When Serena Williams stepped out onto the red-clay courts at Roland Garros earlier this summer, she made headlines not only for scoring her first major win since the life-threatening birth of her daughter nine months prior, but for a sleek catsuit that she said made her feel like a “warrior princess” and a “superhero.” Designed by Nike, the suit prompted adulatory headlines and comments from fans who loved that the bodysuit was both fierce and functional. Williams, who suffered from blood clots in the wake of giving birth, said to reporters, “I’ve been wearing pants in general a lot when I play so I can keep the blood circulation going. So, it’s a fun suit but it’s also functional, so I can be able to play without any problems.”
Williams’ catsuit recently made headlines again, but not because she took it out again for the U.S. Open. Rather, the President of the French Tennis Federation apparently considered the catsuit disrespectful to the game of tennis, and said so. In a recent interview in Tennis Magazine, Bernard Giudicelli said that a new dress code for the French Open would be implemented in the future. “I think that sometimes we’ve gone too far,” Giudicelli said. When asked directly about the catsuit he responded, “It will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place.” While Williams graciously demurred when asked to comment on the insinuation that a bodysuit designed to help keep her alive was fundamentally disrespectful to the game that she’s devoted her life to, I need not be so accommodating. Giudicelli’s comments frustratingly fall in line with the insulting attitudes that Williams has faced her entire career, and likewise comport with tennis’ historic priding of aesthetics over functionality when it comes to women’s uniforms.
While the most recognizable all-white tennis uniform is enforced only at Wimbledon, where strict rules dictate just how wide or where a stripe of color is allowed to be placed, those rules have no grounding in functionality. Instead they’re a holdover from Victorian-era values wherein visible sweat was seen as unseemly, especially on women. When Giudicelli and by extension, the French Tennis Federation, single out Williams’ medically necessary suit as uniquely disrespectful, it harkens back to an era when women’s ankles were considered indecorous and black tennis players weren’t even allowed on the same courts as whites. Giudicelli maintains that the coming rules at Roland Garros aren’t going to be anywhere near as strict as Wimbledon’s, being intended to merely “impose certain limits.” But there’s no doubt that those “limits” will bring the participants at the French Open back into line with tennis’ elitist roots.
The white country club legacy of tennis is one that both Williams’ sisters have been dogged by in their careers. Consistently compared to animals in positive and negative media coverage alike, both Serena and Venus have faced grossly racist comments from their competitors as well. According to Vox, Anna Kournikova reportedly said, “I hate my muscles. I’m not Venus Williams. I’m not Serena Williams. I’m feminine. I don’t want to look like they do. I’m not masculine like they are.” Unlike her theoretical “rival” Maria Sharapova, Serena has never failed a drug test. Still, she is tested more than twice as often as other top American women players, playing into the over-arching narrative that the most-decorated player in tennis today is both inhuman and incapable of racking up her consistent achievements without the help of performance-enhancing drugs.
Throughout it all, Williams has been a picture of grace. Amid the catsuit controversy, she showed up to the U.S. Open on Monday in a one-sleeved bodysuit and black tutu custom-designed by Louis Vutton designer Virgil Abloh and fishnet compression stockings. Against the backdrop of Giudicelli’s comments and the French Open’s return to tennis’ sexist and racist roots, Williams’ tutu is a silent but effective bit of wry defiance aimed at the people obsessed with policing her body. And it’s a reminder that whatever she chooses to wear, she’ll keep using that body to be one of the greatest athletes the sport has ever seen.