Serena Williams strutted into the Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday night in the slickest of black leather biker jackets designed by Virgil Abloh for Nike.
After shedding the jacket — and the matching gear bag emblazoned with the words AKA Queen — Williams clinched the first round of the U.S. Open in a black, one-shoulder mini, complete with flirty tulle tutu expertly layered over biker shorts. The right shoulder of Williams' goth princess frock was fashioned from a sheer brown fabric — Williams' perfect nude.
I'm sure Williams planned this winning ensemble months in advance. She is, after all, the muse behind Nike's much-anticipated collaboration with Abloh, the designer of the hot athleisure brand Off-White called Queen. Williams' choice resonated with me as particularly unapologetic, especially given last weekend's catty fashion drama instigated by none other than the allegedly fashion-forward French (Mais oui!).
On Friday, French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli told Tennis magazine the 2019 French Open would introduce a dress code to regulate players' uniforms because "sometimes we've gone too far."
Giudicelli was speaking specifically about Williams' statement-making black catsuit, made by Nike, that she wore in her triumphant return to tennis at May's French Open. "It will no longer be accepted," Giudicelli said of Williams' hot-to-death onesie. "One must respect the game and place."
To quote rapper Chuck D.: "Hold it now."
This proposed dress code in a way censors Williams, and Giudicelli's comments are a dig.
One thing I know for sure is that Williams, arguably the world's best tennis player, respects her game. She's won 23 Grand Slam titles, and in May, just eight months after the difficult delivery of her girl, Alexis Olympia, Williams made her French Open comeback. She came pretty close to winning Wimbledon in July.
The problem is that no matter what Williams does, she can't/won't/will never resemble what the game's upper echelon sees as what a female tennis champion should look like. It was one thing when she was just a teenager in braids and beads who was trying to prove herself. But she's done that, and then some.
Nothing said that more than this fiercer-than-fierce tennis French Open catsuit. It wasn't just fly, but functional: Nike fashioned it from a special compression fabric designed to guard Williams' body from developing postpartum blood clots. (She wore compression nude fishnets Monday night.)
It was a fashionable and powerful way for Williams to reclaim and feel good about her post-baby body, something elite male athletes never would have to think about it. It was a salute to "all the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy and had to come back and try to be fierce," she said.
But it's not just girl power, it's about black power, too.
The suit, Williams said, reminded her of Wakanda, the fictional African village in Black Panther. She said she felt like a superhero in it. Black Panther was a cinematic call to arms for African Americans to stand firmly in their blackness despite forces — intentional or otherwise — that would rather they didn't.
Tennis, by design, can be described as one of those forces.
The classic white-on-white tennis look goes back to the 1890s, when the game — along with polo, golf, and horse riding — was emerging as a sporty pastime of new-money, Gilded Age millionaires. White was a color that only rich people could wear often because you had to have someone to keep it clean. And given the times, that person was likely black. (Timely fashion fact: This is the reason most people — except the uber-rich, who wore winter whites — didn't wear white after Labor Day. It's hard to keep white clean when one is constantly filling the furnace with coal.)
With white as tennis' foundational hue, the sport's looks changed with the times, said Sheila Connelly, director of Jefferson University's fashion design program. Starting as demure and knee-length, the outfits didn't become mod minis until the 1960s and '70s. The '80s brought Spandex, and, in 1985, Anne White became the first woman to wear a catsuit at Wimbledon. Granted, it was white and, like Williams, she was asked not to wear it.
There is clearly something about powerful-looking women on the tennis courts that still doesn't gel.
But this is 2018, and, frankly, people aren't having it.
Nike clapped back with a beautifully written Instagram jab that accompanied a gorgeous black-and-white photo of a catsuit-clad Serena: "You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers."
And Billie Jean King, former No. 1 professional tennis player, decried the policing of women's bodies on Twitter.
Williams' response was diplomatic. During a news conference Saturday, she assured us that she'd already talked to French Open officials. "Everything's fine, guys," she said.
I suspect Williams is not only focused on winning the U.S. Open — she's tired of talking and defending her body. It's been reported she's been tested for banned performance-enhancing drugs significantly more often than her competitors.
It's too easy to throw the racist stamp on the tennis community, or any group that bucks at changing the visual makeup of its organization. It's not that tennis won't let black people in — the Williams sisters and other tennis players of color have helped break down those barriers — but if you really want to accept a black woman, a woman who has just given birth, or any woman at all, you have to respect her right to feel to comfortable.
That means not hastily changing a dress code that allows a certain amount of sartorial freedom because it doesn't conform to old ideas of what the sport is.