Serena Williams’s first match at the 2021 Australian Open made a strong statement. Not only did she defeat Laura Siegemund 6-1/6-1 – she did so wearing a one-legged catsuit.
As the 39-year-old began her bid to win her 24th grand slam singles, she played in an asymmetric black, pink and red unitard – with one full-length and one bike-short length leg – from Nike, with which she has an ongoing partnership.
In her post-match interview Williams described her performance on court as “vintage Rena”. The catsuit is also a throwback, to one of Williams’s childhood heroes.
Williams explained the outfit was a tribute to the late Florence Griffith Joyner – known as Flo-Jo – a track legend who still holds the 100m and 200m world records she set in 1988.
Flo-Jo’s “one legger” track looks, alongside her fondness for bright colours, lightning bolt prints and long acrylic nails, quickly became the stuff of fashion legend.
“I was inspired by Flo-Jo, who was a wonderful track athlete, amazing athlete, when I was growing up,” Williams said.
“Watching her fashion, just always changing. Her outfits were always amazing.
Williams is not alone in her fondness for Flo-Jo. In 2018, Beyoncé dressed as the athlete for Halloween.
“This year we thought of what can we do to keep elevating the Serena Williams on the court. The Nike team actually thought of this design of inspiration from Flo-Jo. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is so brilliant,’” said Williams.
“That’s where we started. Obviously we made some changes and tweaks to it. It became this.”
Those changes include the addition of a second leg – albeit an abbreviated one. Flo-Jo’s classic look featured one full-length leg worn under a bikini bottom, which is perhaps still a cut too high for the sometimes conservative world of professional tennis.
The outfit has already garnered praise from the Australian Open’s Instagram account, which posted a picture captioned “Now this is an on-court ‘fit 🤩👑👏”.
The Women’s Tennis Association posted a photo on their Instagram captioned “New year, new fit 😍 #AO2021”.
The fashion world also took notice, with model Gigi Hadid posting a series of fire emojis when Williams shared images of the new look on Twitter.
Williams’s match took place at the same time as the Super Bowl, prompting social media users to joke that her catsuit overshadowed the blockbuster NFL final.
Williams’s fondness for catsuits has endured for almost two decades. In 2002, she wore an all-black catsuit at the US Open, designed by Puma.
Since giving birth to her daughter in September 2017, they’ve become more frequent elements of her on-court wardrobe.
In her first return to grand slam tennis since the birth, Williams wore a black catsuit for the 2018 French Open, only for it to be banned by the tournament.
The French Tennis Federation president, Bernard Giudicelli, said William’s outfit “will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place,” according to the Associated Press.
In a press conference at the 2018 French Open, Williams explained the controversial outfit served an important purpose. “I’ve had a lot of problems with my blood clots […] I have been wearing pants in general a lot when I play, so I can keep the blood circulation going.
“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,” Williams said.
But she also appreciates the catsuit’s aesthetic value, saying “I always wanted to be a superhero and it’s kind of my way of being a superhero.”
The Women’s Tennis Association stood by Williams following the French Open catsuit controversy, updating its dress codes to approve “mid-thigh-length compression shorts.”
Nike also showed its support at the time, tweeting “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.”
In 2019, Williams announced that her design team at Nike would be formed, in part, by emerging designers from New York, who would undertake a seven month apprenticeship with Nike in 2020 to design a capsule project for the tennis pro.
The catsuit is yet to materialise for sale on Nike’s website, although it has released a set of Williams-branded T-shirts to coincide with the Australian Open.
Nike could not be reached to confirm whether the catsuit is part of the Serena Williams Design Crew project.