Inverdale learned last week after his ill-advised comments about Marion Bartoli and Andrew Castle in a Guardian piece highlighted his mildly off-colour praise of a male player's girlfriend.
Feminism has changed the sport - for the better, it must be said - but it has turned its back on the elephant in the room: that the female half of the draw is expected to display its backsides like a troupe of baboons in heat. "It used to be that if you went nude you got an Oscar," Anne Hathaway once said. Now, to win Wimbledon, it seems that you have to be half naked.
This is because the sportswear companies are the unseen hand that reigns supreme over the whole thing: Boris Becker once alleged that Nike helped make the draws and schedules at SW19. These companies have learned the 'lesson' of beach volleyball in the Olympics - that it's sex appeal and nothing else that we watch women's sports for - and their view of tennis is not based around fandom of the game. They want the clothing, or lack of it, to be centre stage, with the game itself serving as incidental background. They have overseen the transition from the sensible milkmaid outfits of the 1980s to the quasi-bikinis of today. To be fair it's usually only on the biggest stages - the Grand Slams - that the women are dressed so revealingly. The rest of the time they look like what they are: sporting superheroes. But, when the cameras are on, the negligees come out.
The female players don't speak out about this because they've been convinced that looking provocative is the route to making themselves more marketable and marketability is more important than equality. It's also more important than the results - many of the richest players of the last 20 years have been those, like Kournikova and Sharapova, who have blurred the boundaries between bedroom wear and athletic clothing. Caroline Wozniacki, who was dumped out of Wimbledon in the first round this year, remains a darling of the men's magazines.
The ironic thing is that in those years tennis has become more and more watchably athletic; a pleasing marriage of ballet and ballistics. It is the preeminent sport for women - all but one of the top 10 most highly paid female athletes in the world last year were tennis players. It doesn't need for the camera to spend half the broadcast lingering on attractive audience members eating ice creams. It doesn't have the same culture of WAGs as soccer and rugby. It doesn't need to clothe its female players like they are on a walk of shame from the Playboy Mansion. But the presumption is that the sport itself is not enough, that we need an eyeful of midriff to keep us from switching the channel.
Tennis was not always this crassly commercialised. In the last century, rather than walking out on to centre court swathed in sellable swooshes and Adidas insignias, the players wore genuine couture, the best of which was designed by International Tennis Hall of Famer Cuthbert Collingwood "Ted" Tinling. Not only did players wear Tinling's creations, but they paid him thousands of dollars to do so. His one-of-a-kind designs were created to suit the on-court personae of tennis greats from Suzanne Lenglen to Tracy Austin, and they influenced the looks of champions from the 1940s through the late 70s. Using lace, sequins, ribbon and feathers, Tinling was responsible for injecting what was then a well-starched country club pastime with a sense of humour and colour.
You feel that he would shake his head sadly at the annual flesh-fest that Wimbledon has become.
Nobody wants to see the female players return to the floor-length Victorian dresses that had to be trailed along the ground, but there is fashion risk and there is just plain tacky. It's difficult to imagine the greats of the previous generation - Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova - consenting to open midriffs. They let their rackets, rather than their cleavage, do the talking, and it's probably time that the clothing manufacturers extended the same dignity to Serena Williams.