When the six biggest male stars in tennis begin their battle at Abu Dhabi's new International Tennis Complex tomorrow, it will not just be the game that the audience is watching: it will be the clothes. Tennis has always inspired fashionistas, from Lacoste piqués to Stan Smith trainers by Adidas, so commentators and keen amateur players will be taking style notes. The perfect chic-to-hip ratio is always hard to achieve with fabrics that are designed for wicking and stretching. While the game everyone will be hoping to catch - Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal - will be a battle of Titans, the other burning issues will be whether Federer wears his Wimbledon white jacket and slacks or the all-black kit that he donned for the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai, in November; whether Andy Murray chooses Fred Perry or K-Swiss; and whether Nadal has swapped his customary white capri pants and muscle top for his much-feted, but as-yet-untried, new look of classic polo shirt and shorts.
Of course, whatever they wear, the one thing that's guaranteed is that a good proportion of it will be by Nike. The sportswear giant is acutely aware of the game's tendency to attract sartorial scrutiny, and brilliantly placed to take advantage of it. For the last two decades, Nike has been putting down huge sums of money to dress tennis's most flamboyant stars, from Andre Agassi to Maria Sharapova, allowing them to take plenty of risks with the traditional tennis style. The company recently re-signed Federer for what could amount to nearly Dh50 million a year (depending on playing commitments), and when it signed up Andre Agassi back in 1988, it made him the highest-paid tennis player of his day.
Of course, the money factor changes the whole concept of style on the court, with a manufactured, commercial edge that can make players look more like automated sportswear mannequins than free will-endowed humans. Sure, the companies work with their endorsers to make sure their own look is complemented - as with Federer's conservative-dandy pre-match outfits, which are oh so gentlemanly, reserved and, well, Swiss - but it is a sad loss to the concept of personal style.
In the 1920s, Suzanne Lenglen surprised the world with her own individualist look - a brightly coloured silk chiffon bandeau on her head and a short (calf-length), sleeveless and - most shockingly - corset-free dress in silk or cotton. Though the dresses were designed by Jean Patou, the French couturier and rival to Chanel, it was the gregarious Lenglen's innovation, a dashing combination of drama and practicality. Compare that with Sharapova's recent Nike-sponsored outings, which have ranged from a bright red Swarovski-clad dress to a tuxedo-top and shorts, and it seems that the rounds of new styles are more about launching the latest frock on the hottest tennis star. Indeed, Sharapova's tuxedo outfit may have been her undoing at Wimbledon this year, pushing her opponent Alla Kudryavtseva to victory out of sheer disgust. The dour Kudryavtseva was quoted at the time as saying: "It's very pleasant to beat Maria. I don't like her outfit. Can I put it this way? It was one of my motivations to beat her."
Still, there are plenty of maverick dressers in the history of tennis, from the scandal of Maud Watson and her ankle-length dresses in the late 19th century (though she still wore the requisite corsets of the day) to Bjorn Borg's tiny shorts and headband in the Seventies. And with some players, neither commerce - the power of the endorsement - nor taste has been a consideration. When Andre Agassi's long, blond-streaked mullet and rock 'n' roll T-shirts first came on the scene in the late Eighties and early Nineties, he refused to play at Wimbledon, apparently because of their strict rules regarding the wearing of only tennis whites. Yet even as we loved him for his rebellion, still we knew in our hearts that those crop tops and the pink Lycra cycling shorts layered beneath denim ones looked like rejects from the New Kids on the Block wardrobe, and that the mullet (business in the front, party in the back, as they say) was a hairstyle too long.
Just a few years before Agassi, Anne White played against Pam Shriver at Wimbledon in 1985 wearing an all-in-one skintight catsuit, claiming that it was to prevent her legs from getting cold in bleak British weather. Possibly to a young woman in the Eighties, this seemed like a reasonable, hi-tech and functional ensemble, but that did not prevent her from being quietly told to wear something more appropriate when, after being rained off, the match resumed the following day. Certainly, she is now remembered more for her dress sense than her tennis (she lost to Shriver). Other eccentrics have included Jean Borotra, who was playing in the late Twenties and early Thirties and was known as the Bounding Basque. He always wore a beret on court, much to the disgust of his more urbane opponents such as "Big Bill" Tilden, whose own sporty cable-knit sweater and white slacks were the model of elegance.
We may not be wearing unitards and mullets on the court nowadays, but some tennis players have created looks with true longevity. Chris Evert's thin diamond bracelet, which she dropped on the court in 1987, was an instant hit and the style has since been known as the tennis bracelet. And take Bunny Austin: he was best known as both the last British player to reach the final of Wimbledon (in 1938) and the first man to ditch the classic tennis flannels in favour of shorts, in 1933 - though not before the American player Alice Marble scandalised audiences by wearing shorts instead of a dress in 1932. However shocking their actions were at the time, the fact is that the very functionality of the garments is what made them stylish, allowing the players to move more freely and gracefully. After all, good design can be an aesthetically pleasing extension of the most pragmatic solution to a problem - in this case, how to achieve movement while retaining modesty.
Another problem that was solved (pleasingly to some, sinfully to others) was what to wear beneath the tiny skirts favoured by women players from the Forties onwards. Torn between wanting to look feminine by wearing a skirt rather than shorts and needing the freedom of movement offered by micro-minis, the answer came in 1949 - to huge uproar - thanks to the designer and Wimbledon master of ceremonies Ted Tinling. He designed a dress - with a pair of frilly, lacy knickers included - for the American player Augusta "Gorgeous Gussie" Moran. Both she and Ted were vilified (though she went on to a showbiz career) but the short-skirt-and-hefty-knickers combo has proved its longevity, with the French player Tatiana Golovin nearly causing a riot as she seemed to flout Wimbledon's all-white rule with a pair of red knickers at last year's Wimbledon. (It later turned out that the all-white rules do not apply to underwear. So that's OK, then.)
Some tennis players have been so concerned with on-court style that they have launched their own labels. The granddaddy of them all is René Lacoste, the French champion of the 1920s, whose piqué cotton polo tops, first created in 1933, became so popular as an alternative to the usual stiff long-sleeved shirts of the time that he began to manufacture them after he retired from playing.
The ubiquitous embroidered crocodile came from his nickname, "the Crocodile", acquired when he bet a crocodile suitcase that he would win a match (he didn't). The British three-times champion of Wimbledon, Fred Perry, a working class hero despised by the bourgeois tennis establishment at the time (the 1930s), launched his brand at the end of the Forties with the towelling wristband, and soon developed the range into the fitted polo shirts that became the staple garment of the British Mod movement. More recently, Venus Williams has turned down lucrative sponsorships from the likes of Reebok to launch her own streetwise sportswear collection, EleVen, which she has been sporting on the court with varying degrees of success. In fashion, as in sport, you win some, you lose some.
The Capitala World Tennis Championship takes place at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi from Jan 1 to 3. @email:www.capitalatwc.com