Serena Williams is know as the Greatest Of All Time for a reason. Not only has she won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, she paved the way for Black tennis players to make a name for themselves in a traditionally white, country club sport.
At 40-years-old, Williams announced her retirement from tennis in an essay published in the September 2022 issue of Vogue. She shared that she will be prioritizing her venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, as well as her growing fashion empire. “I'm ready for what's next,” she wrote. “This is it, the end of a story that started in Compton, California, with a little Black girl who just wanted to play tennis.”
It’s impossible to talk about her legacy without mentioning her influence on fashion. Five years into her professional tennis career, Williams attended the Art Institute Of Fort Lauderdale to study fashion design from 2000-2003. Years later, she launched her own brand, S by Serena, and started the Serena Williams Design Crew, a design apprenticeship program for designers of color.
On the court, she always made a fashion statement, and pushed the envelope when it came to traditional views on women’s tennis wear. Here are just six of the ways in which Serena Williams changed tennis style forever.
She Brought Black Beauty to the Tennis Court
In 1999, Serena Williams stepped on the court with what would become one of her most iconic looks—beaded braids. At 17, she won her first Grand Slam title while wearing the hairstyle. She and her sister Venus wore beaded braids several times throughout the 1990s and 2000s, bringing Black beauty into the spotlight, and giving Black women and girls much needed representation in the sport and pop culture.
The hairstyle was so meaningful that it was included in King Richard, the 2021 film depicting the Williams’ sisters childhood. “You don't see the beaded looks until the end of the movie,” Carla Farmer, the lead hair stylist on set, told Allure. “[Director] Reinaldo Marcus Green wanted to have that moment at the end because it is at a crucial time. It was a rite of passage. The beads were part of the journey, it was very symbolic.” She added, “to be able to portray the Williams sisters, who are such an inspiration for African-American girls and women meant everything.”
She Brought Fashion Trends to the World of Tennis
Serena Williams always made sure to bring her love of fashion to the tennis court. In 2004, she channeled trendy Y2K fashion by competing in a denim mini skirt with a studded Nike tank top. In 2000, she adopted the boho trend of the time by wearing a pink and black tie-dye Puma dress. From early on in her career, she mixed both activewear and street wear and served memorable looks. “I always try to bring in what’s popular and what is in style, what’s so in”, she told The Herald Sun in 2016.
She Had a Hands-On Approach when Designing her Outfits
Serena Williams took her on-court looks seriously. For her final U.S. Open appearance, she got involved in the design of her figure skating-inspired dress. Her skirt included six layers as a reference to her six prior US Open titles, while her shoes spelled out “Mama” and “Queen.”
At the 2016 Australian Open, Williams sketched her bright yellow crop top and pleated tennis skirt herself. “It was definitely my design, something I actually sketched, you know. So I just wanted to think outside of the box,” she told The Herald Sun. She decided to wear a crop top, as it's a staple style in her everyday life. “I’m often never seen without one. So I thought, it would be really fun to play in one,” she added.
She Showed Women Can Be Both Strong and Beautiful
Through fashion, the tennis champion wanted to show that being strong and beautiful aren’t mutually exclusive, which is what led her to wear a neon yellow backless dress at the 2015 Australian Open. “This year we really wanted to bring out a powerful woman and a strong woman,” she told The Washington Post. “You can be beautiful and powerful at the same time. So what we at Nike wanted to do was to focus on a beautiful back.”
“A lot of my outfits this year are really based on the beauty of and the shape of the back, which a lot of people don’t think about,” she added. “It’s so beautiful and powerful on ladies, so we just wanted to focus on that.”
Her 2018 Catsuit Was a Celebration of Black Motherhood
In 2018, Serena Williams made her return to tennis nine months after giving birth to her daughter. She wore a full-body black catsuit—sparking controversy in the world of tennis. Bernard Giudicelli, the president of the French Tennis Federation, banned the outfit and told France's Tennis magazine that “you have to respect the game and the place.” His statement was criticized by fans for unfairly scrutinizing Williams as a Black woman.
Williams shared that the catsuit was designed to prevent blood clots as she faced complications during her pregnancy due to a pulmonary embolism, and she almost died giving birth. The outfit also contained a message concerning the strength and resilience of women.
“It feels like this suit represents all the women that have been through a lot mentally, physically, with their body to come back and have confidence and to believe in themselves,” she told The Guardian. “I call it, like, my Wakanda-inspired catsuit,” she added. “I always wanted to be a superhero and it’s kind of my way of being a superhero.”
She Pushed the Boundaries of Traditional Tenniswear
After her catsuit was banned from the French Open, Serena Williams returned to the court with a custom-made Off-White tutu designed by Virgil Abloh in collaboration with Nike. At the time, wearing the traditionally feminine outfit was considered a response to the catsuit ban.
Women’s tennis-wear has traditionally been very gendered, with players wearing baby doll-like dresses on the court up until the late 20th century, and was often referred to as an extension of the country club. These traditions are why Wimbledon has a famously strict dress code. Tennis players are required to wear all-white outfits, from the shoes to the wristbands worn on the court. However, in 2010 and 2012, Williams pushed the envelope by wearing bright-colored undershorts while competing.