On Tuesday, August 28th, Alize Cornet, a French tennis player, was cited for a code violation at the U.S. Open for undressing to a sports bra for several seconds when she realized her shirt was on backward. It was during a short 10-minute break between her second and third sets, and she turned away from television cameras in order to fix the problem.
This event follows a media fracas during the French Open in May, when Serena Williams played her first major tournament after she gave birth. She wore a special black catsuit designed by Nike to prevent clotting, not unlike compression shorts which other athletes wear. During William’s pregnancy, she had a pulmonary embolism removed and still suffers from blood clots.
While fans loved the catsuit, the French Tennis Federation did not, and said this week that they intend to issue a dress code for next year in response to the catsuit, saying that Williams was “not respecting the game” and “going too far.”
So what do these incidents mean? Are they both just attempts by tennis associations to enforce proper conduct — or is there a double standard at work, one that men are not subject to?
During men’s tennis matches, it’s common for male players to change their tops without penalty, with many commentators pointing out Novak Djokovic in particular, though Andy Murray is shown below. But men aren’t free from the strict dress code of tennis. Tennis associations and tournaments across the globe have long been class-conscious when the sport first began in Victorian England.
Tennis whites were associated with wealth and privilege because only the rich could prevent their clothing from getting dirty. While tennis fashion has evolved throughout the 20th and 21st century, it has been a battle for progress the whole time. During the 1985 Wimbledon tournament, tennis champion Anne White wore all-white, but in a full-length catsuit, which was mocked by other players.
The case gets even more complex with muscular female black players like Serena Williams, or her sister, Venus. While fashion magazines praised Anne White’s catsuit choice, in 2002 Serena was slut-shamed for her short black number. The press said the outfit was, “clinging, “curve-clutching,” and left “little to the imagination.” The Washington Post even said Williams was “a working girl of a different sort” and said her choice of tennis wear was trashy.
Is this just because of the choice of outfit, or was there an aspect of race as well? Williams was raised in Compton, while tennis players were thought to be from “upper-class” environments. She’s been dogged her whole career, with Caroline Wozniacki padding her breasts and butt in 2012 to mock William’s physical appearance.
So what is the future of the tennis dress code? Will white outfits always be required at Wimbledon? Are organizations like the French Open going to continue to police women’s bodies and tell them what’s appropriate for them to wear–to be healthy after a pregnancy?
Serena Williams is certainly taking it in good spirits, wearing several outfits with tutus after the catsuit during the U.S. Open. With support from others who have been slighted like Alize Cornet, maybe change can come to tennis after all. We’ll have to wait and see.