As this year’s Wimbledon Championships will demonstrate, tennis has moved on a bit in the past half-century: rackets are no longer wooden, ‘Hawkeye’ settles the ‘You cannot be serious’ moments and the winner of the ‘gentlemen’s singles’ competition will trouser £1.7m (compared with the measly £5,000 Stan Smith took home in 1972).
But what happened to those great outfits from the days of Smith, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors? The striped shirts, the short shorts, the groovy track tops. Where did all the style go?
The answer dates back to the late 1990s when the organising committee tightened-up the dress code, side-lining the previous protocol requiring clothing worn on court to be ‘predominantly white’ in favour of a ’90 per cent’ rule.
And in 2014 the regulations became even more draconian with an edict that forbade any non-white clothing that could at any time become visible during play ‘due to movement, lighting or perspiration….’
In an age when anything goes, traditionalists (such as me) usually like to see old standards being upheld – but, when it comes to tennis kit, some people of a certain age (such as me) feel nostalgic for those golden Wimbledon years when favourite players could be instantly identified by what they wore.
One man who misses it more than most is Miguel Seabra, a tennis journalist and broadcaster who has commentated at some of the most memorable matches of the past 30 years.
'I grew up watching tennis from the second half of the ‘70s on. Even then there were long standing associations between clothing and former champions from the 20s and 30s such as René Lacoste and Fred Perry, and there were a few players fully outfitted by Adidas such as Stan Smith, Ilie Nastase and Tom Okker,' says Seabra.
But during the 70s and 80s it was Italian clothing that really ruled tennis fashion. 'It was a very significant transitional period, which began in 1968 with the start of the Open era and the realisation that tennis was really telegenic – meaning a lot of money was suddenly poured into the sport, champions turned into superstars and charismatic players such as Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe became household names.'
'Most of them wore beautifully made, very stylish kit from Italian brands such as Fila – which gave Adriano Panatta, Borg and Guillermo Vilas their own, dedicated lines – and Sergio Tacchini, which dressed McEnroe. Connors dressed Pat Cash and Vitas Gerulaitis while Ellesse supplied Chris Evert, Johan Kriek and Boris Becker in the 80s.'
Seabra mourns the days when tiny shorts and vibrant touches of colour tempered the green, green grass of Wimbledon – and longs for the return of the statement-making track tops by Fila and Sergio Tacchiniworn by Borg and McEnroe as they emerged onto centre court to battle it out in 1980 and 1981.
'Everyone who followed tennis back then remembers those track tops, Borg’s Settanta striped shirts and McEnroe dressed in Tacchini. It also helped that clothing collections lasted longer - these days a champion typically wears six or eight different lines per year. Since the late ‘90s and the enforcement of the all-white dress code at Wimbledon, the only item that sticks in my mind is Rafa Nadal’s sleeveless shirt worn in the 2006-2008 finals,' says Seabra.
And, it seems, even the shoes worn by top players have lost their soul. That dates back to the mid- 1980s when brands such as Nike, Diadora, Lotto and Reebok began to produce clothing and Sergio Tacchini and Fila started making footwear – resulting in monobrand, head-to-toe sponsorship deals.
But could the fashion tides be turning on tennis's long love affair with the colour white? Amongst tennis fans, at least, there's a renewed interest in the more colourful attire of yesterday's stars. And it’s now possible to relive those stylish glory years thanks to a recently-launched business called ‘Golden Era of Tennis’ which offers everything necessary to kit oneself out in the image of your favourite ‘vintage’ player.
Based in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, the firm sells high-quality recreations of clothing by makers such as Fila, Ellesse, Diadoraand Sergio Tacchini - and has just re-introduced premium brand Maglificio Maggia, which kitted-out famous players including John Newcombe and Vitas Gerulaitis during the 1970s.
'When we launched the business we saw it very much as a niche area,' says co-founder Jay Hanley, 'but it seems that people all around the world are nostalgic for the tennis kit worn during the 1970s and ‘80s. We have 50,000 Facebook followers, among which are several major stars such as John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase.
'The idea of wearing this type of clothing dates back to the 1990s when British soccer fans visiting Italy would go to sports stores and bring back items which became known as ‘football casuals’ for wearing on a day-to-day basis. We took the different approach of going direct to the brands and having the best designs reproduced specifically so they could again be worn for tennis.
'The new Maggia items, for example, use top quality Italian cotton and, because of modern manufacturing methods, are far, far better made than the originals.
'The irony is that this sort of kit was so expensive back in the ‘70s and ‘80s that many people could only dream of owning it – but now, 40 or 50 years later, it has become far more affordable.'
Personally I would love to stride onto the court at my local tennis club looking like Bjon Borg. But have I got the hair for it? And are those shorts even legal these days?