At the French Open this past June, Serena Williams inspired millions across the world when she returned to her first Grand Slam tournament since giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian barely nine months prior. Improbably, she made it to the fourth round, and while commentators were mostly fixated on her athletic success in motherhood, fans were equally enamored with the stunning black catsuit she wore, which she said was inspired by the fictional world of Wakanda and Black Panther.
Unfortunately, we may never see that catsuit again, at least not at the French Open. The tournament president announced this week that he plans to change the dress code for Roland Garros, acknowledging that Serena’s get-up was the impetus for his new edict.
“I believe we have sometimes gone too far,” French Open president Bernard Giudicelli told Tennis Magazine. “Serena’s outfit this year, for example, would no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place.”
This is a stunningly backwards decision and justification — nobody respects tennis or Paris more than Williams, who filmed an entire HBO documentary series about her journey from marriage and pregnancy to a return to the French Open. It’s even more staggering given the fact that Williams’ bodysuit was specifically designed to protect against blood clots and improve blood circulation. After she gave birth, Williams almost died because of a hematoma and other complications stemming from a pulmonary embolism
“I had a lot of problems with my blood clots, and, God, I don’t know how many I have had in the past 12 months. So it is definitely a little functionality to it,” Williams said at the French Open, according to the Associated Press. “I have been wearing pants in general a lot when I play, so I can keep the blood circulation going. It’s a fun suit, but it’s also functional, so I can be able to play without any problems.”
On Instagram, she dedicated the outfit to “all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy.”
There was some controversy about her suit during the French Open from other female players on tour, who felt they, personally, were beholden to a stricter dress code.
Australian tennis player Arina Rodionova said, for instance, that based on her understanding, if women were to wear leggings during a match, they must wear a skirt, short, or dress over the leggings. Additionally, leggings are only permitted to come down to the middle of their calves, at the longest. Williams’ cat suit was extremely tight, and went all the way down to her ankles.
Nothing against Serena's outfit, looks pretty cool actually. But just wondering how is that allowed by the rules if we only allowed to wear legging until the middle of the calf the longest, and ALWAYS have to wear skirt/shorts on top of the leggings.Were there any rules changes?
— Arina Rodionova (@arinarodionova) May 30, 2018
And Tennis Life reported at the time that French Open rules stipulate that players “must be dressed in a professional manner,” and “customarily acceptable tennis attire must be worn.”
Perhaps, if one interprets those phrases conservatively, a black catsuit doesn’t fit the bill. But the solution to this non-troversy isn’t to arbitrarily ban catsuits; it’s to completely eliminate the antiquated rules that tennis clings to about what women in the sport are permitted to wear. They’re athletes, and if they want to wear leggings or pants or warrior-esque catsuits, or 16th century suits of armor, they should be allowed to do so. Tennis will be much more popular if it can begin truly embracing and celebrating differences, rather than trying to make everyone, particularly women, fit into the same old-fashioned mold of femininity.
“It feels like this suit represents all the women that have been through a lot mentally, physically, with their body to come back and have confidence and to believe in themselves,” Williams told reporters at Roland Garros. “I definitely feel like it is an opportunity for me to inspire a whole different group of amazing women and kids.”
The decision by the French Open feels like another chapter of the tennis world’s unending struggle to come to terms with Williams’ muscular, voluptuous, and black body. And it’s a shame. Because that very same body has taken the sport — particularly on the women’s side — to new, unprecedented heights, and has made fistfuls of money for everyone in the tennis world, including the French Open. That body has won 23 major titles. That body is arguably the most successful body in the history of women’s sports, and the catsuit allowed Williams to feel ready and able to harness that power, and to inspire others to follow her lead.
“I always wanted to be a superhero, and it’s kind of my way of being a superhero.” Williams said of her attire.
She doesn’t need a catsuit to be a superhero. But if she wants one, she should be allowed to wear it any time she pleases. And so should all the other women in the sport, too.