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How Style Came Back to Tennis

Bethanie Mattek-Sands at the U.S. Open, 2015.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands at the U.S. Open, 2015.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

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There was a moment during this year’s grand slam tennis season when the sport won back its rebellious style.

It was the first round of Wimbledon in July and German-Jamaican player Dustin Brown was battling tennis god Rafa Nadal. Darting around the pristine centre court, Brown couldn’t stop beaming as he won point after point with a mixture of volleys and inventive shots that perplexed even the most experienced tennis commentators.

It wasn’t just his moves that were intoxicating; it was his look. His dreadlocked hair, long because he hasn’t cut it in over 19 years, stood straight as he jumped in the air to make shots. When he changed his shirt (not once but twice during the match), fans could see a tattoo on his torso of a face. Some speculated it was Bob Marley; Brown later said it was his father. Every time he opened his mouth, a tongue ring was on display.

Brown’s victory over Nadal was not just a win for an underdog against a great; it was a victory for someone with an edge and a personality, an outlier who hasn’t conformed to the manicured look that's so prevalent in tennis. "Obviously I look different, but I’m not trying to be different," Brown told me over the phone this week. "I just do what works for me, and what I like."

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Brown at Wimbledon. Image: Leon Neal/Getty Images

If Brown has captured the hearts of tennis fans (newspapers hailed him the hero of Wimbledon) for his unorthodox manner, he is hardly alone. A group of nonconventional players have emerged in tennis, making tournaments like the US Open — going on right now in Queens — much more inclusive, stylish, and fun to watch.

There is American tennis player Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who has been around for years but was thrust into the spotlight at Wimbledon when she beat the world’s seventh seed player, Ana Ivanovic. Dubbed the "Lady Gaga of Tennis" Mattek-Sands wears leopard print tennis outfits and cowboy hats on court. At Wimbledon, where players are supposed to wear all white, she had neon colored streaks running through her hair. A gigantic tattoo of lilies decorates her arm.

And then there's Australian player Nick Kyrgios, who played the first round of this year’s US Open with a goatee and mohawk. He has the nickname "bad boy" and "wild thing" because of his explosive outbursts at other players, umpires, even members of the audience. His fellow Australian player Matthew Ebden also stands out at a grand slam with his boy band looks.

"Bad boy" Kyrgios at the 2014 U.S. Open. Image: Al Bello/Getty

These players stand in stark contrast to the current tennis greats, all of whom are pretty reserved. Roger Federer, the longtime player who has had the most influence over this generation of tennis players, is clean cut both in his dress and behavior (although the Nike-branded pink and white outfit he wore during his September 7th match did have people talking). Another great, Raphael Nadal said in an interview with The Daily Mail, "I’ll never have a tattoo — I just don’t like them, and when you’re old they can look a disaster. As for piercings, I don’t like them on men." Even Serena Williams, who used to wear skin tight clothes, dresses more modestly these days.

About 10 years ago however, tennis style was railed in by developments like the introduction of apparel sponsors. As players like Serena Williams and Roger Federer signed huge contracts with brands like Nike, they had to wear whatever the companies wanted them to. And the brands wanted them to be mannequins, wearing items that would sell to the mass public. "There was a time in the late ‘90s when Serena and Venus [Williams] wore things that were a lot flashier and more revealing, but they were seen as pretty non-commercial," said Rothenberg. "So there was a downshift to things that the average country club goer would spend their money on." Even players like Andy Murray, who used to come onto court with disheveled hair and clothes, cleaned up (along with his wife Kim Sears), in order to court high-end, lucrative sponsors like Burberry.

The result is that most players tend to look similar on the court, unable to display a true sense of self. There have even been occasions when players were wearing identical outfits — like during the finals of this year’s Connecticut Open, when both female athletes had on white tops, red skirts, and red headbands. "It was kind of ridiculous," said Rothenberg. It doesn’t help that the personalities of the players most in the spotlight err on the conservative side.

Tomas Berdych in H&M at the 2015 U.S. Open. Image: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Things might be changing though. For a long time a few companies dominated the tennis sponsorship scene. Now, new brands are getting in on the action; brands that would rather have one unique player representing them than a mass of ambassadors with all the same look. For example: Tomas Berdych is now sponsored by H&M, and wears anything from black-and-white flowered, Hawaiian-esque shirts to blue-and-white striped outfits. "He definitely stands out a lot more than he did when he was another Nike player," said Rothenberg. James Ward is sponsored by British fashion designer Ted Baker, who dresses Ward in shirts with pink polka dots and blue swirls and colorful knee socks.

With the predominance of social media, many players are using either their looks or personalities to stand out from the crowd — and court fans and sponsorships. For example, Brown, who is a lesser-known player, definitely gets more press because of his style. "I know photographers love Dustin Brown," said Rothenberg. "[He is] one of their favorite people to shoot with his hair flying everywhere, it makes cool photos." Tennis commentators speculate that Mattek-Sands’ sartorial choices — she once wore a dress made out of tennis balls to a gala — are deliberate for the same reason. "Her fashion has been in the spotlight more than her results," said Rothenberg. "But being attention-seeking is not inherently wrong."

It also helps that at recent Grand Slams (this recent one excepted; many of these athletes have lost) the players with big personalities have experienced big wins. At Wimbledon so much focus was on the outliers because they made it far in the tournament. Consequently, at the next tournament, fans and media pay them even more notice.

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Mattek-Sands shows off her tattoo at Wimbledon. Image: Karwai Tang/Getty Images

Tennis players also might have more room to be themselves because the sport is trying to be a more open and diverse. Historically, the top levels of tennis have only been open to people from wealthy, more mainstream backgrounds. "Tennis is a very expensive sport compared to track and field, and soccer, and cricket," said Brown. "It’s sort of like golf. If you look at golf, there are also not a lot of personalities because you need a certain background and wealth to play."

But now, people like Katrina Adams, who took over as Chair of the United States Tennis Association, are trying to make the sport more inclusive of all ethnicities and income brackets. Her efforts seem to be working, said Pam Shriver, a former tennis player who is now a commentator for ESPN. "Tennis, of all sports, has an incredible, rich diverse culture. There are many many different cultures, and it is all coming together, especially at the majors." She believes that tennis is being better about "treating people with respect and honoring their privacy. How they dress... how they talk or lead their private lives, it varies, and that is the way the world is isn’t it?"

As players feel more comfortable being themselves and exhibiting their personalities and styles, the next generation might take notice and mimic that behavior. That’s how real change happens, said Rothenberg."I don’t think tennis will ever become a complete rock ’n’ roll sport," he said, before changing his mind: "It might… but it will take some time."