Female tennis players have worn leggings during training and on the practice courts for a long time as they allow them to keep their muscles warm during training, especially when it is colder. However, the topic of leggings was thrust into the media spotlight during the 2018 French Open when Serena Williams wore her controversial catsuit.
The WTA amended its dress code rules in 2019 to clarify the use of leggings in tournament matches. Players are permitted to wear leggings and mid-thigh compression shorts without a skirt or dress. However, most players still choose to wear a skirt or dress over their leggings.
Let’s dig deeper into how the new dress code rules came about with regard to wearing leggings on the practice court and during tournament matches on the WTA circuit.
There is nothing in either the Grand Slam rule book or the WTA rule book that forbids female tennis players from wearing shorts, leggings, or something similar in place of a skirt.
However, from a practical perspective, I have seen female players wearing leggings together with their tennis skirts or dresses. Wearing a tennis skirt or dress allows them to tuck a spare ball into the spandex undershorts while serving – an option that is not available when wearing leggings in place of a skirt.
In addition, the skirt/dress will be part of that player’s branding for the season. For the most part, wearing leggings will only be truly practical during night games on outdoor courts – especially during the early part of the season when hight-time temperatures are still quite cold.
I can remember a time when Gabine Muguruza was plagued by thigh muscle injuries during the early part of each season when games were played outside in icy temperatures. These injuries impacted her performance well into each season. When she made the change to wearing tights under her tennis dress she was able to keep her muscles warmer and reduced her risk of injury.
Following the Serena Williams catsuit controversy at the 2018 French Open, the WTA decided to modernize its dress code rules. Under the new rules, released for the 2019 season, players are now allowed to mid-thigh length compression shorts as well as tights without a skirt or dress during matches.
What made the Serena Williams incident ironic is that her catsuit did not break any WTA clothing rules. There were no rules prohibiting compression garments or leggings from being worn in competition. Therefore the rule change was not suddenly allowing items of clothing that were previously banned.
For instance, Fatma Al Nabhani of Oman is a player that wears leggings for all of her matches. However, she always wears a skirt over her leggings.
Simona Halep also commented on the issue of wearing leggings, stating that she welcomed the additional clarity within the rules. When it’s cold the injury risks are higher and we need to keep our muscles warm. She concluded that she still preferred to wear her skirt over her leggings.
Although leggings and athletic tights may appear similar, they do have a couple of key differences.
Leggings are designed for comfort, warmth, softness, and uniform elasticity. Leggings can be worn as stand-alone garments, under tennis shorts, or under a tennis skirt. Leggings have become more popular at WTA tournaments that are played in cold climates as it allows the players to keep their legs warm, reducing the chances of muscle strain injuries.
On the other hand, athletic tights are designed with specific areas of muscle compression in order to aid recovery and reduce fatigue. The infamous Serena Williams catsuit at the French Open was a compression garment that had been designed to prevent blood clotting post-pregnancy. Like leggings, athletic compression tights can also be worn as stand-alone garments, under tennis shorts, or under a tennis skirt.
Female tennis players are not limited to skirts and dresses when competing on the court, even at the professional level. For as long as I can remember, the WTA has allowed players to wear shorts. Even the controversial catsuit worn by Serena Williams at the French Open was legal under the vaguely written WTA apparel rules.
However, following the Serena Williams incident and the criticism levied at both the French Open and the WTA for not supporting the player who had not broken any rules, the WTA recently modernized the dress code to specifically allow leggings and compression tights.
The amended WTA dress code rules now state that players are permitted to wear leggings and mid-thigh length compression shorts without a skirt or dress during matches. The rule does not compel players to forego a skirt or dress when wearing leggings or compression tights, it merely states more clearly that players have the option to do so.
Even after the clarification was made to the dress code rules, most players who do wear leggings and compression tights choose to do so with a skirt or dress during matches. It is only on the practice courts where it is more common to see players wearing their leggings without a skirt or dress.
At a recreational level, there are generally no clothing restrictions as to what can be worn on a court. Some tennis clubs will have a dress code for players – but none of them will prohibit a player from wearing leggings or compression tights under a tennis skirt especially now that these garments are part of the WTA-permitted dress code for tournament competition.
Therefore it is advisable to wear either full-length or three-quarter-length gym-style leggings under your skirt or shorts to keep your legs warm when training or competing so that your legs are not exposed to cold temperatures.
This advice is not limited to female players. Male players can also benefit from wearing athletic tights under their tennis shorts to keep their legs warm in chilly temperatures so as to reduce the chances of muscle-strain injuries that can happen when the muscles cool down.
Initially many people, including tournament organizers and some umpires, believed that wearing leggings without a skirt was prohibited. This was not the case. The rules did not specifically state that leggings without a skirt were permitted or prohibited, just that leggings could be worn. However, because the dress code rules were so vaguely written, they were open to being interpreted as prohibiting leggings without a skirt.
The Serena Williams incident at the French Open brought the vagueness of the rule to the attention of the world’s media. This prompted the WTA to add clarity to their existing dress code rule which was interpreted in the media as the introduction of a new regulation that allowed players to wear leggings during games.
As I mentioned, the dress code rule already permitted leggings, the 2019 amendment to the rule added the clarification that leggings and mid-thigh compression shorts could be worn without a skirt or dress, removing the possibility of misinterpretation.
Now that the WTA has clarified the dress code rule that allows players to wear leggings and mid-thigh compression shorts without a dress or skirt, all tournament and recreational players can feel confident that leggings are okay for tennis.
Leggings offer comfort, compression, sun protection, and warmth when it is cold. The most popular use of leggings at tennis tournaments is when matches are played in cold temperatures. Cold weather means cold muscles and an increased risk of muscle pulls and strains. Leggings keep your legs warm and the compression helps prevent muscle pulls too.
Leggings in a light, reflective color can act as a physical barrier to protect you from sunburn. Even though dark colors will also protect you from sunburn, dark colors absorb more heat and increase the risk of heat exhaustion out on the court.
The choice of underwear worn by tennis players is a purely personal choice. Modern tennis skirts have spandex undershorts sewn into them so that the players’ underwear does not get exposed while out on the court.
When it comes to wearing leggings or thigh-length compression shorts, players still have free choice when it comes to the style of underwear that they wish to wear. However, the color options for their underwear are more limited.
According to compression sportswear manufacturer Knix, many recreational tennis players make the error of choosing a color of underwear that can be clearly visible through their leggings. Matching the underwear color to the color of the leggings does not work when there is a sharp color contrast to their skin tone. According to Knix, the best option is to choose underwear that closely matches the player’s natural skin tone in whatever style they choose to wear.
Female players have not been obliged to wear tennis skirts at the US Open for decades. Female players don’t have to wear dresses or skirts. There is nothing in the Grand Slam rule book that imposes these dress code regulations on Female players.
As early as the 1940s, female players were already wearing shorts to play tennis. For instance, Pauline Betz often wore high-waisted shorts to go with her short-sleeved tennis blouse.
During the 1960s tennis outfits reflected the “mod fashion” theme of the time and graphic print tennis shorts became popular.
The Serena Williams catsuit was banned by the French Open in 2018 because the French Open deemed it to be disrespecting the sport. The reason why the organizers decided to use the “disrespecting the sport” clause to ban the outfit, was because Serena did not break any of the dress code rules that were in place at the time.
The actions of the French Open organizers angered many Serena Williams fans as the player had chosen an outfit that was specially designed to prevent blood clots. Serena Williams developed a blood clot after giving birth to her daughter and the compression suit was part of preventing the clot from returning.
What’s more, Williams was not the first player to compete in a catsuit at the Grand Slam level. Anne White did so at the 1985 US Open.
Leggings are designed to fit snugly, especially those that have compression elements. Loose-fitting leggings offer no compression benefit and can even hamper your freedom of movement.
If you can feel the fabric on your legs but have no feeling of snugness then the leggings are likely too big and you should size down. Similarly, if you feel the fabric of the leggings moving on your skin while walking or running, your leggings are too big. Leggings moving around while you are running on a tennis court can be quite distracting and can hamper your performance.
When shopping for leggings, don’t just hold the leggings up against your body to estimate whether they will fit as you will likely not be able to visualize the degree of stretch in the fabric. That was the mistake that I made when buying my first pair of compression tights and ended up with a pair that were two sizes too big for me and offered no compression benefit.
There is no rule in the tennis dress code that states that female players are compelled to wear dresses and skirts. Female players have been permitted to wear shorts during competitive tournament matches since the 1940s.
However, most of the professionals on the WTA circuit still choose to wear skirts and dresses. On the one hand, it could be argued that it is an indication of how strong the tradition of the sport is. However, if modern tennis dresses and skirts hampered the players’ freedom of movement in any way, players would have chosen different clothing options if it created a performance advantage.