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Clothes call

Date

Natalie Craig

There's more to the Open than tennis. There is also the fashion.

<b>2011: Venus Williams</b> A triumph of fashion and form or 'the worst outfit ever seen on a tennis court'? Click for more photos

Hits and misses

Bicep-baring singlets. Mesh-panel mini dresses. Balls stashed in neon hot pants. No, it's not a costume check on a mardi gras float, it's the Australian Open in Melbourne. Photo: Joe Armao

Bicep-baring singlets. Mesh-panel mini dresses. Balls stashed in neon hot pants. No, it's not a costume check on a mardi gras float, it's the Australian Open in Melbourne, the first tennis grand slam of the year, where players ''reveal'' their outfits for the season.

This year, the silhouettes for women and men are unchanged. As seasoned tennis scribe Suzi Petkovski moans: ''We haven't seen men's thighs for about 15 years, and the women get around in sausage casing.''

Men will still be wearing the baggy shorts of the mid-1990s - even though they're the kind of thing your dad now wears under the delusion that he's fashionable - and women, by and large, will squeeze into spandex.

Model: Jasmine D<br>Styling: Bianca Christoff.

Model: Jasmine D
Styling: Bianca Christoff. Photo: Simon Schluter

So, innovation arrives via colours. For women in particular, the hot hues seem to be yellow, hot pink, peach, rich purple and pale grey. (Alas, there are players teaming royal purple with school-bus yellow visors and trims who look a little like McDonald's workers).

The men will wear brights with grey, too, some in shirts that fade one colour into another in a trendy computerised effect known as ''ombre''. And given their chronic conservatism, we're likely to see a lot of black and white on the blokes. Lleyton Hewitt is this year making a rather literal fashion statement with his black-and-white Yonex shirts emblazoned with his slogan ''C'mon!'' Sigh.

Lacoste, meanwhile, is looking ahead to a bumper year on its 80th anniversary. Lacoste will dress its sponsored players, including American John Isner, Frenchman Richard Gasquet and Spaniard Pablo Andujar, less like home boys and more like gentlemen: shorts a tad shorter and polos neater, in crisp and retro colour combos.

But as far as the avant-gardism goes, there seems little on the horizon in men's tennis fashion this year. The withdrawal of style renegade Rafael Nadal due to illness is a blow, although Gael Monfils' tank tops and colourful style could fill the void.

Women, as usual, will provide most of the eye candy, wearing short, bright dresses over matching or sewn-in bloomers, where they can stash their balls between serves.

Fashion plates Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova, Jelena Jankovic and Julia Goerges are all expected to wear yellow dresses, differentiated by skirt styles (from tight tubes to fluted-pleat trims) and straps (camisole-style, muscle-back and rope-and-pulley-style boulder-holders).

Melbourne pro shop managers, who are preparing for their busiest trading period, say it's Ivanovic who has most influenced the city's amateur fashion in recent years.

''That's who all the young girls want to dress like, and her dresses are quite flattering,'' says the manager of Reynolds Racquets, Phil Lyons. ''The Sharapova outfits are in-demand, too, but hers tend to be a little more out there. So, even though they want to look like her, if they don't look like her - with her body - they sometimes doesn't sell as well.''

Lyons says women in their 20s and above tend to be influenced by players with more classic outfits, such as Li Na's simple Nike tees and skirts. They could also look Lacoste's classic, French-looking dresses with drop waists, flattering necklines and contrast piping.

For more eye-catching glamour, there's always the Williams sisters, but with Serena's style looking more mumsy these days (she'll likely be in a ''grand purple'' dress with panels of peach and mauve), the responsibility rests solely on Venus.

She seems ready to deliver, probably wearing a tube dress with capped sleeves in a multi-hued graphic print. Melbourne stylist and fashion guru Franco Schifilliti says the ladies' garb, especially Venus', is on-trend.

''One of the things we haven't seen much of for ages in tennis is print,'' Schifilliti says. ''Print - especially for womenswear now - is all about clashing print … [Venus] is really spot on. As far as the other girls go, that citrus trend was very strong for the summer. Lime, into the yellow, was very much a highlight - even as early as spring racing. They are on the money.''

But the men, he says, are not. Despite fashion moving towards shorter, slimmer, flat-fronted men's shorts about two years ago, players persist with ''those terrible baggies''. Schifilliti says: ''It's really terrible; they all have such nice legs! The women have to have something to look at, too.''

Tennis fashion may well be sexist, but a look at past Australian Opens suggests it's still the most flamboyant and interesting of any sport. When Pete Sampras introduced his baggy shorts in the mid-1990s, commentators lamented that the gentleman of the court looked like he'd ''fallen out of bed''.

Then there was Venus's ''nude illusion'' undies at the 2010 Australian Open, which prompted frenzied speculation and frame-by-frame, rear-end analysis, until relieved commentators concluded that Venus had not, after all, decided to ''go commando''.

Suzi Petkovski, who has been writing about the Australian Open since 1988, reckons that the emphasis on clothing and fashion reflects the game's status. ''Tennis is the number one sport for women, hands down,'' she says. ''There's no competition, in terms of the respect and credibility they get. It's the most relentlessly global sport for women, and I think fashion is part of that. It's an individual sport; fashion is an individual thing loved by women.''

Tennis fashion is also, perhaps, part of the sport's drama. In a gladiatorial battle of wills, why not try to put off your opponent by wearing something exotic?

As Fairfax tennis writer Linda Pearce said: ''Take an Australian wildcard who is wearing a plain skirt and top, who doesn't have a big deal … I'm sure she's walking onto the court thinking 'good grief, what's she got on? She probably gets paid more for that than I'll ever earn in my life'.''

When the Williams sisters hit the court in something new, it's like watching a peacock spread its tail. Who wouldn't be intimidated, or at least bemused, by an apparently nude-bottomed Venus charging the net? Or by the spectacle of Serena's 2002 shiny black catsuit?

For the Williamses, it's clear the costuming is intentional, but crazy fashion can also be a reaction to a maddening game - as Andre Agassi attests in his autobiography, Open.

He writes that his first ''signature look'' at 18 - a frosted mullet haircut and stone-wash denim - was his way of ''bucking authority, experimenting with identity'' and ''thrashing against the lack of control'' in his life.

Later, fashion became his way of hiding. In the early '90s, Agassi adopted a lion-mane wig to hide his incipient baldness, and also wore hot-pink bike pants and accessories.

In '95, when Agassi won his first Australian Open, he was in his ''beach-pirate-slash-skater-boy'' period, sporting a goatee, bandana and earring.

However, it was in the final part of his career, when he ditched the costumes and revealed bald, plain-dressing, gnomish Andre, that he stopped ''hiding'' and took out five of his eight career grand slam titles (including three more Australian Opens).

The allegory of ''Andre the Giant'', who used tennis fashion as psychological armour, but was most successful without it, doesn't apply to all blokes.

In the 1860s, the rage for lawn tennis started, but it was the tennis fashion of the 1920s - for preppy cable knits and V-neck sweaters - that has remained synonymous with the sport's more country-club look.

Men ditched long flannel pants for shorts in the 1930s, and stuck to white polos and mid-thigh shorts until about the '70s and '80s. Then came the pastel colours and the spray-on shorts - think Pat Cash and Bjorn Borg's hairy thighs, or Guillermo Vilas' coloured shoes.

(Back then, players were more strongly identified with a particular outfit because they wore them for at least a year - meaning that shirts such as Stefan Edberg's Adidas polo with the primary-colour abstract logo became the thing to wear on the amateur tennis circuit.)

Sampras and Agassi introduced the baggies of the '90s, but Nadal was the king of the late-2000s below-the-knee capri-style pants.

Other men have tried to carve out a niche in headgear: think Lleyton Hewitt (still holding on to the backwards cap, even at 31); Pat Cash (chequered headband); and Pat Rafter (luscious, long Adonis-like ponytail. Or was it a bit too ''Manpower Australia''?)

But despite these blokes' best efforts, women's tennis fashion has been more varied - and more controversial. In the 1900s, there wasn't even a bit of ankle to perve at, as women played in court-length skirts, long sleeves, hats and dainty slippers, with their waists cinched in lace-up corsets.

US player May Sutton pushed boundaries at Wimbledon in 1905, eschewing the tight-sleeve blouses for her father's button-up shirt, and proving herself a real hussy by rolling up her sleeves and revealing her wrists.

In 1919, Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen won Wimbledon in a knee-length dress with ¾ sleeves: female spectators reportedly walked out, calling the display ''shocking.'' But it ushered in an era of loose, drop-waisted cocktail-inspired dresses, and sporty visors and headbands.

Skirt hemlines started creeping above the knee in the 1960s. By the '70s, dresses were seriously short, and disco fever saw the adoption of patterns and exaggerated collars.

In the 1980s, women chose flippy skirts and tucked-in tops rather than dresses, and, like the men, wore a rainbow of '80s pastels. The '90s saw the advent of lightweight synthetic fabrics (including ''parachute material'') and colours became bolder and brighter. Mary Pierce brought the tennis dress back at the Australian Open of 1995.

By the 2000s, it wasn't enough to simply be wearing a tennis outfit in the right colour and fabric - many top women were bent on setting trends themselves. Players such as Sharapova and the Williams sisters became as famous for their tennis outfits as for their tennis, and started ''revealing'' them ahead of each grand slam with all the fanfare of a rocket launch.

Sharapova has worn a butler-inspired tuxedo-blouse and high-waisted white shorts, a dress with 600 Swarovski crystals sewn into the neckline, and, at the Australian Open in 2010, a Roman-style ''Golden Set'' dress with sheer overlay.

At the Australian Open in 2011, Venus Williams sported a gold bra-top attached to a lattice-work bodice, and a skirt that looked as if it had been splattered with paint.

British cricketer Graeme Swann called it ''the worst outfit ever seen on a tennis court''. Sports writers went into a tailspin as they competed to come up with the best phrase to explain it. Was it ''the pie crust dress'', the ''cheese grater'', or the ''seatbelt dress''? Did it have ''a touch of the temporary plastic fencing you see at building sites'' or was it a ''mix between [the] Solid Gold Dancers and Edward Scissorhands''? Only tennis fashion could inspire so much shock, wonderment and creative commentary.

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