scorecardresearch Skip to main content

With or without the catsuit, Serena Williams is going to serve black excellence

The body-hugging design Serena Williams rocked as she competed in the French Open in May is not going to be allowed at that tournament in the future.Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

If this article isn’t loading correctly on mobile, click here.

What more does the tennis world want from Serena Williams?

She’s won more than 100 titles. She is only one win away from tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles. But if we toss in doubles and mixed doubles, her total is already 39.

Serena is the best player in the game, but the world of tennis can’t seem to handle her serve.

French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli didn’t just tell Tennis Magazine there’d be a new French Open dress code.

He singled out Serena’s catsuit — the body-hugging design she rocked as she competed in the French Open in May — her first major since giving birth nine months prior.


Nike said in a release it was intended to be a power suit, a look to highlight her relentless drive to break barriers and send a strong message.

‘‘It will no longer be accepted,” Giudicelli said of the attire, saying things had gone too far. “One must respect the game and the place.’’

Nah. This couldn’t be about tennis.

“I suspect that’s it’s simply another example of the policing of black women’s bodies,” said Jonathan Square, writer and historian at Harvard University. “The catsuit is practical. Like most athletic gear, it functions to free its wearer of any encumbrances. More importantly, it provides Williams with a boost of confidence.”

How does what she calls her “Black Panther” Wakanda-inspired outfit, a catsuit that covers her entire body, equate to disrespect?

Few have a higher regard for the craft than Serena. She picked up her first racquet at the age of 4. She’s given her everything to mastering this sport. Serena played her sister Venus as hard as any opponent.


And for all 23 years of her career, she’s handled both blatant and coded racism with grace. She and Venus were accused of fixing matches and heckled by fans at the 2001 BNP Paribas Open. Last year, former Grand Slam winner Ilie Nastase made racist remarks about her baby, saying, “Let’s see what color it has. Chocolate with milk?”

Serena has been compared to an animal, called ugly, and had her body objectified over and over.

In June, Inside Tennis reporter Bill Simons said he waited 14 years to ask the four-time Olympic gold medalist this question:

After the 2004 Wimbledon match with Maria, I had the opportunity to interview Donald Trump on his L.A. golf course, and he said that Maria’s shoulders were incredibly alluring and then he came up with his incredible analysis: that you were intimidated by her supermodel good looks. My question is: Have you ever been intimidated by anyone on a tennis court, and what are you thoughts about that occurrence?

What? Serena has dominated Maria Sharapova. She’s beaten her 19 times (the last 18 times consecutively) and would have probably bagged a 20th victory if her pectoral injury hadn’t caused her to pull out of the French Open in June. There’s no intimidation or rivalry, and for the record, Serena is beautiful, too.

But the recurring narrative will have you believe she’s a hulk.

The United States Anti-Doping Agency tested Serena five times this year. Sloane Stephens, who won the US Open a year ago, has been tested once.


“I was born this way,” Williams told Time. “They’re like, ‘Oh, she can’t be that great, she must be doing something.’ ”

The New York Times talked about her like she was an alien in 2015, citing her “large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.”

The story propped up white girls, their femininity, and body image issues and seemed to debase Serena’s womanhood.

“It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,” coach Tomasz Wiktorowski said of 5-foot-8, 123-pound Agnieszka Radwanska. “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”

In the words of Sojourner Truth: I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?

Ain’t Serena Williams a woman, too? Yes, she’s a woman who loves her daughter and her job.

That catsuit was never just a outfit. The compression fabric was in response to her life-threatening birth experience and blood clots. She wore it to celebrate motherhood.

“All the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy and have to come back and try to be fierce, in the middle of everything, that’s what this represents. You can’t beat a catsuit, right?” she told Tennis Channel in May.


That’s the thing, Serena can’t be beat. She’s at the top of her game. Forbes announced this week she’s the most marketable and highest paid female athlete ($18 million over the last year).

And her uniforms have always been part of her disruption of a game that was out of reach for black and poor people. She’s rocked everything from denim skirts to leopard print.

As she gears up to play in the US Open on Monday, she’ll be wearing the Queen Collection, a collaboration between her, Off-White, and Nike.

“With Serena, we have one of our generation’s most powerful, inspiring athletes as the muse,” says Off-White designer Virgil Abloh. “I was trying to embody her spirit and bring something compelling and fresh to tennis.”

Tennis is changing. Wimbledon stars didn’t wear the usual cookie cutter white outfits this year. Adidas teamed up with London streetwear brand Palace and even Harriet Dart and Alexander “Sascha” Zverev rocked the looks. Roger Federer wore Uniqlo.

Those uniform upgrades made headlines but didn’t incite a change of the rules.

Fatima Dainkeh, YW Boston racial justice coordinator, says Giudicelli singling out Serena is part of the pipeline that vilifies little black girls and punishes them for the way they wear their hair.

“This has nothing to do with the work she is doing or her ability to do it,” Dainkeh says. “This is about controlling what black women do and who they show up in their spaces.”


It’s about taking away power.

Williams said she feels “like a warrior princess, kind of” when she wears the outfit.

“I always wanted to be a superhero,” she told reporters, “and it’s kind of my way of being a superhero.”

Dress codes be damned, Serena Williams won’t be stopped from wearing the title of greatest athlete of all time.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.