How Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams Reignited Tennis Style

Off Brand is a column that delves into trends in fashion and beauty.

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 Nike . 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.

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