Desert Peacocks

Originally posted March 18, 2010

For the last few days I have been in the desert. I’m not really one of those people who just go to the desert when they want to chill out, because for starters, holy moly, it’s hot in the desert. And I am not sure how one chills in that skin-frying heat.

However, I put aside all of my pale-skinned fears and made my pilgrimage out east for a very special reason: The BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. Indian Wells is the largest non-major tennis tournament on the circuit, and the field is filled with names you know if, like me, you are obsessed with this sport: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Verdasco, Roddick, Clijsters, Soderling, all the ‘ovas: Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Petrova, Safarova, Benesova, Pavlyuchenkova, various Lopez’s—they’re all there, and they are larger than life. Literally.

Tennis players are the opposite of actors. You know how you see an actor in real life and they are Lilliputian? You see a tennis player, and you are flabbergasted at how enormous they are. Each one is bigger, taller and thicker than they look on television.

Which brings me of course to what they are wearing. Now, I understand that they all have endorsement deals and are paid to wear what they wear on the court. But seriously, couldn’t someone, anyone, design something that doesn’t distract so blatantly from my enjoyment of watching these giants smashing that little green ball at each other?

Tennis was a country-club sport, sedate and polite in demeanor, and old-school tennis wear reflected this. René Lacoste’s Izod white shirt with the small crocodile logo, Big Bill Tilden’s long white pants and cable sweater, even Chris Evert’s yellow dress or Björn Borg’s pinstriped Fila shirt are all examples of a preppy chic that is completely gone from the game.

Today’s tennis is a bigger, faster, more athletic pursuit. And as the game has changed, so too has the clothing. Nowadays, you often have two players across the net from one another in exactly the same outfit, as they are both sponsored by the same company and are trying to sell the current season’s clothing to the club player who believes in at least looking like a pro even if he or she will never be able to play like one.

You also have big stars like Maria Sharapova, who designs her own hideous line for Nike full of ridiculous eveningwear-inspired tennis clothing.

There are a few tennis players who dance to their own drum—Bethanie Mattek-Sands being one of them. Unfortunately for those of us with eyes, Ms. Mattek-Sands favors an animal print, an exposed bra strap and some knee-high tube socks for a trailer-park-tennis look.

Then there is the biggest rivalry in current tennis—the one between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. I speak not of the on-court rivalry, which is intense and highly entertaining, but rather of their style rivalry. No doubt the marketers at Nike have cooked up this style rivalry, but real or phony, it is out there on the court for all to see.

Roger is supposed to be the elegant one. He floats above the court, feet barely touching ground, and Nike makes him ridiculous getups like the military coat from last year’s Wimbledon. (How this is elegant is beyond me.) Mostly what he wears is just this side of boring, though.

Rafa is supposed to be the fiery one who charges around like a bull (get it—Spanish, bull—which elicits a giant “oh brother” from me), so they put him in garish colors and odd stripe/check combos, like the white shirt with thin pastel stripes he is wearing at this tournament, and the inexplicable brown windowpane shorts that seem to, at best, go with another shirt.

In trying to make sense of this trumped-up rivalry I flashed on the other style highlight of my time in the desert—seeing former champion and broadcast legend Bud Collins every day. Bud let me take his picture in one of his typical mix-and-match peacock combos that got me thinking that maybe, just maybe, the folks at Nike are onto something with those shorts of Rafa’s. Vamos!


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