Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Wimbledon | Pant-emonium on the courts

Around a year and a half ago, maybe two, the debate over the identity of the greatest tennis player of all time burnt with white-hot intensity. Everybody had an opinion. Most people felt Roger Federer was a shoo-in for the accolade.

Now that Federer has begun to indicate the merest hints of mortality on the tennis court, the debate has reduced to a simmer. Still some of the fundamental “greatest of all time" questions, common to any such debate in any sport, remain. Would Federer have been as dominant in the past eras of tennis? Would he have beaten Björn Borg? Would he have beaten Rod Laver? Would he have beaten Borg with a wooden racquet? Would he have beaten John McEnroe with anything?

However, the one question nobody seems to ask is: Would Federer have played with the same superhuman abilities…if he had to play in a pair of flannel long pants? Would he have replicated his tranquil on-court heroics adorned in the original male tennis bottom: medieval breeches?

Cricket, in all its many formats, is not the only sport one can play at the hallowed premises of the Lord’s Cricket Ground in London’s St John’s Wood neighbourhood. Deep inside the bowels of one of the buildings that surround the outfield is a court dedicated to the game of real tennis.

Most people agree that real tennis was the forerunner of the modern sport of tennis. Most people also agree that real tennis is one of the most bizarre sports anywhere in the world. Almost everything about it, save perhaps the ball, is asymmetric. The racquet, the court, the rules are all singularly designed to befuddle anyone but the most ardent fan.

British brothers William and Ernest Renshaw in 1880. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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British brothers William and Ernest Renshaw in 1880. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Records tells us that somewhere around the 1520s that most eccentric of England’s proprietors, Henry VIII, had a real tennis court built at the Hampton Court palace. He also ordered sets of clothing to be worn during this particular variety of athletic effort. From the evidence handed down to us in the form of paintings, and Shakespeare’s play named after the king, we can assume that Henry wore the same, or perhaps slightly modified, versions of his usual formal lower wear: long stockings and puffy breeches. These days nobody with any sense of fashion or deep vein thrombosis wears breeches any more. But in the Tudor period, and for centuries afterwards, they occupied the top of the masculine bottom market.

But as the waters of time flowed on between the twin banks of fashion and technology, men’s bottoms, praise the Lord, began to get longer and roomier. By the late 19th century, a type of breeches called plus-fours—because they ended 4 inches below the knees—became particularly popular among sporting youth and schoolchildren. But by and large men’s fashion had transitioned first to pantaloons and then to the modern trouser.

Tennis, at least in the early years, appears to have kept step with the latest in men’s trouser trends. By the time the first few tournaments were held at Wimbledon, men were already wearing long pants made of flannel to their matches. Photographs and paintings featuring some of the early winners, such as William Renshaw and John Hartley, all show them sweating it out in comfortable white trousers.

It is believed, though more so for women than for men, that white was the colour of choice because it helped to hide sweat stains. In any case, by the early 20th century, both men and women were playing Wimbledon in all-whites.

In subsequent years, innovation in women’s sports clothing was rapid. In essence, everything got shorter and tighter. And then Serena Williams came along and changed everything.

Rafael Nadal likes to wear longish shorts. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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Rafael Nadal likes to wear longish shorts. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Austin, who had played football in school, wondered why shorts that worked well on the football pitch were taboo on the tennis court. In 1997, Austin told The Boston Globe newspaper what happened next: “We went to New York for the singles at Forest Hills, and I bought a pair (of shorts) and wore them. I got a lot of kidding, but the wisdom of it was apparent. The next year, I introduced them at Wimbledon. I expected a fuss there, but there was none. Slowly, others followed. I don’t know why we put up with long flannel trousers for so long."

Little wonder that the newly liberated Austin went on to become the last British man to reach the finals at Wimbledon, in 1938, before Andy Murray repeated the feat 74 years later.

Once male thighs on tennis courts all over the world had been emancipated by fearless Bunny Austin, the logical thing would have been to overdo the liberation. Which is exactly what the great Arthur Ashe did three decades later. Ashe was one of the first few players to wear shorts that were really short. Really, really short.

Thus was set into motion a cycle of short-lengthening and short-shortening that has dominated several sports. McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Borg left as little to the imagination as did footballers Gerd Müller or Johan Cruyff.

Then suddenly, for no clear reason except the pendulum-like tendencies of human taste, shorts got longer and shirts got baggier. Remember a young Michael Owen or David Beckham speeding past in a cloud of fabric?

Andre Agassi turned up in all-white in 1991. Photo: Chris Cole/Getty Images
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Andre Agassi turned up in all-white in 1991. Photo: Chris Cole/Getty Images

Agassi was always a clothing pioneer. In 1991, the world held its breath as the usually colourful Agassi first participated in Wimbledon. Would he stick to the dress code? As Agassi took off his over-clothing and stepped out on to the court in white denim shorts over white lycra under-shorts, the audience delivered thundering applause. Journalists rushed copy to their newsrooms. The American wonderkid had bent the rules to near breaking point.

But when he went baggy, he went very, very baggy. During the baggy phase Agassi would take two steps before his shorts took one.

Today, two decades after Agassi’s moment, the trouser-cycle seems to be turning again. While some players such as Rafael Nadal continue to take the court in knee-length shorts, by and large shorts are getting tighter and a little shorter. The signs from the football pitch are ominous. Gareth Bale has had a phenomenal season for Tottenham Hotspurs. But does he really have to wear a shirt so tight that you can hear the little threads squeaking as he shoots? His shorts, thankfully, remain modest.

“When it comes to tennis fashion, old habits die hard," says Rajesh Jain, director and CEO, Lacoste India. “Comfort is a prerequiste to aesthetic. Performance is superior to trends. Hence we may observe efforts to create fabrics with better agility and lightness. Now whether this makes our pair more fitting or relaxed, time will tell. Colours and detailing, though, will definitely change in the next five years."

If the allergy to fabric proves to be as contagious as it has in the past, it will not be long before Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Grigor Dimitrov, Fabio Fognini and Lukas Rosol begin flitting around the grass in thin wisps of space-age super-fabric.


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Updated: 22 Jun 2013, 12:59 AM IST
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