Serena Williams has made a sport of crushing tennis norms with a smile. She flaunts her athletic frame on catwalks and red carpets, even as other tennis stars call arm muscles “unfeminine.” She’s endured a career’s worth of racist insults as a black player from Compton in a country-club sport. Last year, she invited a video camera into the operating room during her C-section for the filming of an HBO docuseries, making plain the kind of physical vulnerability most pro athletes try to hide.
On Tuesday, at the French Open, Williams laid waste to another tennis tradition overdue for a revamp: the tennis skirt. She walked onto the court in a short-sleeved black bodysuit with a red band around the waist, covered from neck to ankle in performance-fabric sheen. In an on-court interview, she called it a “Wakanda-inspired catsuit,” a nod to the fictional African nation at the heart of the Black Panther storyline. Though she and Nike designed it before the recent film came out, Williams said the getup makes her feel “like a warrior princess.”
It’s not the first time Williams has worn a onesie to a match. Sixteen years ago, at the 2002 U.S. Open, she sported a crotch-length zip-up romper from Puma. That outfit, though nontraditional, didn’t veer far from regular tennis attire in terms of body coverage. Tuesday’s did, and for good reason. Williams has a history of blood clots and suffered a life-threatening pulmonary embolism after giving birth in September. “For all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy—here you go,” she wrote on Instagram featuring the catsuit. “If I can do it, so can you.” Wearing compression pants, Williams said, supports better blood circulation.
What a wonderfully practical explanation for a genre of sportswear that can be infuriatingly impractical! Tennis is one of the few sports in which women don outfits that hamper their athletic performance even though there’s no judged aesthetic component, à la gymnastics or ice dancing. Skirts and dresses don’t improve a player’s game—otherwise, men would wear them, too, in the way they shave off all their body hair before a swim meet. Women often wear shorts underneath their tennis skirts, anyway. The skirt’s raison d’être has nothing to do with winning. It’s only useful as a feminizing measure, a means of layering a pleasing, ladylike embellishment on top of an event where women whack and bellow in very unladylike ways. Since an effort to ban loud grunting failed to take hold in 2012, skirts contain the sport’s whole pretense of womanliness within their pleats.
Tennis’ commitment to superfluous fabric in womenswear reached a farcical peak in 2016, when players who wore the dress Nike designed for Wimbledon gave it such rave reviews as “I felt like the dress was just everywhere,” “it was always going up, so you can see the stomach, everything,” and “I didn’t feel comfortable.” The sheer, flowing tunic looked more like a nightie than a functional garment meant to enable feats of strength and mobility. Players responded by self-modifying: wearing capri pants underneath, a shirt on top, or a sash around the waist. It was sad to see female athletes suffer for their sponsor’s desire to put them in something ethereal and pretty, and maddening to remember that in other sports, like swimming, uniforms are so thoughtfully designed that some have been banned for giving athletes too much of an advantage.
That a bodysuit seems so revolutionary on a tennis court is a testament to the stodginess of the sport and the judginess of its observers. Anne White tried to play in a full-length white catsuit at Wimbledon in 1985 and was told it was inappropriate for the game. Back in 2002, after Williams wore her U.S. Open romper, Otis Gibson of the Australian Sunday Telegraph wrote that, on some women, the onesie would have been comely. “Unfortunately, some women aren’t wearing it,” he continued. “On Serena, it only serves to accentuate a superstructure that is already bordering on the digitally enhanced and a rear end that I will attempt to sum up as discreetly as possible by simply referring to it as ‘formidable.’”
When Williams played in long pants on Tuesday, she asserted her dominance over the male leaders of tennis, soccer, and other sports who say women’s sports can only attract an audience if the players show off their sex appeal. She laughed at the players who’ve mocked the shape of her body, the journalists who’ve called her an “animal,” the coaches who’ve said their own players try to stay slimmer than Serena in order to “be a woman.” They can fuss all they want—she’ll keep winning her matches in a suit that looks like it was made for an Afro-futurist superhero.
Williams has endured more scrutiny of her body than almost any other professional athlete, yet she’s come out the other side a champion, and a trendsetter besides. On Wednesday, she launched her first fashion line, Serena, which has been in the works for 15 years. The collection is a little bit all over the place—there’s $40 high-waisted underwear, a $125 floor-length slipdress, and a $205 acid-washed denim jumper—but given the charisma and fame of the designer, I’m guessing we’re going to start seeing the looks all over Instagram any day now. If there is any justice in tennis, the Williams catsuit will enjoy the same fate.