Report

Serena Williams on sportswear design

London

29 June 2015

“A dancer, a ballerina or a gymnast – if you think of their movements, that's what we do on court, we’re running around and we’re jumping and we’re moving,” says Serena Williams, clutching a pair of bright white Nike trainers. 

They’re the new NikeCourt Flares, a shoe that Williams has helped design in collaboration with Nike’s in-house designer Aaron Cooper. It’s a tennis shoe with more flexibility and movement than what has come before, as well as a case study of the way in which the design of high-performance sportswear is intimately guided by users’ feedback. “It has been a long way in the making, almost two years,” says Williams.

The finished product is an exercise in minimalism, with support added only where necessary. It creates a lightweight shoe made up of two parts – an inner neoprene bootie that covers the ankle, connected to a composite mesh upper. 

All aspects of the shoe have been considered to fit with Williams’s game. “I wanted to support my ankle to stop me from rolling it,” says Williams. “I wanted something light that still has stability, so you don't get too much twerk in it. I always wear ankle straps when I play my matches, but now this shoe gives me enough support for my practice so I don't have to worry about that anymore.”

The outsole is designed using durability mapping. By studying the tennis player’s moves, the Nike engineers were able to add extra support only where necessary. “In the beginning it looped too much,” says Williams of the sole. “I wanted it more stable, with more stability through the heal.”

The design process became one where Williams acted as a guinea pig, giving feedback on the design as it developed, trying the different iterations of the shoe and keeping a close dialogue with Cooper. “It’s amazing to see something come to life like this. I feel like the shoe has become an extension of my foot,” says Williams.  

Of course, there is a commercial agenda to this process. As Williams goes on court today for her first game of Wimbledon, the NikeCourt Flare is launching to the public, in an all-white version. Williams herself has been wearing the specially designed shoe both in games and practice since early 2014. 

This is where Williams association and promotion of the shoe on-court, throughout Wimbledon, will make the biggest impact. “It's not a typical sports shoe, it look like a street shoe rather than a ball shoe, and the best thing is that it’s unisex,” says Williams, hinting at the casual market that the NikeCourt Flare could conquer.

So armed with her custom-engineered tennis shoes, how does she feel about the game itself? “I haven’t had the greatest last two Wimbledons so it takes a lot of pressure off of me,” says Williams. “So I’m going in relaxing and that is the best way of entering a tournament.” 

And what about the effect of what you wear, on the mental aspect of the game? “I feel like when you look good you play good because you feel better about yourself,” says Williams.