Sloane Stephens cross-trains in the off-season, and has sparked some cross-over interest—among athletes and apparel devotees—this young season with a break-out performance Down Under.
Powered by a stunning conquest of five-time champion Serena Williams, the 19-year-old American's run showcased all-court skills that will propel her inside the Top 20 for the first time when new rankings are released on Monday. It will also generate global exposure to Under Armour, her clothing and shoe sponsor.
It's an intriguing pairing of athlete and apparel as Stephens, whom Serena touts as a future No. 1, is the face of Under Armour tennis—yet the Baltimore-based brand does not currently manufacture a tennis-specific collection.
"It's sad to me that they're not in the game because they make innovative products that would be great for tennis," says Sol Schwartz, retail manager and buyer for Holabird Sports in Baltimore, MD, which is a short distance from Under Armour headquarters. "We've had success selling the product when they had a true tennis line and they're a brand that could push [apparel innovation] forward.
"We were one of the first [retailers] to carry Under Armour and the product is very popular with our customers, particularly the running line. To me, it's a reflection of the game in this country when one of the biggest, most successful sporting apparel companies in the world doesn't want to touch tennis."
The brand's ambassador is aiming to reach the top of tennis, but how deeply is the brand itself committed to the sport? Under Armour has apparel pacts with several colleges, including Auburn, Boston College and the University of Maryland, and consequently outfits several college tennis teams, but it does so using clothes from its other categories. (Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank was a fullback and special teams captain for Maryland when he developed the prototype moisture-wicking t-shirt that would put UA on the map.)
"They're very shrewd business people, and as a public company, they have numbers they have to meet and they will invest where they believe they will get the return," Schwartz says. "When you make the mistake—and Reebok is an example—trying to match Nike style for style and skew for skew, you've got a problem. [Under Armour] didn't let themselves fall into that trap. Let's put it this way: The day you see Under Armour jump back into the American tennis market is the day you can see tennis popularity rise."
Some retailers say Stephens’ run has piqued interest in the brand. The versatility of Under Armour's apparel is an asset: A player can use it from the tennis court to the track, and just about any athletic endeavor in between, without multiple changes. The challenge the brand faces in tennis is: Can it leverage one of the most marketable and talented teenagers in the game, engage hardcore recreational players, and sell more clothes without a true tennis-specific collection?
“We carry their training and cross-over pieces and those items do really well for us because they make great pieces with amazing technology for different types of bodies in training, compression, and active wear,” says Arlet Allahverdian, apparel buyer for Tennis Express in Houston. “I do think that Sloane’s run will help to create a little more buzz for the brand and I have seen a little more interest with people asking about her clothes in general and the color of her clothes in particular. Hopefully, UA will create a tennis line.”
Two months shy of her 20th birthday, Stephens gained a celebrity fan following on Twitter—“When u defeat a legend you become a legend,” former NBA star and tennis fan Shaquille O'Neal tweeted—in the afterglow of her run. She is the now face of tennis for Under Armour—American veterans Robby Ginepri and Michael Russell also wear the brand—and the second UA tennis player to go deep in a Grand Slam: Ginepri wore sleeveless Under Armour tees and long, baggy basketball style shorts at the 2005 U.S. Open, when he scored three straight five-set wins before falling to Andre Agassi in five sets in the semis.
"In the beginning, Ginepri wore a sleeveless tee and a pair of their 'coach's short', which was a short with pockets and a back pocket designed for coaches," Schwartz says. "Once they started to put together a few tennis-specific pieces, the stuff started to move."
Fans aspiring to adopt Stephens’ look can’t quite walk in her footsteps—that’s because the customized purple “UA MicroG” tennis shoes she wore in Melbourne are not available for retail sale, the brand told TENNIS.com. But the rest of the outfit is mostly available, including a sweet spot tank (a version of that top, the inner intensity tank, retails for $59.99), the slice solid skirt, sweet spot jacket, multi-braid headband, shadow visor, and performance wrist bands.
Stephens is one of four Under Armour athletes under the age of 22 who will star in nationwide ad campaigns scheduled to start next month. Images for the ads were shot in December before Stephens' surge Down Under, showing the confidence the brand had in her.
While Under Armour reportedly has no plans for a true tennis line this year, Stephens' early-season success raises the question: Can her cross-over appeal compel Under Armour to return to tennis?
"Sloane Stephens is an excellent athlete, a bright hope for American tennis, and she's an Under Armour billboard for now," says Schwartz. "Hypothetically, let's say Sloane Stephens turns into the next Serena Williams, becomes a great champion, and now you're Under Armour and you have the diamond in the rough. Are you going to take advantage of that or is Nike or adidas or some other brand going to come in and buy her right out from under you?"