Last year at the French Open, Serena Williams for the first (and so far only) time, donned her famous and HOT black catsuit during the tournament. She definitely turned heads with her “Black Panther” inspired suit. Especially after her triumphant return to tennis after giving birth to her daughter. The 2018 French Open is the only tournament thus far where Serena has worn the catsuit, but there is a lot more attention to it now that the famous Catsuit has been officially banned from the 2019 French Open.
As you can imagine, this has created quite a stir. With people arguing everything on the levels of the health benefits of the catsuit to the racial implications. Which leads to the question, is the decision to ban William’s Catsuit based on race? Not exactly.
Shockingly (or not), Serena Williams isn’t the first tennis pro to don a catsuit at a major tennis tournament. In 1985 Anne White donned an all-white (in accordance with Wimbledon rules) cat suit that also created quite a stir. So, the controversy and ban for Serena isn’t without a precedence and it is premature to claim that William’s catsuit ban is predicated solely on race.
However, this does expose a glaring problem within professional tennis. The ban might not be racist, but it does reek of elitism and idealism that has roots within systemic racism. Professional tennis has always been built upon Victorian era standards of dress and even gender roles that have been bogged down in the name of “tradition” such as a strict dress code for male and especially female athletes. Tennis has always been the game for the “high class” and anybody who doesn’t have the right “look” has a hard time in really being competitive within the sport. With the amount of money and sponsors on the line, as well as the archaic sense of tradition. Tennis has always worked to appeal to the “higher class” and often athletes come from middle to higher income families and backgrounds.
Unfortunately, this is where race might come back into play. With opportunities to play tennis often reserved and designed to appeal to higher income families, this limits the opportunities for lower income families and children to take up tennis. It is no secret that the sport of tennis is glaringly white. Serena and Venus Williams, Arthur Ashe, James Black and only a handful of other black tennis players have been competitive at the highest levels of the sport. Tennis has its roots in country clubs and community associations throughout the world, many of whom often have official and unofficial policies that make it difficult for people of color and people of a lower income to be able to be part of. In this sense, one might argue that the basis of the support is racist, but it is also based on privilege.
Serena and Venus Williams carry on the legacy of famous tennis players who have dared to break the tradition and stand out. Not just for their superior athletic skills but willingness to be different and bold. While Serena’s catsuit ban itself, might not be based on race. It does reek of the elitism and privilege that tennis is built upon. Yet, simply by being daring and bold, with her athletic capabilities to back her up. Her outfit at the US Open is a clear message that if anybody is going to give the tennis elites a reality check. You bet your ass it’ll be Serena Williams.
By Dirk Smith