Sunday 12 July 2015

"I love you just the way you are"

This is getting to be a silly habit, but I'm going to stick to it for now - using song titles for my blog posts.

"I love you just the way you are" -  a Billy Joel love-song, but I refer here not to a person, but to Wimbledon, which reaches its 2015 climax this weekend. 

It's been another great tournament (is it ever not?) and mouth-watering finals still await us as I write. The top players have entertained us richly, the sun has shone, the venue has looked picture-perfect and players have, in the main "met with triumph and disaster and treated those two impostors just the same", as Kipling's poem reminds them to do in the Centre Court locker room.  The BBC's coverage has been comprehensive and authoritative, once they realised that viewers don't want the third-rate zoo-format of "Wimbledon 2day" that looked as if it had been devised by Siobhan Sharpe's fictional Perfect Curve. The Royal Box has featured a succession of celebrities behaving with impeccable discretion. It's so refreshing to see celebrities conforming to dress and behaviour codes rather than feeling the need to show off: David Beckham's look of gracious embarrassment when he so coolly caught that stray ball was a perfect example.

But then there was Australian Nick Krygios, this year's pantomime villain, who decided not only to revive the outdated tradition of bad behaviour on court, but also saw fit to question Wimbledon's "all white" dress code. Similarly, Canadian Eugenie Bouchard appeared to have a black bra strap (Quelle horreur!) on show during her first-round defeat against China's Ying-Ying Duan. There has also been controversy this year about players' use of prominent headphones, presumably with appropriate payment from the manufacturer, when walking onto court.

So is Wimbledon too stuffy? Current Wimbledon rules even state that any medical supports or equipment also have to be completely white unless it is absolutely unavoidable, and that no trimming on white shirts, shorts or tracksuits can be wider than one centimetre. Even Roger Federer, in many ways the epitome of the good grace and impeccable manners which are so cherished at the All-England Club, has suggested that the all-white rule has become even stricter during his time on the circuit, evoking images of Borg, McEnroe and Edberg with prominent trim in other colours to support his case.

Perhaps he has a point, but I cannot help but think that Wimbledon's enduring appeal to tennis players and fans, as well as to the many who pay no attention to sport of any kind for the other 50 weeks of the year is due in no small part to its insistence on apparently trivial matters of dress and protocol. In so doing, Wimbledon has remained immune to all but the most subtle of changes in appearance over a period in which all other major sports have become unrecognisable compared to  a few decades ago, largely because of the influence of advertising and sponsorship.

Look at this picture of Wimbledon winner Arthur Ashe from 1975:

and this of Roger Federer from 2015:

It looks as if Federer has a point about the use of colour trim having diminished, but most striking is how the scene has barely changed. No sponsors logos, no courtside advertising, then or now. Still the same Wimbledon green, same grass court, even the spectators look similar (OK, the scoreboard has changed)

Now let's try a similar comparison involving some other sports: 

Football 1970 - plain, baggy long-sleeved shirts, plain black boots, plain white ball, no pitchside advertising, muddy, sandy pitch (and that's Wembley!) The referee looks like a public schoolmaster.

Football 2015 - tight short-sleeved shirts with sponsor logo, electronic pitchside advertising, yellow patterned ball, coloured boots, snooker-table green pitch.

Rugby Union 1970's - baggy shirts (now only worn as part of a Fran Cotton leisurewear collection!), old-school button-up rugby shorts, rolled down socks, brown ball, long grass.

Rugby Union 2015 - tight shirts with sponsor logo , leg strapping, protective headgear, snooker-table green grass.

Cricket 1970's - whites, caps - that's about it! The village green and the test arenas were no different..

Cricket 2015 - is this actually the same game?

Athletics 1976 - These women (800m Final at Montreal) look like the mums' race at a school sports day!

Athletics 2012 - unrecognisable as the same sport - several tenths of a second gained no doubt due to lost wind resistance!

Rugby League 1970's - you can almost hear Eddie Wareing saying "up and under"

Rugby League 2015 - Eddie is probably spinning in his grave!

OK, so I have chosen carefully to make my point, especially with the cricket ones, but I think these images show how the look, and therefore more importantly the "feel", of these sports has changed beyond recognition in around 40 years.

So what about tennis? Hasn't that changed too? Of course it has - like all big-time spectator sports, it has suffered, but also hugely benefited from commercial influence and the demands of TV companies. Wimbledon itself is a dream ticket for corporate hospitality, and if you look carefully, the players are in their own way walking advertising boards, albeit within the strict guidelines of the All-England Club. Look at Federer himself in his own brand of RF kit for very real, if subtle proof!

However, Wimbledon alone seems to have succeeded in not selling its soul to the corporate dollar. Only the most subtle of advertising is visible, making all the other grand slam tournaments look trashy. IBM, Rolex, Robinson's and Slazenger are all there, but only in their logical places associated with what they do. No Mercedes badges on the nets here!

But then there's the "all white" dress code. Does it matter? Yes, I think it does. It provides that air of timeless class that is so much a part of the global appeal of Wimbledon. Let it slip, and much else would be lost. For proof, look no further than the French Open. Here is a picture of Bjorn Borg playing winning there in the 1970's:

Basically, the same all-white kit that he wore at Wimbledon in those days. (and by the way, the courtside advertising was already dominant and intrusive!)

And now here's the 2015 French Open winner Stan Wawrinka, looking like a middle-aged holidaymaker just back from the beach for a quick game of tennis at the hotel:

I rest my case. Heaven forbid that Wimbledon ever lets him, or anyone else, dress like that. "Don't go changing...we love you just the way you are"

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