To Draw A Line

Sports: Wimbledon, tennis, and the importance of tradition

Roger Federer
Roger Federer at Wimbledon / AP
July 4, 2016

From June 27 to July 10 the world of tennis goes retro. Players don their tennis whites, step out onto freshly cut lawn courts, and turn the clock way, way back to 1877. Back to when Wimbledon, the first major tennis tournament, started.

It should come as no surprise Wimbledon has a reputation for being the most traditional of tennis tournaments. Officials at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club go out of their way to cultivate a traditional, formal atmosphere. The tournament has a strict all-white dress code, there’s a rulebook for standing in line for tickets, and the Wimbledon Instagram account routinely quotes Rudyard Kipling. These all add up to make Wimbledon something of an anachronism on the tennis world tour.

For one thing, the surface is the same as long ago. Originally, three of the four major tennis tournaments were played on grass (the exception being the French Open, which has been held on clay since its inception). Now, Wimbledon is the only grand slam played on the original surface. Tennis aficionados will tell you that there is something special about watching tennis played on the grass courts at Wimbledon. Different surfaces lend themselves to different play.

The style of play on clay is as gritty as the ground red brick used to make the court. The points are longer and more tiring, and a bit boring since the players stick to the baseline. Hard court play is more interesting to watch, but hard courts are ubiquitous in tennis tournaments today. Grass courts are unique and the style of play more elegant, varied, and interesting. It all adds to the feel of "tennis in an English garden" that Wimbledon is trying to capture.

The uniqueness of Wimbledon makes it a favorite among tennis players and fans alike. Countless players say Wimbledon is their favorite major. Roger Federer, Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras, the list goes on. Eugenie Bouchard has said she’s playing Wimbledon, no matter what her circumstances, until she’s 40. She’s not kidding. After an injury last year, she was advised to skip playing at the All England Club, but made a showing anyway. She just couldn’t bear the thought of missing tennis’s greatest fortnight. Tennis great Stefan Edberg offers a compelling reason for why Wimbledon is so beloved: "It’s got tradition, it's got atmosphere, and it's got mystique."

The need for tradition is so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that we see it revealed in something as simple as a tennis tournament. We can find it in other areas of life as well, from period pieces like Downton Abbey to the resurgence of fashion from years gone by. We love almost anything that reminds us of the past.

The most famous—and controversial—of Wimbledon’s traditions is its dress code. Players in the tournament are required to wear all-white outfits, with only the smallest amount of color allowed. In order to understand the dress code tradition of Wimbledon, you have to return to the nascent days of lawn tennis. White clothing became prevalent in tennis play for two reasons. The first was aesthetic. White wasn’t worn frequently because it is easily dirtied, so playing tennis in all-white made the experience special. But wearing white while playing tennis was also practical as the color doesn’t absorb much heat. Tennis whites went from being the unofficial uniform of tennis to the official uniform of Wimbledon in 1890. As the years went by tennis whites came to be associated with Wimbledon, and the civility and politeness so common in the gentlemen’s game.

The dress code has its share of critics, with even some past winners failing to appreciate the rule. 1987 winner Pat Cash called the rule "a little bit strict and a bit old-fashioned." Current player Bethanie Mattek-Sands also dislikes the rule, which should come as no surprise, given the fact that she earned the "Lady Gaga of Tennis" moniker for her ridiculous outfits. The general complaint levied against the dress code is the same made against most traditions: It’s too restricting.

Tennis players opposed to the all-white rule would prefer to go against it in the name of ease, rebelliousness, or personal freedom. Ardent critic—and 1992 champion—Andre Agassi complained, "Why must I wear white? I don’t want to wear white."

But Agassi misses the point of the dress code. He misses the importance of tradition. It’s not about the act itself, but the meaning behind the act. Today, we can wash clothes easily, so white clothing is no longer anything special. But wearing tennis whites reminds us of the era when tennis really was the game of gentlemen and ladies, and calls upon the players to act with a sense of decorum.

In the past there were only a handful of players who refused to follow the typical tennis code of conduct: players like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Ilie Năstase, nicknamed "Superbrat," "the Brash Basher of Belleville," and "Nasty." But every McEnroe had his Borg, and the rest of the tour typically stayed well behaved. Today, unsportsmanlike behavior is rare in tennis, with Roger Federer leading the charge for civility, but it happens far more than it did in the past. Lack of sportsmanship occurs frequently among the lower ranked players —especially if Nick Kyrgios is the player in question— but even some top players flirt with bad behavior. Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic are the top ranked woman and man in tennis today. Both are generally excellent ambassadors, but when they lose their cool their behavior can rival that of Jimmy Connors. Williams famously threatened to shove a ball down a line judge’s "f****ing throat," while this year Djokovic berated a chair umpire and pushed the arm of a line judge out of anger.

There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I doubt these controversies would have taken place if Williams and Djokovic had been on the lawns of Wimbledon wearing all-white. The dress code fosters a sense of formality and civility, qualities that are especially important if tennis is to uphold its traditions— and to remain on the sporting level of Roger Federer instead of falling to the ostentatious antics of the Superbrat.