NEARLY ONE YEAR into a global shutdown with nary a live fashion show or red carpet, tennis champions Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka drew a record viewership for their distinctly stylish Feb. 17 semifinal match of the 2021 Australian Open. I stayed up late to watch the two stars play, along with over a million other fans around the world. Aside from the women’s athletic prowess, what struck me was their confident, individualistic outfits, both by
After our collective year of sagging sweatpants, Ms. Williams wore a one-legged, Florence Griffith-Joyner-inspired catsuit in hot pink and black, while Ms. Osaka, the match’s victor, sported a dark, camo-printed one-piece under a neon-orange skirt. Starched tennis whites these were not.
“It’s insane,” said Caitlin Thompson, publisher of the independent quarterly magazine Racquet, of the reinvigorated focus on the sport. “You turn on the TV and you see these amazing, young [people], particularly women, particularly people of color, and they’re the voices and the leadership—and the numbers don’t lie. The tickets are selling, the viewership is up. The Naomi/Serena match was by far the highest-rated tennis match that’s been on in the past year.” It drew the highest television audience for any Australian Open moment since Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s men’s final in 2017.
Neither of these star players is new to fashion, but during a period when we get so little aesthetic stimulation, their style has taken on special significance. The tennis court, a naturally socially distanced venue, is a new runway and Ms. Williams and Ms. Osaka are using it to make indelible statements. Their off-court looks skew even more fashion-forward. Ms. Williams, at 39 an elder statesman who has challenged tennis style codes since she first wore a black catsuit to play in 2002, appeared this month on Architectural Digest’s cover wearing a purple sequined Gucci gown and jewelry of her own design. Ms. Osaka, 23, released a sprightly ready-to-wear line with avant-garde Japanese-American designer Adeam last year. And she’s imbued masks with powerful meaning over the past year by using them to draw attention to social-justice issues. For seven events of the U.S. Open in September 2020 she wore seven masks highlighting names prominent in the Black Lives Matter movement, including Breonna Taylor’s.
How can that kind of audacity not trickle down? Two young tennis icons-in-the-making—Nick Kyrgios and Coco Gauff—respectively known for full-sleeve tattoos and colorful crop-tops, are already telling stories through their appearances. And on local courts far from the green grass of Wimbledon, amateur players are no longer coming to the court dressed in country-club cosplay, but rather as themselves.
One of those players is Amari Guisinger, a 32-year-old marketing manager in Los Angeles. Ms. Guisinger adopted the sport during the pandemic when looking for an outdoor activity to pursue with her friends. They formed the Black Girl Tennis Club, which plays on the Inglewood public courts. “We are not just white at a country club,” she said. “We bring our own personal style out [on the court]. We’ve got girls that love really bright colors, and because we haven’t been able to find the things that we’re looking for, we use what we own already, and so I think you get a lot of personality in our style. It’s really, truly a reflection of our community.” That might mean a Black Lives Matter hoodie, a bright-green sports bra over leggings, or a colorful head wrap.
As newbies who care about fashion, Ms. Guisinger and her friends have avidly tracked Ms. Williams’s and Ms. Osaka’s style, but have struggled to find the kind of cool independent brands they seek to outfit themselves. Both stars are associated with Nike apparel lines, but those collections don’t include the full range of colors and styles the champs wear on the court. Besides, Ms. Guisinger and her friends want to wear more idiosyncratic pieces, not just replicate celebrity style. That’s why they’re thinking of starting their own label.
I pointed her to Paterson League, which I’d discovered thanks to Ms. Thompson of Racquet. Led by creative director German Nieves, the New Jersey-based label sporadically releases “drops” of hoodies, T-shirts and shorts that integrate the graphic codes of streetwear and skateboarding style. “I just think there’s not enough personality behind that white uniform. It seems very bland,” said Mr. Nieves of the sport’s traditional dress code. During the pandemic, he’s been playing with friends at New York City courts like one near a Brooklyn public housing complex, the Marcy Houses, that makes do with a fence as a net.
Mr. Nieves, who cites Mr. Kyrgios and Ms. Osaka as influences, sees that blandness evolving. He teaches tennis to what he calls “really swaggy kids” at the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning in the Bronx. “You just see some of their fashion and you’re like, this is some shit you see from their neighborhood but it looks kind of cool…They understand, this is how you should look playing tennis.” He observes the young players wearing brightly colored gear like hoodies and windbreakers, and sneakers including Nike Zoom Vapor Cage 4s and Asics Gel-Resolutions.
When she plays on public courts on New York’s Lower East Side, Ms. Thompson spots similarly unorthodox gear on recreational players like musician Dev Hynes of Blood Orange. She said, “You see all these cool style folks wearing streetwear or wearing tennis-inspired clothing, especially from the ’90s, those crinkly warm-up suits.” She continued, “It means the sport is reaching the kind of people who are fashionable.”
Ms. Thompson considers this shift not merely superficial, but reflective of an evolution in the game itself. “This younger generation plays in a way that’s very much individualized, it doesn’t feel cookie-cutter.” Because the players are not all trained in the same country-club methods, their strokes and shots are their own. They’re influenced by an older guard of tennis legends that espouse self-expression above all else. Kesha McLeod, a stylist who has worked with Serena Williams for 10 years, said of her star client: “I always say that to know her style is to know her.”
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