Tennis superstar Serena Williams’ famed catsuit — and the subsequent ban it inspired — rekindled an international discussion about the criticism and policing of women’s bodies, particularly Black women.
“The white country club legacy of tennis is one that both Williams’ sisters have been dogged by in their careers,” wrote journalist Rachelle Hampton in a column for Slate. “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.”
Vox reported that Anna Kournikova, a retired Russian player whose celebrity status off the court is matched only by her struggles on it, is quoted in a 2013 book as saying, “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.”
Hampton noted that Williams has never failed a drug test, yet is tested more than twice as often as other top American women players, “playing into the overarching 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.”
This even as supposed “rival” Maria Sharapova was suspended in 2016 for failing a drug test.
As the Los Angeles Times put it, the catsuit kerfuffle goes something like this: Tennis star and new mom Serena Williams wears a black Nike catsuit-like outfit to the French Open in May.
Williams posts a picture of herself in said catsuit to Twitter, saying saying “Catsuit anyone? For all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy — here you go. If I can do it, so can you. Love you all!!”
Several months later, just as the U.S. Open is about to get under way, Tennis magazine publishes an interview with French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli in which he opines that said catsuit would run afoul of a new (but not yet in effect) French Open dress code.
“It will no longer be accepted,” Giudicelli is quoted as saying. “One must respect the game and the place.”
Williams shrugged off the announcement at a pre-U.S. Open news conference, saying she doesn’t plan on being a “repeat fashion offender.”
She follows that up by hitting the court clad in possibly an even more statement-making outfit — a black bodysuit and skirt Nike X Off-White ensemble.
Social media response to both came as fast and furious as a Serena Williams volley.
“The policing of women’s bodies must end,” was how Billie Jean King began her Twitter response. Nike posted: “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.”
Even the Girl Scouts jumped into the fray, tweeting: “After her health-conscious catsuit got banned by the French Open’s president, tennis champion and Girl Scout alum @serenawilliams won our hearts — AND her match — in a tutu. What a queen!”
The problem here isn’t some not-yet-in-effect dress code that nobody has violated, it’s Giudicelli’s quote about “respect[ing] the game and the place” that seems to take the whole controversy in an ugly direction, the Times opined.
Naturally, those who engage in the aforementioned criticisms are quick to deny Williams the credit she has earned, wrote Eliott C. McLaughlin for CNN.
It’s not that she’s a world-class athlete who loves the game she’s played since 4 and that she trains with abandon. It’s that she’s big or Black or unfairly built — all of which serves to strip her of the accolades her prowess demand, McLaughlin said.
Then the writer cut even more to the heart of the matter.
In June at the French Open, McLaughlin noted that a reporter took this denial of credit to a special low when he asked one of the more bizarre questions in the history of sports journalism.
Saying he had been waiting 14 years to ask the question, the reporter referred to a 2004 remark by then-businessman Donald Trump, who raised the prospect that Williams was intimidated by Maria Sharapova’s “supermodel good looks.”
Williams handled it with undue grace, saying she’d never been intimidated by any opponent, but many decried the reporter’s audacity, especially since Williams’ career highlights include owning Sharapova — beating her in 18 straight matches, no less.
“This is like asking [Michael] Jordan if he was thrown off by Bryon Russell’s taut pecs when he sank that jump shot in Game 6,” McLaughlin said. “Or asking [Tom] Brady how he was able to concentrate while staring into the dreamy eyes of the Buffalo Bills safety. It just wouldn’t happen.”