Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens bring classic tennis dressing to the US Open semifinals
It’s a new and stylish day for these tennis queens in Queens, New York
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. And if you are Serena Williams, your absence from Grand Slam tournaments this year has been a godsend to other female tennis players. Serena’s high-profile pregnancy and birth of her daughter (on Sept. 1) has left a gaping hole in the women’s singles circuit, and several excellent players have stepped into her fashionable breach.
Two Americans, Serena’s older sister Venus and Sloane Stephens, will meet on the hard court at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday. It’s the first time two African-American women who aren’t both named Williams will play each other in the Open semis. Another African-American player, Madison Keys, the 22-year-old No. 15 seed, will play CoCo Vandeweghe on Thursday.
The US Open semi matches give us a peek into the sporty style of three very different black female athletes, and Venus Williams, Stephens and Keys have stepped into the giant Serena vacuum, where their wholesome, classic tennis style will shine.
First, a bit about the legacy of the Williams sisters. Venus and Serena are important cultural icons who have inspired countless young girls to become hardcore athletes for more than 20 years. Serena, especially, is the winningest female tennis player of all time — and she has famously adopted a unique, take-no-prisoners approach to fashion and on-court athletic gear. Serena has never met a leatherette catsuit, gladiator-style tennis shoe or sequin-laden jumpsuit that she couldn’t or wouldn’t wear as she snatched a Grand Slam title from another player’s sweaty hands. Everything about the tennis legend has been analyzed, decoded, imitated and slut-shamed — yet Serena remains perhaps the most interesting athlete in the world.
Venus and Serena are famously fascinated by fashion, and each has launched successful clothing lines. But there is a distinct difference between the sisters. Where Serena can be flamboyant, Venus long ago adopted a more conservative style. If Serena is, was and always will be Compton, California (the Williams’ hometown), Venus is the country club pro in Wimbledon whites.
“People see Serena as being curiously provocative,” said celebrity stylist and former TV host Robert Verdi. “Everyone is fascinated by her body, the way she dresses, what’s going on in her personal life. She’s sexy and strong, and they see masculine notes in her muscular body. She’s just more. You don’t say that about Venus.”
Venus won this year’s US Open quarterfinals against Czech Petra Kvitová while wearing a short orange-and-gray tennis dress with a geographical print from the Epiphany collection of her tennis-friendly clothing line, EleVen by Venus Williams. Verdi noted that it was an unexpected intersection between fashion and sports.
“Venus dresses like any other player on the pro circuit,” he said. “Her little dresses are a part of the athleisure phenomenon. You could wear those little Venus dresses to pick up the kids from school, or wear one of those four-way stretch microfiber skirts to the office on a casual Friday. Women don’t dress like Serena for that.”
The unseeded Stephens, who advanced to the semis after beating 16th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova, is an Under Armour-sponsored athlete who favors stylish, low-key tennis dresses with fitted waists in pale colors. (Similarly, Keys favors Nike tennis gear in bright colors and pulls her hair back into a no-nonsense bun or ponytail.) Stephens “clearly pays attention to fashion,” Verdi said. “You can definitely see that she’s having a conversation behind the scenes about body-conscious clothes.”
Speaking of hair, Venus and Stephens have both turned the lily-white ponytail aesthetic on its country club head while at the US Open. Venus wore her natural hair in a high, 1950s-era bun tucked under a visor; the look was gilded with cat-eye makeup and big gold hoop earrings. Stephens’ fishtail braid was pretty, but practical and serious. Again, the hairstyles have been several degrees shy of Serena’s tendency to go big, bigger and biggest on the brown girl aesthetic front.
The Venus vs. Sloane US Open moment may prove to be a memorable rivalry, but it’s Serena’s inevitable return to tennis that will likely unite them all.
“It almost feels like Venus and Sloane called each other and said, ‘Girl, it’s now or never,’ ” Verdi said. ” ‘We gotta take over now because once she gets back, she’s gonna have something to prove. That ball will be a bullet, and we’re all gonna be done.’ “