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June 10, 2011 10:05 pm

A vision in tennis whites

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There is something very rites of passage-ish about the first purchase of a tennis outfit

In the sportswear department, quite a lot of the mothers are moved to tears. Little girls are parading in brief white skirts with kick pleats, running on the spot or pivoting hurriedly and swiping at phantom tennis balls, forehand and back, to test flexibility and fit. All the skirts have built-in shorts for modesty and a pocket to hold a tennis ball in case of a faulty first serve. There are matching polo shirts and vest tops, some as slinky as dance wear, others with more of a familiar old-school Aertex flair.

“I don’t need the matching top,” one little girl says. “I already have lots of T-shirts that I can wear with this skirt.”

“Oh, do try the shirt,” the mother urges, “it will look so lovely ... ”

“It’s fine, I really don’t need one, I have loads of ... ”

“Try the shirt,” the mother commands.

En masse, in their whites, these girls remind me of a dignified procession I saw in Camden Town recently, only the Camden girls were in ballerina-length white satin dresses and lacy tights with a kind of flower trellis pattern woven into the threads, and veils covering their faces. Some were clutching draw-string bags as they made their way solemnly past the market and the bingo hall on their way to their First Communions. Serious-faced relatives followed them at a remove led by a tall young priest with acne scars.

There is something very rites of passage-ish about the first purchase of tennis whites. There is an atmosphere of hope and freshness and potential and, well, money. I am not just spectating like a woman I know who hangs about Marylebone Town Hall on Saturdays to watch the weddings going in and out, counting the fluttery hats and the plastic champagne flutes. I have a daughter going through this sporty ritual. I have a tear in my eye myself.

I allow myself a little moment. Where’s the harm? Years earlier I am standing on the black and white tiles at school on the way to a tennis match. I am wearing a baggy turquoise polo shirt that feels like the wrongest possible garment and a white skirt with an unmistakeably yellowish tinge. It’s on the small side. I don’t feel too good about things. Next to me, my best friend and doubles partner is a vision, wearing a lilac and white fitted cotton piqué T-shirt, a lilac and white half-pleated tennis kilt-skirt, white socks with lilac bobbles and lilac and white Nike tennis shoes. We are both 11. These things go deep.

My daughter emerges, perfect in her tennis outfit, looking shy. I have a great many embarrassing and unoriginal feelings about parents and children. Being able to provide this perfect suit makes me feel proud and a little bit special. She will never suffer sartorial sport shame as I did, I tell myself. Her life will never be touched by a yellowish tinge. Blah blah blah.

. . .

It’s not that I wanted to see myself as a heroine from a Betjeman poem exactly, as a child. OK, maybe I did. I stop these thoughts that, even in my head, aren’t good conversation. “I would have been ecstatic when I was a child to have such a suit,” I do not say to my daughter. (I am bigger than that.) But I do tell the woman behind the counter: “I really wanted a perfect tennis outfit as a child, so so much, but it was an impossible dream. We weren’t ... I wasn’t. Silly, really, I know.”

“Not silly at all,” the shop assistant comforts me. She leans forward and lowers her voice for intimacy. “A lot of women tell me that,” she says.

“They do?” I am a little piqued.

She nods. “But let me tell you something. When we first got this shop I chose a powder blue Lacoste tennis skirt for myself, so perfect, and the matching blue and white shirt, and the shoes with the blue trim and a little tennis racket holder with a pale blue stripe. I felt like an angel.”

“Oh, how beautiful.”

“I know. So I arrived for my lesson, so proud and excited, feeling like a princess and guess what?”

“What?”

“Because I was so well-dressed, everyone thought I was a very experienced player. They put me in the advanced group but it was my first time on court. I could barely hit a ball. I was so humiliated. Felt such a fool. Everyone was laughing at me.”

“Oh no!”

“So you know,” she says vaguely, the words, the wounds, hovering in the air between us like a huge warning of I’m not quite sure what.

“I see what you mean,” I say solemnly.

“It is literally a minefield, no?” she murmurs as she rings up my purchases on the till.

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

Read ‘New ballgowns please’

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