It was the Monica’s dress of the tennis world. The skin-tight strips of blue Lycra that Ashley Harkleroad wore at the 2001 U.S. Open looked more suited to beach volleyball. Harkleroad, then 16, became the prime target of tongue-clucking sportswriters. Losing her opening-round match seemed to seal her fate as a tidy morality tale: That women’s tennis shouldn’t sell style over substance.
Many teens would have crumbled. Harkleroad persevered, traveling the grueling pro circuit with her father and her Bible. This spring, she advanced to the third round of the French Open and her world ranking soared to No. 39. “I didn’t play my best tennis in France,” she says, “but I fought very hard.” Now Harkleroad, who grew up in Flintstone, Georgia, is itching to play in New York, her “favorite place,” again. The tightest thing on her body at this year’s Open will be a bandage encasing her painful right elbow. The legendary Lycra? “I gave it to a younger player,” she says, laughing. “A 10-year-old.”