From the Big Cat to Team Swoosh: Serena Williams’ Sneaker Journey


As one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Serena Williams’ influence extends far beyond the court. From fierce competitor to brand owner to equality activist, it’s no secret that, since kicking off her career in 1995, Williams has also had one epic sneaker journey. In 1998, she earned her first official sponsored contract with PUMA. In 2003, she was tapped by Nike, who would continue to back her for the remainder of her 27-year career. With a total of 23 grand slam titles to her name, Williams’ footwear has always been far from ordinary, purposeful at its core and serving as a means to push boundaries.

So, bring your A-game – it’s time to grab your racquet and step through Serena Williams’ sneaker journey.

Signing with PUMA in 1998

Tracing her career back to its origins, Williams signed her first official endorsement with PUMA in 1998. At 17 years old and following a win at her first singles grand slam with the Big Cat at the Flushing Meadows’ US Open in 1999, Williams didn’t take long to find her feet on the tour. And with PUMA’s CELL technology in her shoes, there was no stopping her career from soaring to new heights. In these early stages, Williams was yet to be involved in designing footwear, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t be involved in the aesthetics of her tennis dress.

As reported in Andscape, Amy Denet Deal, a former senior women’s designer for PUMA, shares how Williams provided drawings of how she envisioned her tennis outfit to look. Deal said, ‘I just thought that was the coolest thing ever that this young woman showed up with a bunch of sketches. You’re talking about someone who was 17 and had no training in design. She wanted to be the most powerful player. But this effortless sense of style that she’s developed over all these years – that was in her heart.’ The dress was then released at America’s very first Puma store in Santa Monica, California.

Serena Williams PUMA Extrena
via @batashoemuseum

The PUMA Extrena

Williams had a mega year in 2002, winning her first Wimbledon and French Open titles. At the time, the star was competing in PUMA’s women’s Extrena model, which she continued to play in for several years after. Seen on-foot at the Australian Open in 2003 was an orange colourway designed specifically for her – embellished with gold detailing and asymmetric design. The shoe design and Williams’ matching outfit were an obvious salute to one of the Australian Open’s most prominent colours. That year would be Williams’ final with PUMA, and she would go on to sign a five-year endorsement deal with Nike, valued at approximately $40 million.

Serving Major Y2K Aces

At the US Open in 2004, Williams would take to the court in one of her most famous tennis outfits in history. Forever pushing the boundaries in game and style,, Williams wore a blue denim skirt that brought pure Y2K flair to the court – a piece that’s still one of the most talked about outfits in the sport. While that ensemble may have garnered attention in the style department, it arguably wasn’t complete without the sneakers. Williams was all set to go in the Wilson Smith-designed Nike Glamour Shox, a silhouette that had been introduced specifically as her first signature tennis shoe. Featuring Nike’s Shox technology in a tennis sneaker for the first time in history, the model also came complete with a detachable boot-like extension that served as a compression sleeve, which Williams utilised during warmups.

Enter the Nike Air Max Mirabella 3

Nike’s Air Max Mirabella silhouette officially debuted in 2009. Fast forward just a couple of years, and its third iteration – the Nike Air Max Mirabella 3 – would become a Serena Williams signature model and one she would wear at all major grand slams throughout 2011. Upon locking in the model with the Swoosh, Williams had a number of performance requests when it came to making the silhouette her own. In addition to the cushioning brought in from Nike’s Air Max tech, Williams also asked for the pairs to be even lighter and more breathable.

So, the team at Nike incorporated more mesh into the design for breathability while ensuring support was still reinforced in the forefoot and heel. Water-wicking materials were implemented inside the shoes to keep them as dry as possible. In terms of aesthetics, Nike paid love to Williams’ adoration of the Air Force One, bringing in design cues from the classic model to make this one a true SW pair.

Serena Williams Nike Court Flare
nike court flare
Serena Williams Nike Court Flare
nike court flare
Serena Williams Nike Court Flare
nike court flare

Serena and Nike Create the Court Flare

In 2014, Williams stepped away from the Nike Air Max Mirabella 3, debuting the Nike Court Flare at the 2014 Australian Open – her very first dedicated tennis shoe.

For two years, designer Aaron Cooper worked on bringing the Nike Court Flare to life, an opportunity allowing Williams to have a shoe created that catered to her every need. In an interview with Design Boom, Williams described it as ‘stability... comfort and movement and space.’ She added, ‘I wanted a lot of friction on the side because when I am running and sliding on the hard courts, and as the shoes are so light, I wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t break.’

Where did Cooper get the inspiration? As per a Nike press release, Cooper said, ‘The very first seed of the idea actually came from working with a kung fu master. An insight we gained from him was this idea of unencumbered mobility. The thought is that a product should be an extension of your body.’ In addition, inspiration was also derived from the high-top construction of the Kobe 9, which helped create a shoe that provided superior ankle support for Williams’ on-court battles.

Tying the Knot in the Nike Cortez

Aside from kicking nonstop career goals, Williams would achieve another major life milestone in 2017: tying the knot with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian​. True to form, Williams wouldn’t go for an average wedding outfit – she wore an Alexander McQueen gown that housed $3.5 million worth of jewels. Of course, she wasn’t wearing heels, choosing instead to walk the aisle in a pair of blinged-out Nike Cortez sneakers. Designed by custom expert @merakimishell, the pairs were completed within 24 hours despite each gold and silver crystal being glued on by hand.

When Serena Met Virgil

In 2018, Williams made her return to the US Open after having not participated in the tournament since 2016. In true SW style, not only did she make a comeback to the court, she did it while wearing fashion’s hottest brand of the moment: Off-White. Working in close partnership with Virgil Abloh – both parties also came together that year to create collaborative Blazers and Nike Air Max 97s – Williams was fully kitted out in one of her most memorable tennis outfits to date: the Off-White x Nike Queen collection. The collection comprised two key looks: a one-sleeve tutu-inspired dress design in black as well as lilac.

In addition to the duo of tutus, Williams’ collection also featured a black leather biker jacket intended to both look good and serve as a means for keeping warm during pre-match. On foot, Williams wore the Nike Court Flare 2 – the successor to the Nike Court Flare – emblazoned with Off-White design acumen and a touch of glitter. She also wore fishnet-inspired compression socks embroidered with her initials.

A Diamond-Encrusted Swan Song

In 2022, Serena Williams would deliver the news that millions around the world had hoped never to hear: her retirement from professional tennis. But she wasn’t going out without a fight – and a killer getup to boot. Taking a hands-on approach when bringing the outfit together, something that’s come naturally to her right from the start, Williams drew upon the aesthetics of figure skating competition apparel for inspiration. The final look featured a six-layer skirt – a nod to the six titles won at Flushing Meadows – as well as a crystal-encrusted bodice, inspired by the starry skies synonymous with tournament nights.

The outfit was once again paired with the NikeCourt Flare 2, featuring no less than a diamond-encrusted Swoosh design and her initials on the medial sides. In collaboration with Williams’ jewellery brand, the lace dubraes were crafted from solid gold and embellished with 400 diamonds hand-set in black ceramic.

To keep up with Serena Williams' latest movements, head here. Can’t get enough of the Swoosh? Hit the link below to shop the latest on Nike’s webstore!

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