MELBOURNE, Australia — First, a confession: I still wear my cap backward when I play tennis, even at a certain age.
So I come subjectively to this subject as I note that many years after the Swedish pro Mikael Pernfors inspired some of my generation of hackers to reverse our caps, and years after Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt made it definitively a thing in tennis, members of the new wave have acquired the taste, too.
They include the American Jack Sock, Lucas Pouille of France, Karen Khachanov of Russia and the flashy Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov.
It has never been an entirely logical choice.
The point of a hat in tennis is, first and foremost, to keep the sun out of your eyes — the sort of sun that has been beating down on the players all week at this torrid Australian Open.
But the only way to keep the sun off your face is if the bill of the hat is facing the traditional direction.
“Backwards makes absolutely zero sense,” said Brad Gilbert, an ESPN analyst and a longtime coach.
And yet Hewitt’s sartorial legacy seems safe and sound, even if it once appeared that the backward cap might go the way of the wooden racket in tennis when he finally faded from the scene.
Hewitt, 36, is not gone quite yet. After retiring at the Australian Open in 2016, he keeps coming back for cameos and is playing doubles here with his good friend Sam Groth for Groth’s farewell tournament.
Guess which direction their caps were pointing when they won their first-round match on Thursday?
Hewitt has been wearing his that way since the beginning. Darren Cahill, who is also from Adelaide, Australia, remembers getting a call from Hewitt’s parents about the possibility of coaching him and then getting a knock on his door.
It was Hewitt, age 12, with his hat on backward.
“The first conversation with him, I asked, ‘Why?’” Cahill said. “And he said, ‘I just like it backwards.’ And I said, ‘Aren’t you supposed to wear the peak of the hat to protect your nose and eyes and keep your eyes out of the sun?,’ and he said, ‘No, I just like it backwards.’
“And so I said, ‘All right.’ That was honestly the first time I’d ever seen it, and I think it was like a 10-second conversation, and I never asked him again. I think he wore that same hat for about three years straight.”
Hewitt went on to beat Sampras in a backward cap to win his first major title at the 2001 United States Open, and though there were some notable bareheaded moments, including the Wimbledon final he won in 2002, the look was and remains his signature.
The younger set noticed.
“I started wearing a hat backwards just because I thought it was cool, to be honest,” said Nick Kyrgios, the new and more unpredictable Australian No. 1. “Just wearing that hat backwards meant that sort of grinding mentality. Lleyton sort of made that his own sort of thing.”
Beyond tennis, the backward cap has a long history. See hip-hop and baseball catchers and rally caps and Ken Griffey Jr. See Oscar Madison, “The Odd Couple” character played first by Walter Matthau on Broadway and then by Jack Klugman on television. Madison was a slovenly sportswriter (they may have been on to something).
The look is now ubiquitous: Barack Obama wears his cap backward on vacation, Paul Ryan in the weight room.
“He looks like the 30-year-old actor pretending to be a teenager in your ninth-grade health class video about Making Better Choices,” Alexandra Petri wrote of Ryan in The Washington Post.
But in tennis at least, the time for resistance has seemingly passed.
On court, the backward cap is indeed a grinder thing, a dig-in-and-do-whatever-it-takes-to-win the-marathon-point thing.
It might not keep the sun out of our eyes, but it can still keep some of the sweat out of our eyes. And once you get used to wearing one, it is also a security blanket in a sport where habits — good, bad or otherwise — can be hard to break.
“I’ve been wearing my hat backwards for about five or six years now,” said Maximilian Marterer, a 22-year-old German who qualified for the Australian Open. “I did it at first because I had long hair, and I wanted to keep it in place. But I cut it, and I don’t really need it anymore. It’s confidence, so I’m keeping it.”
Rafael Nadal, arranger of beverage bottles and adjuster of shorts, knows this all too well.
It is working so far for Marterer in Melbourne. He was 0-14 in tour-level matches upon arrival, but has advanced to the third round.
The French veterans Adrian Mannarino and Richard Gasquet also made it that far wearing their caps backward — a now-unusual move for Gasquet, who was once urged to ditch the style by a leading French tennis writer who saw it as a sign of his inability to grow up (or intimidate his opponents).
“Who is afraid of a backwards cap and the childlike silhouette it creates?” Philippe Bouin wrote in L’Equipe 2007.
“Come on!” Hewitt might have barked in response.
Some have definitively moved on, though.
It is largely forgotten that Federer, the balletic antithesis of the grinder, wore his hat backward for much of the match when he made his Grand Slam debut at the French Open in 1999 at age 17, losing in the first round to the Australian star Patrick Rafter.
He soon switched to bandannas and started reserving the reversed cap for practice sessions, just like his longtime rival Rafael Nadal, even if Nadal seems much more of a natural for the get-down-to-business look.
Kyrgios, despite his past and present admiration for Hewitt, has now mostly abandoned hats, and one of the last times he played with one backward, he did not do much grinding. Instead, he got fined and suspended for lack of effort after tanking a second-round match in Shanghai against Mischa Zverev in October 2016.
Andy Murray tried backward caps in his junior days but ultimately did not see the point. The well-coiffed Milos Raonic, whose hair now has several Twitter accounts of its own, gave it a try, too.
“I never really won with that look,” Raonic once explained.
Others certainly have. In 1989, Ivan Lendl and Miloslav Mecir played the Australian Open final wearing backward caps, although Lendl switched in later years to the forward-facing legionnaire hat.
Pernfors, a former University of Georgia star from Sweden, played with a crewcut and no hat when he reached the French Open final in 1986. But by 1990, when he reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, he was sporting a neon yellow cap backward with the brim turned up so it would not restrict him as he leaned back to hit a serve.
“I wore it backwards when I was a kid when I actually had hair on my head,” said Paul Annacone, who played in Pernfors’s era. “It wasn’t like I thought, ‘This is cool.’ It was that I didn’t like headbands and didn’t want the bill in front unless the sun was in my eyes. But Pernfors did it on tour.”
Others would follow his lead: Marc-Kevin Goellner and Tommy Haas of Germany; Fernando Meligeni of Brazil; Marcelo Rios of Chile in his early years; Guillermo Coria of Argentina; Sebastien Grosjean and Paul-Henri Mathieu of France.
Very few women have joined in: Eleni Daniilidou of Greece and Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan on occasion; Martina Navratilova in the very late phases of her long career. But then few women wear hats at all on court. Even in the Australian heat, most opted for visors this week.
Daria Kasatkina, the rising Russian, says it is a ponytail problem: Put the hat backward and the ponytail rides too low.
Lucie Safarova, the Czech tennis star, thinks “women probably want to look more feminine with the visor, and the backwards look is more masculine.”
Tastes and perceptions change, however, and as Hewitt exits and the Socks and Shapovalovs and the rest of us carry on backward, who knows who will be inspired next?
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