We come to see tennis and tennis players, obviously, but it cannot escape our attention that these tennis players play tennis with tennis rackets and wear tennis apparel made by certain manufacturers. Their incomes derive not just from winning tennis matches but using and wearing these tennis items.
For the top players every vestimentary choice – even down to hats, sox and sweat bands – is the product, so to speak, of contractual endorsement or obligation.
Perhaps there’s no choice at all. A player chooses to sign with a given provider and thereafter they call the shots, telling him or her what to wear. How else charitably to explain Stan Wawrinka’s charismatically disastrous wardrobe? It was fun when he won the French Open looking as if he’d drifted on from a prolonged and boozy cook-out on a Florida beach. There seems to be a kind of anti-style, even an anti-athletic thing going on with Stan and certain of his colleagues that is conceivably part of a deliberate strategy to enable sportswear to make deeper inroads into those sections of the population who never play sports: “Just Do(n’t) Do It.”
Since his Paris victory, Stan has adopted – or, to retain the suggestion of passivity, been adopted by – color combinations of a visually stunning cacophony. I don’t even know the names of some of the shades involved (fuchsia?). “Combinations” is clearly not the right word for the clash between shorts and shirt that is frequently so intense as to deflect attention from what should be the principal battle; (That is, with his opponent and not the spectator’s visual sensibilities).
His most recent opponent, Dominic Thiem, was using a white Babolat racket for which I developed a great fondness. It looked discreet and unfussy, an axe for a man of taste and discernment. How a racket looks is absolutely the least of one’s concerns when contemplating a racket makeover, but the important thing – to which all of the above is no more than warm-up – is that at some point, having watched all this amazing tennis, your thoughts will tend toward merch-ward.
Dominic Thiem put his white Babolat racket to work against Stan Wawrinka.
During a lull in the schedule you might stroll over to Tennis Warehouse with no fixed purpose but in the grips of indelible association and the following delusional logic: Part of the reason X (insert a favorite player’s name here) can play as well as he does is because of his racket. Therefore if I buy the racket I can play like him. Or, to apply the Frankfurt School idea of negative dialectics, if I don’t have the racket there is no chance of ever playing like him.
So there I was in the immensely crowded Tennis Warehouse emporium and there it was: the Babolat Pure Strike Speed Machine. It looked every bit as stylish, this weapon, as it had done when wielded on court by Thiem It also looked rather Palm Springsy and modernist, as if it had been designed precisely with this tournament – this customer base – in mind. I spoke with the very knowledgeable, slightly tired-looking assistant (and how could he not have been tired; there were hundreds of pilgrim-consumers coming here to worship-shop, each with his or her own tennis cross to bear, desperate to believe that if they made the right choice at this Lourdes-Mecca of sport their limp backhand would be miraculously cured). The Pure Strike Speed Machine came in several iterations: the VS tour, the 100, the VS, the Team…
We were not even close to the moment of transactional consummation and I already felt a familiar draining of the will to shop that afflicts me at such times. My main concern, I said, was that I wanted a racket that was easy on the elbow and shoulder. I was conscious, as I said this, that I was in the Babolat concession, talking to the Babolat guy whose job was to offer informed and persuasive guidance within the Babolat worldview.
All around were rival manufacturers offering rival products and promises, rival cosmologies, whereas what I wanted was a multi-faith stand called Orthopaedic Endurance or, slightly more sexily, Orthopaedic Power, featuring all rackets from all manufactures that were easy on the elbow and shoulder.
The assistant who at this point was also listening to some else’s woes (Jeez, it was practically a triage operation he was running, sorting out the mildly tormented customers from those with life-threatening retail conditions) said that strings were the main factor here. Relieved to have downgraded from the expenditure of major racket surgery, I said that I wanted a string that combined three things. Easy on the elbow and shoulder. But I also like the way certain strings seem to grip the ball for a fraction of a second longer. And I wanted durability.
Part of the reason X (insert a favorite player’s name here) can play as well as he does is because of his racket. Therefore if I buy the racket I can play like him. Or, to apply the Frankfurt School idea of negative dialectics, if I don’t have the racket there is no chance of ever playing like him.
The Babolat man explained that while, at best, I could achieve two of those three goals, three of three, was not a possibility. However, if I bought two packets of string I’d get a third one free. On the dim outskirts of some mathematical theorem the pleasing near-symmetry of this calculation soon dissolved into the vaster realization that Babolat made numerous strings, as did all their competitors. There were probably upwards of a million different kinds of string on the market to go with the thousands of rackets.
I found myself thinking back fondly to my teens when I started playing tennis, when there seemed, in memory, to be four rackets and maybe two kinds of string. I had come in for a racket, I was holding three packets of string and I felt more exhausted by the dread burden of consumer choice than if I’d been outside, wearing Stan’s ghastly shirt and shorts, playing a match of Isner-Mahut duration in ninety-degree heat with only an old Dunlop Maxply to defend myself.
“How much for an elbow-ectomy?” I asked the assistant – my parting short before leaving empty-handed.
Geoff Dyer’s most recent book is “White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World” (Pantheon)
Content sponsored by Two Bunch Palms.