All eyes are on Serena Williams as she competes in the 2022 U.S. Open. The tennis champion—winner of a whopping 23 Grand Slams—is largely considered to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, athletes of all time. With the announcement of her decision to step back from tennis hanging in the air, the crowds in Arthur Ashe Stadium have been rapt. And her striking outfit—a black tennis dress embellished with a galaxy of crystals and laden with symbolism—has only added to the drama of her final tournament.
Sparkling from her head to her toes, Williams’ ensemble is not just a fashion statement, but also a declaration of her legacy as a tennis great; her jeweled hairstyle is a nod to her first Grand Slam win at the age of 17 at the 1999 U.S. Open, while her swirling skirt references the six wins she’s taken home at the New York City tournament. Williams’ choice to use fashion as a medium to tell her story should come as no surprise; this is, after all, a superstar athlete who announced her intention to evolve away from tennis on the cover of Vogue’s September issue.
Williams, who has an eponymous clothing line and jewelry collection, has long been a fashion enthusiast. When she dresses for competition, it’s not just for function, but also to declare her indomitable presence; in an interview with the New York Times, Tania Flynn, the vice president for women’s apparel design at Nike, said that Williams’ on-court fashion has always been intentional, making the point “that women deserve to be seen.”
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The strongest example of this may be her decision to wear a striking black catsuit at the 2018 French Open. The piece made international headlines after officials criticized the style, deeming it inappropriate and later banning it from the competition for that reason; the tight design was specifically chosen by Williams to prevent blood clots she’d been experiencing following the birth of her daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian the year earlier, sparking a larger conversation about race, the policing of women’s bodies, and Black maternal health. Days later, at the same tournament, Williams donned an impressive athletic dress with a ballerina-esque tutu skirt created by designer Virgil Abloh for collaboration between his label Off-White and Nike. It was a fashion moment—an overtly feminine, untraditional take on a tennis uniform—and it seemed to communicate a statement from Williams that she could dominate in any outfit.
Which is why, as Williams prepares to say goodbye to the sport that she has forever changed, unpacking the messages hidden in her clothing can help us understand how she’s defining her own legacy. Williams is well aware of the impact that she’s had, not only on her sport, but also in the way that young women, especially Black girls and other girls of color, see themselves. “Giving them that confidence, that motivation, is something that has literally never been done,” Williams told TIME in a cover story about her decision to step back. “You don’t let the world decide beauty.”
Her tennis dress references her legacy at the U.S. Open
According to a press release from Nike, Williams took a “hands-on approach” to designing her look for the 2022 U.S. Open, a black tennis dress with sheer long sleeves, a crystal-embellished bodice, and a swirling six-layer skirt. The overall look was inspired by the costumes worn by competitive figure skaters, while the intricate crystal design on the black fabric of the dress alludes to the night sky above Arthur Ashe Stadium. The skirt, which features six layers of sheer material, is a reference to her six previous Grand Slam wins at the U.S. Open. For her first, second, and third round matches, she paired the tennis dress with a matching jacket and tote bag.
Her custom sneakers feature 400 diamonds and solid gold deubrés
For her U.S. Open footwear, Williams designed a custom pair of Nike’s PE NikeCourt Flare 2 style sneakers that boast some serious bling. Details of the shoes include diamond encrusted swooshes, Williams’ initials on the inner sides, and solid gold deubrés on the laces. The gold deubrés, which were made in collaboration with Williams’ jewelry line, feature 400 hand-set diamonds in black ceramic, with the jewels spelling out the words “queen” and “mama” on each shoe.
Her hair jewels pay homage to her first Grand Slam win
Williams’ hair has been styled in a ponytail with a headband encrusted with crystals to match her sparkling tennis dress. In her ponytail, tiny jewels have been placed throughout her hair in a shiny, winking homage not only to her bedazzled outfit, but also to the white beads she wore on her braids when she won her first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open in 1999. On Instagram, her hairstylist Nikki Nelms posted a photo of Williams’ ponytail with the caption: “Forever shining.” For her doubles match with her sister Venus Williams on Thursday night, she also sported jewels in her ponytail.
Her earrings also had a special message
Williams has imbued every aspect of her look with meaning, down to the small details. The earrings she wore for her first, second, and third matches were from her eponymous jewelry collection and spelled out the word loved.
Even her daughter Olympia’s outfit held special significance
While the stands for Monday’s opening night match were filled with no shortage of high-profile spectators, who ranged from former President Bill Clinton and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour to fellow athletes Mike Tyson and Tiger Woods, the most precious member of the crowd may have been Williams’ 5-year-old daughter Olympia, who cheered on her mother in a bedazzled shirt that matched Williams’ sparkling dress. Armed with a disposable camera which she used to snap pictures of her mother’s victorious first match, Olympia also sported white beads in her braids in a nod to the hairstyle Williams wore in the 1999 U.S. Open Finals.
As Williams marches on at the U.S. Open, she’ll continue to tell her own story on the court—through her style as well as her play.
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Write to Cady Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org