Tennis outfits bring fashion business to Wimbledon

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Wimbledon is not just about tennis. Playing on centre court is the business of sport and fashion.

White is the colour of choice for trendy fashionistas at Wimbledon this year - but do not look for them in the crowd, you'll find them on court.

The buzz here is as much about the players' stylish outfits as it is about the next winner.

The fusion of tennis and fashion has turned the courts into a catwalk, with styles ranging from the more conservative like Roger Federer's to the daring attires of the Williams sisters.

And although Wimbledon's "tennis white" rule - dating back to the 19th century - makes it particularly challenging to experiment with fashion, players are sprinkling tradition with some stylish frosting.

When Venus Williams swung away to victory during her Court Two match against Uzbekistan's Akgul Amanmuradova, her white "onesie" (one-piece outfit) with an open back and baggy upper half instantly made headlines.

Oblivious to unflattering feedback from some tabloids, the former world No 1 defended her look - which comes from her own collection, EleVen.

It is not the first time Venus Williams' outfit has sparked debates.

During the French Open in May 2010, she wore a lacy black and red dress with a flared skirt that looked like a negligee.

But she is far from being the only tennis player flirting with fashion.

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Image caption Even fashion-conscious Rafa Nadal bows to Wimbledon's "white-only" rule

The American Bethanie Mattek-Sands surprised the Wimbledon crowd this week with her tight dress, knee socks, a jacket decorated with tennis balls and black paint under the eyes.

Her outfit was designed by Alex Noble, famous for his work with Lady Gaga.

Meanwhile, the younger of the Williams sisters, Serena, sells her own line of clothes called Signature Statement.

And Russian star Maria Sharapova is creative head of Cole Haan's "Maria Sharapova" line, for which she designs shoes, bags and accessories.

On court both wear outfits designed by Nike - as do Swiss Roger Federer and top-seeded Spanish player Rafael Nadal.

And while Federer's style unites the traditional and the trendy, Nadal - who is also one of the faces of Emporio Armani - is known for his trademark long shorts.

Nike shares the clothing arena with several other companies, among them German sportswear giant Adidas.

In a clever marketing move, Adidas sponsors and equips the top female seed at Wimbledon, Caroline Wozniacki.

The 20-year-old Danish blonde became brand ambassador for Adidas' line of clothes designed by Stella McCartney, one of the world's top fashion designers.

"For me, it is essential to wear products that combine performance and style. I always play better when I feel good [in my clothes], that is very important to me," says Wozniacki.

British tennis fans, meanwhile, may notice that Andy Murray wears Adidas.

On and off-court

Every time a player walks onto court, he or she will show off the latest designs of his sponsor - which then have much more of a chance to become a hit in stores.

"We have seen fashion weave its way into tennis, as our sport has one of the most theatrical presentations in professional sports," says Stacey Allaster, chief executive of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA).

"Each Grand Slam has become a fashion moment.

Image caption Tennis outfits have changed quite a lot since the 19th century, and continue to evolve

"What will Roger wear this year? Or what dress will Serena wear for a night match at the US Open? What Cole Haan bag will Maria use?"

With top players as popular as Hollywood celebrities, the relationship between tennis and fashion is now moving beyond courts - and famous designers are queuing up to dress trendy sports stars.

This year's collaboration between the British Fashion Council and the WTA for the annual Pre-Wimbledon party took this bond up another notch.

Top British designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney worked with tennis A-listers to create an haute couture experience.

Maria Sharapova, for instance, made a graceful entrance wearing a simple yet elegant cherry red mini-dress by Alexander McQueen.

Another Russian ace, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, appeared in a dress designed by David Koma, who told BBC News that his work was inspired by the player's power and beauty - and Russian ballet.

"Tennis is not just a game, it is a beautiful performance, and it has always been in fashion," added Mr Koma.

Image caption Off court, many top players enjoy being dressed by famous designers

Such a designer-player partnership can be mutually rewarding.

For designers it is a great business opportunity, while the players get a boost for their public profile.

"For someone like Giles Deacon, making a dress for Li Na, who is one of the most famous and popular female athletes in China, it is a great move to get exposure in a market that is of huge importance to him," said WTA's Stacey Allaster.

British Fashion Council boss Caroline Rush agreed.

"Players have a huge amount of confidence on court, but stepping out onto the red carpet environment can be quite new and nerve-racking for them," she said.

"So being dressed by recognised designers and the opportunity to meet these designers lets them retain that self-confidence off court as well."

Deep roots

The tennis-fashion extravaganza is not limited to players - for instance, Polo Ralph Lauren has been clothing chair umpires, linesmen and ball boys and girls at Wimbledon since 2006.

It all helps top fashion brands to find their way into tennis courts everywhere.

Shushanik Khachatourian, a US amateur player and author of the popular blog, said that those who strive to follow fashion can do so quite easily.

"The prices are reasonable, so it is affordable for nearly anyone," she says.

The bond between tennis and fashion may have become highly visible in recent years only, but its roots go way back.

At first, of course, conservatism reigned, with Wimbledon imposing the "tennis white" rule in the 1890s; white colour was thought best to mask signs of sweat.

There were other restrictions: women had to wear full-length dresses with long sleeves, while men were told to sport full-length trousers.

These rules were soon challenged.

Image caption Venus Williams often sparks debates with her original outfits

In 1922, Suzanne Lenglen - one of the best female players of all time - shocked Wimbledon when she came wearing a bright bandeau.

Later, designer Jean Patou even created a daring sleeveless thigh-long dress for her.

She died in 1938 at the age of 39, but her playing style and fashion sense are still an inspiration for many.

Designer Jean Paul Gaultier, for instance, created his spring-summer 2010 collection for the luxury brand Hermes with Lenglen in mind.

And so tennis attires kept changing, with colours getting brighter and players continually tweaking their looks.

The only thing that has never changed is the aim to stay trendy - both on and off court, and it is this common desire that has helped to propel tennis to the very top of today's fashion ladder.

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