Serena Williams. Venus Williams. Martina Hingis. Maria Sharapova. This isn't just a list of great women's tennis players. It's also a few of the biggest names who have expanded their tennis empires into the fashion world, where the competition can be as fierce as the rallies on the grass, clay and hard courts of the Grand Slams.
Serena launched her Aneres line in 2003. Sister Venus followed suit in 2007 with EleVen. Hingis will introduce a new line of tennis clothing from Tonic this spring. But right now, it's Sharapova who has taken center stage, er, court.
Sharapova, who signed an eight-year deal with Nike in 2010 worth a reported $70 million, has been collaborating with the shoe and sportswear giant on designs since her famous Little Black Dress made its debut at the 2006 U.S. Open. She is serious about fashion, a passion of hers even as a young girl.
"Since I was young, the artistic expression that fashion embodies has inspired me," Sharapova said. "...It's a way to communicate oneself."
Sharapova's goal is to develop her brand both as a tennis star and in the fashion world. As part of her deal with Nike, she also designs bags and shoes for Cole Haan. She takes her responsibility as a designer seriously.
Nike launched the Maria Sharapova Collection of tennis dresses and two-piece outfits at the 2010 Australian Open. Not only did her 2010 dress get panned, but she lost in the first round in Melbourne. She's come a long way since then in terms of her design strategy. The 2012 dress is sleek, streamlined and built for the hard courts of Margaret Court Arena.
The three-time Grand Slam winner has designed a tennis dress to maximize both her fashion and her tennis game. It even has a bold name that shows off her confidence: The Statement Slam.
So far, Sharapova's performance in Melbourne has lived up to the name of the dress.The No. 4 seed, she has played aggressively and powerfully, advancing to the semifinals where she will face Petra Kvitova.
Sharapova, 24, considers fabric, fit and performance in the design stages. One of the most important decisions she makes involves color choices. "I always like to start with a fresh color palette at the beginning of the year and keep the materials as light as possible because of the heat," she said.
She also takes into account the surface and the color of the court. The Australian Open features blue hard courts, and Sharapova wanted to maximize that contrast.
"I really like neon accent colors," she said. "Against a blue court, the white and lime green will really pop."
Part of the success of the Maria Sharapova Collection involves delivering the star's on-court looks to her fans. Because this requires lots of advance planning, the process starts about 18 months in advance of the event. Last year, Sharapova sat down with Nike designers to come up with a design for her 2012 dress. It's a highly collaborative process. The team looks for innovative ways to combine Sharapova's fashion-forward designs with high performance fabrics and silhouettes, with a particular attention to detail.
"Details are what makes clothing special," Sharapova said. "Sometimes not all details are visible from a distance, but when you're wearing the piece and you know how certain shapes and stitching were created, it makes it that much more special."
Sharapova's line of tennis dresses is becoming popular on and off the WTA Tour. She has designed looks for several up-and-coming players. This season Sofia Arvidsson, Kai-Chen Chang, Indy De Vroome, Andrea Hlavackova, Madison Keys and Anastasia Pivovarova sport Sharapova's designs. The collection also has proven to be popular with fans.
"[Maria] is one of the top female players energizing the women's tennis apparel business for Tennis Warehouse," Don Hightower, President of Tennis Warehouse said via email. "Her strong fashion sense stands out on court, which is reflected in the sales of her collection. While we see sales success with her on-court dress on its own, it is the dress that elevates the sales of her MS separates, as well as other collections."