THREE YEARS AFTER Serena Williams walked onto the court at Philippe-Chatrier for the 2018 French Open wearing a metallic black catsuit with a bright red horizontal stripe in the middle, her outfit is still still widely discussed among tennis fans.
Williams said it made her feel like a “warrior,” and it was equally as functional as it was fashionable — the tight compression in the legs helped her combat blood clots, which have long been an issue.
While many social media users remarked the 23-time major champion looked like a superhero, Bernard Giudicelli, the then-French Tennis Federation president, had a different take. He later attempted to ban the look. “It will no longer be accepted,” he said to France’s Tennis Magazine. “One must respect the game and the place.”
But his remarks only made the outfit more famous — and Williams has since worn a one-legged catsuit to the US Open and even a romper-inspired version at the Australian Open.
Discussing on-court fashion has long been a tennis pastime. Suzanne Lenglen, whom the court at Roland Garros is named after, wore a then-unimaginable calf-length skirt and short sleeves during her title-winning run at Wimbledon in 1919 and caused an international frenzy.
Over the past century, fashion-forward ensembles have grown even more integral to tennis. And crafting these outfits has become a big part of the sport, as well.
Every look at a major — whether it’s one of Williams’ many custom creations on center court or that of a relatively unknown player wearing part of a brand’s general collection compete on an outer court — is the result of months of hard work and painstaking attention to details from designers and conversations with the players themselves.
ESPN spoke to seven representatives from four brands to find out how these looks come together.
MOST PLAYERS ARE not as fortunate as Williams and don’t have a team of designers fulfilling their outfit wants and needs ahead of every Slam. But there are a few others who get the custom treatment, such as 17-year-old Coco Gauff.
Gauff, who signed with New Balance at 14, became a household name after her star turn at Wimbledon in 2019 when she made it to the Round of 16. By the US Open, just a couple months later, a marketing manager for the company said it believed she could be “the face of our brand.” She debuted a “Call Me Coco” line during the tournament and was eager to be involved with the design process from the start.
The brand, enthusiastic to gain the insight of an influential teenager, held a creative session with Gauff and its design team. Gauff tore out pictures from magazines of things she liked and the team provided her with a variety of fabric samples — all to determine exactly what would best suit her on the court.
“When something is custom, we want the athlete’s personality to shine through that product,” said Paulina Kelly, New Balance’s general manager of training and field of play apparel. “She’s so young and she is still really learning what she likes and what she doesn’t like and finding her voice. It’s really been exciting to get to work with her throughout the process.”
The design team has since used that meeting as inspiration and is in constant communication with Gauff about what’s working — and what isn’t — as well as her changing needs.
Even for those who don’t get to perfectly customize their look, there are still decisions to be made to ensure their preferences and priorities are met on court. That process starts with which brand to sign with, and there are more choices than ever before. The current top 50 players are signed with 13 different apparel companies — each chosen with various preferences and priorities in mind.
Like, for example, women having the option to wear shorts.
There is no rule disallowing shorts by the WTA or any of the Grand Slams, and most players wear them under dresses or skirts. But in a sport that is committed to tradition, shorts have yet to become mainstream for women.
While all brands provide their athletes shorts for practice, dresses and skirts remain the norm for matches and shorts are not always included. Rising 20-year-old American Ann Li, currently ranked No. 75 in the world, wore mostly shorts during her junior days. She mentioned this during an initial meeting with FILA and, after she signed, the company made sure to add a shorts option to its match-wear collections.
“I just think shorts are more comfortable,” Li told ESPN before leaving for Paris. “So I just asked them if I could wear them [during matches] and now they’re going to start shipping them out [to players]. I hope I’m not the only one who wears them.”
Williams wore shorts at the 2002 US Open and Nike’s 2020 US Open collection offered several shorts options seen on players like Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens.
Maria Sharapova, the retired five-time Slam champion, wore a custom all-white, tuxedo-inspired shorts-and-top outfit with shorts during Wimbledon in 2008.
“I was very inspired by menswear this year and every time at Wimbledon I want to do something classy and elegant,” she said at the time. “This year I said, ‘Why don’t we do shorts?'”
The trend seems to be growing. Lacoste creative director Louise Trotter said her brand also added shorts to its women’s match collections after signing Fiona Ferro earlier this year. Ferro wore shorts for her two matches in Paris, while Li opted for a dress before being eliminated by No. 5 Elina Svitolina in the second round.
But she’s grateful to have the option.
“Certain moments,” Li said, “you just want to wear shorts.”
BEFORE EACH SLAM, players from most of the major brands receive a large shipment that contains sneakers, socks, match outfits and related colder-weather items they can pair if needed, plus practice gear and off-the-court street wear.
“Every time it comes, I say, ‘Merry Christmas to me,'” Li said. “It’s a very nice perk.”
Players are quick to document their new collections. During the leadup to the Australian Open, stuck in their hotel rooms for varying degrees of quarantine, dozens of athletes showed off their new looks on Instagram. Belinda Bencic even had fans vote on which outfit she should wear in her opening-round match.
Masaya Tsuchino, the lead designer of ASICS’ tennis team, said he doesn’t design with specific players in mind, but knows which players will like certain pieces before the outfits are shipped based on their previous preferences and feedback they’ve provided on past looks.
“At the end of the creative process or when we get samples made, I sometimes think, ‘Oh, this is going to look so good on her’ or ‘He is going to love this,'” Tsuchino said.
Each brand sends the new collection a few weeks before players first wear them on court to ensure they have time to try everything on and that it fits properly. While some brands focus on one signature look for an event, others offer a variety of related looks — dresses or shirts and tanks with skirts, skorts and, yes, now shorts — that players can mix and match, frequently in a variety of colors.
“We offer enough opportunity in the looks, in the pieces, so that the athletes have somewhat of their own personality come through and they can cultivate their own look,” said FILA’s design director Ro Gilbert, who always makes sure Sofia Kenin has her preferred 12-inch skirt, shorter than the manufactured length. “We want to make sure that there’s enough there that will create some diversity on the court and in what the players are wearing. It’s more interesting to see those subtle details in a sort of sea of sameness where everyone’s wearing the same thing.”
FILA offers three separate match collections for every major, but there are times when opposing players from the same brand appear dressed identically. While there were differences in the details, like the skirt length and cut of the shirt, Kenin and Ashleigh Barty wore similar looks during their 2020 Australian Open clash. More recently, Victoria Azarenka and Madison Keys did the same at Friday’s third-round French Open match. Nike athletes Simona Halep and Amanda Anisimova were twinning during the 2019 French Open quarterfinal and there have even been doubles matches where all four on court have worn the same thing, including a 2016 US Open match featuring Nick Kyrgios, Daniel Evans, Taylor Fritz and Tommy Paul, all of whom were Nike athletes at the time.
And if one wonders how this could happen, with so many options and knowing what others have been wearing once the tournament is underway, it’s part comfort and part whatever works.
“I’m a little bit superstitious, so if things are going well in the tournament, I’ll stick with it,” Li said.
One thing players don’t have to worry about, though, is having enough clean clothes. Each brand sends a large number of products to its athletes, depending on individual needs, as well as the variety in the collection. Kelly estimated New Balance sends its players between 12 and 15 sets of the on-court looks to ensure they have enough to play through the final — in singles and doubles — without having to wear the same outfit twice.
“We’ll look at each athlete and anticipate what they might be playing [singles, doubles, mixed doubles] and determine what we’ll send them,” Kelly said. “Someone playing singles and doubles might get two different kits, and 12 sets of each kit. It’s not so prescriptive that we say, ‘You have to wear this to this match and you have to wear this to this match’ — it’s absolutely what they’re comfortable in — but we want to be them to have zero distractions and feel prepared that they have what they need for anything that could come.”
While not having to recycle an outfit is mostly for player convenience, it’s also to guarantee none of the garments get misshaped or lose the vibrancy in an industrial washing machine or dryer. The brands are well aware of how many eyes are watching Slams, particularly deep into the second week, and most launch their latest collections ahead of the four majors.
EACH LINE REFLECTS the distinct vibe and personality of that respective tournament and season. With their summer dates and lively crowds, the Australian Open and US Open have a vibrant, almost party-like atmosphere suitable for bold colors and prints. And if Wimbledon is the epitome of tradition with its strict all-white dress code, Roland Garros — with its Parisian setting and red clay backdrop — is its sophisticated, trendier sister.
“Each Slam really does have a different look and feel,” said Trotter, creative director at Lacoste. “Wimbledon has very specific design codes [because of the all-white color requirement] and we think more of the heritage of the brand and are quite iconic in our approach [there]. For the others, we can be more playful.
“Within the collection for Roland Garros, we are very specific to their core colors, which goes back to the clay. Certain players, for example Novak [Djokovic], love to be in harmony with the court. He really likes to reflect the colors of the court in his colors because that gives him a level of harmony and balance that impacts the way he plays.”
The process for each new collection starts around 18 months before its launch. For designers, that requires a keen sense for what is currently trending and what will be soon enough. Designers talk to players and use their feedback to make improvements. When some of New Balance’s men’s players mentioned struggling to keep the tennis ball in their shorts’ pocket a few years ago, the company’s designers went back to the drawing board.
“That led us to really look at how we approached pocket construction on our men’s tennis shorts and what kind of innovation we could uncover there,” Kelly said. “The athlete insights, in addition to driving sort of the style and the look and feel, also really drive a lot of the functionality and improvements that we’re able to put into the garments.
“And if it’s good enough for a player at a Grand Slam, we know it will work for a high school or recreational player.”
All of the brand representatives ESPN spoke to said they have regular meetings with their athletes, and some said they even have frequent measuring sessions to ensure the fit is just right. ASICS uses a 3D body-scanning machine to ensure pinpoint accuracy. Lacoste tailors specifically to individual athletes, while others only do so if an athlete isn’t a standard size. Lauren Mallon, a marketing director for FILA, said Kiki Bertens, who stands at 6-feet, requires custom fits to ensure a suitable skirt or dress length.
The companies send new pieces immediately if something doesn’t quite fit the way the athlete would like — and in certain cases, measurement specialists can be deployed anywhere in the world if necessary.
So while looking fashionable is a benefit of the job, functionality is key for players.
“You can look as cute as possible, but if you don’t feel comfortable or confident in it, you’re not going to play very well,” Li said. “I feel like [designers] just want to know what you’re most comfortable in so then you play better and they’ll try and accommodate with whatever you need. That’s really what’s most important at the end of the day.”
After dedicating so much time to ensure a look is just right , it’s an exciting moment for the designers to see how the players look and which pieces they’ve chosen when they take the court for the first time. When Jennifer Brady played in the Australian Open final earlier this year, Tsuchino said it was a career highlight.
“It honestly made me cry because I never thought my design would be in a final of a Grand Slam,” he said. “I still don’t even believe it now.”
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