Athletes in Skirts

Why don’t women tennis players wear shorts?

As the Wimbledon finals approach, the question arises again: Why do women tennis players still wear skirts? Skirts or bloomers used to be the norm for many women’s sports, including basketball, volleyball, golf, and baseball (think A League of Their Own). Kathy Switzer, the first woman ever to officially run the Boston Marathon, ran the 1974 New York Marathon in a dress. A few non-pro women’s sports, such as college field hockey and lacrosse, still have skirt uniforms. But aside from ice skating, tennis is the only professional sport where women regularly wear skirts.

Unlike ice skaters, though, tennis players are not scored on how they look, so they can’t claim they are captive to judges’ preferences. And women don’t wear them because skirts are more comfortable or conducive to better play; if that were the case, male tennis players looking for a competitive edge would have adopted skirts, too. (If you doubt this, consider that male athletes shave their legs and don body stockings for swimming.) Plus, pro women usually wear shorts for tennis practice.

It’s not that they have to wear skirts in tournaments. The Wimbledon Web site’s FAQ section answers the question “What is the dress code for The Championships?” with this redundant answer: “Players’ dress is predominantly white (’almost entirely white’).” No mention of skirts. Similarly, the Women’s Tennis Association, which organizes the premier women’s international tour, forbids sweat shirts, sweat pants, T-shirts, jeans, and cut-offs during matches, but doesn’t mention skirts.

Maybe the skirt is a matter of tradition. But does the backless yellow spandex dress Venus Williams wore at last year’s U.S. Open count as “traditional”? It’s not as if wearing shorts would be groundbreaking. Helen Jacobs wore shorts at Wimbledon in 1933, as did Anne Smith in the ‘70s. In 1950, “Gorgeous” Gussy Moran got a lot of attention for wearing flashy lace-trimmed panties. And then in 1985 Anne White wore a show-stopping white Lycra unitard to Wimbledon. (Click here for a look.) Pam Shriver (whom White beat) complained afterward that the outfit was distracting; referees asked White not to wear it the next day, and she complied.

A few tennis players do currently wear shorts in tournaments. Tennis’s designated sexpot, Anna Kournikova, wore shorts in last year’s U.S. Open. (Click here and go to Day 4’s slide show for pictures.) But most don’t. This is likely because looking cute on the court (and giving a little panty flash now and then) is a way for female athletes to rally fan support, and more importantly, increase the value of their endorsement contracts. (Kournikova doesn’t have to worry about increasing her stock as a sex symbol, which is why she can afford to wear shorts.) Would Venus Williams have scored a $40 million endorsement contract from Reebok—the highest ever for a female athlete—if she dressed in the baggy shorts of a WNBA or LPGA player? Unlikely. Her earning power depends mainly on winning matches, but looking stunning in a tight yellow dress helps.