There was life on tennis courts before the Williams Sisters. And there was that Asian touch too, even before Sania Mirza and Li Na grabbed the spotlight

A few summers before Venus and Serena Williams brought fashion to tennis courts, and many a season before many a man spoke out in defence of or against the skirts of Sania Mirza, a handful of Asian girls were making their presence felt on the international tennis circuit. What’s more, they were doing it ever so quietly, allying the Oriental tilt of their apparel with their nimble footwork and deft touch on the court. They were girls answering to the names of Kimiko Date — yes, the same girl who made a comeback 12 years after her retirement as Kimiko Date-Krumm! — Ai Sugiyama and Rika Hiraki. Next to the steadfast Japanese were the slightly more flamboyant Thai Tamarine Tanasugarn and the petite Indonesian girl Yayuk Basuki. In one way, many of these girls were like the Williams Sisters: they picked and chose their tournaments but almost invariably showed up at the Wimbledon. What’s more, they even notched up creditable performances at the most haloed of venues.

Each had a distinct style of play and a very personal manner of dressing up. Yet, none of them ever made a loud statement with their apparel. Sobriety could well be their mantra. Neither Kimiko, Ai nor Basuki ever turned heads the way Mirza managed when she broke through on the circuit. Ai, who rose to world number eight in singles and earned the top slot in doubles, was the kind of girl whose dress sense was simple, even elementary. For much of her playing days she wore Adidas and was happy to trade in pastel shades. Her countrywoman Kimiko Date-Krumm, however, stepped out of the shadows of sobriety and was happy to soak in rainbow colours. Unlike Venus, she, however, was discrete enough not to bring all the colours together in one dress. She played by the book, relying on heavy top spin in her aggressive game. She showed a similar dress sense: using a red cap and red sweatband to compensate for her white short skirt and T-shirt. Occasionally, when she was seen in bright blue shirt with a skirt of the same colour, she broke the monotony with tasteful red stripes. Interestingly, the design often was on her back. At times a nice crisscross, at others vertical lines helping to compensate for her short height. And, yes, she brought a touch of Asia to the court with her dangles and hair tied in a bun. Every once in a while, though, she came to the court in pretty plaits. And even a ponytail. It was a statement made by Rika Hiraki too, who once paired with Mahesh Bhupathi to win the French Open mixed doubles title. A svelte girl, she was usually seen in contrasts on the court.

A little like Ai, Basuki was from the old school. For much of her long career, she used functional attire, often seen in skirts long enough to make two, maybe even three, for the likes of Venus and earlier Steffi Graff. In many ways, her flutter skirts were a rarity even 10 years ago. Basuki did not ever try to coordinate her colours even at Wimbledon, where she reached the quarter-finals. Incidentally, at one time she was a top 20 singles player and top 10 in doubles. And defeated the likes of Martina Hingis, Gabriela Sabatini and Amelie Mauresmo in her career. She achieved all this without inviting too much attention to her dress. Some could even call her clumsy, though she would defend herself as being carefully casual. Having retired from the singles long back, now, on the wrong side of 40, she still tries her hand at doubles.

Keeping her company in simplicity is Thai player Tamarine Tanasugarn. A veteran on the circuit, she is never likely to be a pin-up girl at any Grand Slam. Her constant ponytails and pastel shades with short skirts doing a good job of helping her blend with the crowd. Though she lost in round 2 of the U.S. Open last week, Tamarine was at one time among the elite, having breached the Top 20 barrier in singles and playing doubles with ultimate male fantasy girl Maria Sharapova! Whether singles or doubles, Tamarine never swapped her sober hues for more vibrant ones. Her only concession, though, was an occasional ornate finger ring or an ear top with miniature danglers attached. The limited jewellery had Asian written over it.

Yes, there was life on tennis courts before the Williams Sisters. And there was that Asian touch too, much more before Sania Mirza invited attention and Li Na grabbed it. Date-Krumm, Basuki and company slipped in unannounced!

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