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STYLE / FASHION

Tennis Whites, Anyone?

September 01, 1996|PRESTON LERNER

I can distinctly recall a moment 25 years ago, when the practice regimen at my tennis camp was broken by the appearance of a fellow camper wearing shorts the color of the sky on a smoggy day--a pale, washed-out, almost reluctant blue. An agitated buzz ran up and down the courts: "Blue shorts! That kid from Jersey is wearing blue shorts!" A friend turned to me with a bewildered look on his face. "Hey," he asked anxiously, "can he do that?"

Those were the days when creamy yellow was the most rakish color in the tennis palette. And in a sea of white and off-white apparel, those blue shorts looked every bit as shocking as a tie-dyed tuxedo. Today, of course, anything goes, from every color under the sun to gruesome graphics that could pass for Jackson Pollock rejects. Casting a critical eye over the current crop of touring pros, tennis maven Bud Collins complains: "They look like they're getting dressed in the middle of the night with a hangover." It's no coincidence that 1996 will mark the retirement of two-time Wimbledon champion Stefan Edberg, the most elegant player of his generation and--tellingly--one of the last to favor classic whites over the fashion monstrosities that now dominate the sport.

Tennis players must be the worst-dressed group of Americans this side of clownish televangelists trapped in a bad-hair universe. Guys, guys, get a grip! Check out, for example, the skateboard-thrasher look Andre Agassi brought to last year's U.S. Open: Black sneaks, black socks, black knee-length shorts and a baggy olive-drab polo shirt with a few grudging bands of white. It wasn't so much that he looked ridiculous. (Let's be charitable.) It was that he looked so ludicrously out of place. Think Dr. Dre in "Swan Lake" and you'll have the general picture.

Not that I'm pining away for the days when Big Bill Tilden played in trousers and button-down shirts and Suzanne Lenglen ruled Wimbledon in dresses that grazed the grass. But what's wrong with traditional whites, anyway? The polo shirt--popularized by French Davis Cup hero Rene Lacoste--has become part of the everyday fashion vocabulary. As for my pleated Fred Perry shorts, they look as stylish today as they did a quarter-century ago. Ditto for my all-white socks, all-white shoes and all-white sweatbands.

And why not? Whites are classic, simple yet regal. They always look crisp and cool and clean. (Contrast them with the stone-washed shorts preferred by local boy Pete Sampras--or Pete Pampers, as he's been called, because of the sweat stains around his bottom.) Sure, all white and nothing but white can get monotonous. But if nothing else, it would prevent style simpletons from committing fashion hara-kari. Consider, for example, the fall and rise of Mary Pierce, damned as a philistine for wearing a little black dress at this year's French Open, then hailed as a fashion queen one month later for modeling a white version at Wimbledon. Better still, all white and nothing but white would forever protect fans from the spectacle of the Jensen brothers, the MTV-style doubles tandem, looking like refugees from roller derby practice.

Much as I hate to be considered a member of the old guard, I still dress in whites. My only concession to the style of the times is that I sometimes wear freebie T-shirts advertising products I've never bought or vacation spots I've never visited. I like to tell people that I'm upholding the proud Southern California tradition of Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzalez, who gave tennis a defiantly American flavor in the '40s and '50s. But the truth of the matter is that I'm embarrassed to wear my suave Fred Perrys on the scruffy public courts where I usually play.

My favorite T-shirt depicts Australian great Ken Rosewall--dressed, naturally, in white--sliding on red clay during some long-since-forgotten Davis Cup match. His right arm is coiled around his chest and over his left shoulder as he prepares to slice his signature underspin backhand. Would Rosewall have been as successful if he'd worn a surfer's melange of day-glo stripes, checks and squiggles? I don't see why not. Would he have looked as graceful? No way in hell.

Which, in the end, is why I continue to wear whites: They don't make my game any better. They just make it look better. And as Andre Agassi would surely agree, image is everything.

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