Barbara Schett, the co-host (with Mats Wilander) of “Game, Schett and Mats”, strolling the streets of Paris,
Roland Garros, 2019 | photo: Matthias Hauer
Although we have witnessed some great matches at the present Roland Garros (Benoit Paire and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Benoit Paire, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka) and more is yet to come (a Nadal-Federer semifinal, a possible Nadal-Djokovic final), and having previously covered some of the greatest players of the game here on the site, as well as the books and art revolving around tennis, there is yet another aspect of my favourite sport I want to bring into discussion today. Off-court style.
You do not have to comply with a strict dress code as is the case at Wimbledon, which, even if you are not an attendee in the Royal Box, still stipulates an unwritten rule that too casual a look is unwelcome, but that doesn’t mean that the French Open spectators don’t know a thing or two about style. Because I have to admit that looking to the stands at the French Open is part of the beautiful spectacle Roland Garros offers every year. Not only is the tournament one of the most beautiful displays of sport, but a seasonal milestone, too. Being the tennis aficionado that I am, I have come to regard the French Open as the unofficial symbol of the beginning of summer. And, for me, nothing says summer better than a crowd of people in Panama hats under the shining sky, transfixed by the tennis players on the ochre clay that sparkles in the intense June light – artist Fabienne Verdier, who created the official poster for the tournament last year, beautifully described how, for her, “Roland-Garros evokes those first warm days that herald the arrival of summer in Paris”. I sometimes think of the slow red dirt surface that produces those long and absorbing rallies, testing the players’ skill, patience and endurance, with a long hot summer day that tests one’s physical and mental strengths.
The Panama hat in the stands at the French Open | photo: Amélie Laurin
Let’s linger on that image: the king of summer headwear when watching from the stands the king of clay at Roland Garros. The Panama hat. Despite its name, the legendary accessory has its origins in Ecuador and it has since become the country’s most famous handcraft. As with many items that have stood the test of time, the Panama hat was born out of necessity and practicality: the hat woven from Ecuadorian toquilla straw offered the best protection from the sun for the thousands of workers assigned to the building site of the Panama Canal, who were required to wear this lightweight, wide-brimmed straw hat to protect them from the sun. The fruit of unique artisanal expertise, the original Panama hat is made completely by hand, by Ecuadorean craftsmen and women. The weavers take several weeks or even months to create a single hat. The hats are woven from toquilla palm leaves, which have many qualities, such as exceptional whiteness, finesse and flexibility.
But what was it that made this accessory a style game-changer, besides the craftsmanship that goes into its making? It was the classic movie stars, from Humphrey Bogart and Paul Newman to Gary Cooper and Frank Sinatra, and the diverse likes of Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí, who made it popular and a staple of menswear, and ultimately ensuring it an all-time classic status for both men and women. So, despite Wimbledon’s undeniable affiliation with style, and while the London public may master with ease the sartorial requirements of the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, the Roland Garros crowd has perfected the effortless and cool smart look, finding the simplest way to dress up for a match in the summer heat at the toughest tournament to dominate for any length of time. The Panama hat instantly elevates even the Wimbledon-inappropriate look of jeans and t-shirt.
Barbara Schett, Paris | photo: Matthias Hauer
Another Roland Garros point of interest, style wise, if I may venture to say, is watching Mats Wilander and Barbara Schett. Their Eurosport show, Game, Schett and Mats, is quite honestly one of my all time favourites, not just in sport, and about the only tv I have been watching in years. I am looking forward to their pertinent analysis just as much as I am to a good tennis match. I have talked about my admiration for Mats Wilander as tennis player and tennis expert before. Barbara is a former tennis player herself, and the two of them make a great team in front of the camera.
And it so happens that they both display a natural sense of dressing style. Is it a shallow comment from my part saying that? Are their aesthetic attributes really of interest in a discussion about their talent and professionalism? Yes, I dare say. Because looking good is not self importance, it’s self respect, as Charles Hix said, and, I might add, it is not only self respect, but respect towards the others as well. And watching Mats and Barbara, two tennis insiders, always so effortlessly put-together, is maybe to prove once again that tennis is the kind of sport that has always incorporated a heavy dose of individual style, on- and off-court. As Racquet magazine’s philosophy goes, I, too, like to “celebrate the art, ideas, style and culture that surround tennis”.