Serena Williams' Outfits Are Not the Issue for Tennis—It's Her Blackness

Serena Williams has spent her career dominating professional tennis, but also navigating the intrinsic racism of having a Black body in a traditionally white space.

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Aug 29 2018, 2:57pm

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

With 23 Grand Slam titles under her belt and arguably the most recognizable name in tennis, you would think that Serena Williams would be commensurately respected within the sport. But there are moments—often not-so-subtle ones—where you are reminded that one of the greatest athletes of all time, for all her success and stature, still faces the challenges of having a Black body in a predominantly white space.

In June, Williams wore a Nike catsuit to play in the opening round of the 2018 French Open. It was created to help her combat blood clotting issues, which she's suffered from for years. Last week, in an interview with Tennis Magazine, French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli stated that the catsuit is banned from future French Open tournaments. said officials were planning to "impose certain limits" out of "respect" for the game, and her look had "gone too far.”

Williams may have been able to brush off the decision, telling the public, "Everything's fine" between she and Giudicelli, but it felt to many like another attempt to suppress the aspects of Williams's Blackness. In this case, her body.

"It’s yet another example of the policing and weaponization of Black bodies—in particular, Black women's bodies," said Justin Tinsely, sports and culture reporter for The Undefeated. "Think about all these stories of young boys and girls being kicked out of school for their hair. Now Serena is told she can’t wear something because it’s disrespectful to the game. But is it more disrespectful than choosing to ignore that suit helped combat blood clots that she deals with and nearly took her life shortly after she had given birth?"

She is not a waif, petite, or scrawny. Williams is known for both her muscles and her curves, and when poured into her catsuit, we had the chance to see a post-baby Williams and her body in all of its glory. Despite the fact that many tennis skirts and dresses show more skin than what the tennis ace had on, it was her shapely figure, a shape quite common for Black women, that was really being deemed as disrespectful to the game.

"However they intended it, the result is bad for optics, if nothing else," Tinsely added. "It also leaves the opportunity to open these sorts of critiques.”

This is one instance of many where Williams has been criticized, restricted, or “singled out,” as Tinsely puts it. In the past, Williams has spoken about being tested more than her competitors to the point of it being clear "discrimination,” and her career backs this up—like the time she was booed mercilessly (and allegedly racially taunted) while playing in the finals at Indian Wells in 2001. Just 19 years old at the time, she would go on to win—after the crowd was given the impression by tournament officials and participants that there was something underhanded going on to set Williams up for victory.

Williams’ appearance has been a talking point throughout her career, like when former Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpischev called Serena and Venus, both known for their strength, "the Williams brothers" and said, "It's frightening when you look at them." A reporter once asked Williams if Maria Sharapova's beauty intimidated her on the tennis court—and when Williams celebrated beating Sharapova in singles competition at the 2012 London Olympics by dancing, she was heavily criticized for "Crip-Walking all over the most lily-white place in the world."

Williams has dominated while wearing beads and braids (and been mocked for it). She's been criticized for representing for her hometown of Compton, CA. She's been a force while throwing up a tennis ball to launch her infamously fast serve with long and ornate fake nails and a big, bold weave pinned into a ponytail. She has, without needing to do so vocally, represented Blackness in her bodily presence. No matter how far she comes and how much she accomplishes, that makes the very white game of tennis uncomfortable.

Williams is no longer the teenager she was when she entered the sport, seeking to make the right impression and be accepted in white spaces. She is 36 now: a mother, a trailblazer, and one of the greatest to ever play any sport. It’s clear that she has respect for the game—it’s time the game has respect for her, too.