Hours after tennis champion Serena Williams on Saturday shrugged off a decision by the president of the French Open to ban her attire, she was taking a selfie with the first-ever black president of the U.S. Tennis Association at a stadium dedicated to the only black man to win Wimbledon.
Williams and three other women of color — her sister Venus Williams, along with Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens — are representing America this week at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens for the 50th annual Grand Slam championship. Yet, their talents and prestige do not shield them from the sport’s legacy of elitism.
The Associated Press reported on Friday that French Open president Bernard Giudicelli told France’s Tennis Magazine the he was pushing a new dress code, using Williams’ black catsuit as an example, because “one must respect the game and place.” While social media exploded with rage, Williams said, “everything’s fine, guys.”
Caitlin Thompson, publisher of the tennis magazine Racquet, said people she calls “traditionalists” — often white people in the most lucrative positions in tennis — stoke debates that distract from and diminish female talent, to remind people of their power. It’s a familiar dynamic in a sport where women have to play by rules that were made without their input.
While serving an unprecedented second term as the U.S. Tennis Association’s president, Katrina Adams said in an interview on Wednesday that you cannot push progress as a woman, especially of color, without knocking down constructs.
“There are always glass ceilings to break from a female’s perspective and even more so, from an African American perspective,” said Adams. “A lot of it is just because of what men have not allowed us to do over the years.”
Author of “A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America,” Jennifer Lansbury said she is ashamed at how long it’s taken to see a black woman in charge but that it is the only way to move on from tropes as old as the game.
“You can see it in the Williams sisters; the ways that the tennis society treats them very much harkens back to the way it has always treated black women,” Lansbury said. “They’re too loud, they’re too powerful, they won’t talk to reporters, all the things that have been there since the beginning.”
Early in the game, men set standards of white femininity
Upper class men built and curated the U.S. Tennis and Lawn Association, now the USTA, toward the end of the Victorian era. Even though women played, men led the association for more than 100 years, wrote its rules — what players wore, when women played, how many sets in a match and more — and enforced them.
One of the first examples of this appears as an asterisk in its rules from 1903, clarifying that, “it was (officially) decided that ‘all matches in which ladies take part in tournaments … shall be the best two in three sets.’” Men continued playing five.
Historian Warren Kimball, a former volunteer for the association who spent years curating the association’s history for his book, “Raising the Game,” said he never found a documented explanation for this rule, but feels certain that men just decided that “women were not strong enough.”
That rule persisted for the better part of tennis’ history and still exists today for the biggest championship under the association’s governance: the U.S. Open. Except now, Thompson said, some traditionalists use this disparity as an argument to push against equal pay.
The association was also ignoring if not rejecting black players, even though Tuskegee Institute, an all-black college, held tournaments as early as the 1890s, according to the book.
While it had black players on its Ivy League teams, it declined Howard University’s application for membership in 1922, according to minutes published in the book, because “southern clubs would ‘see red’ on that … there would be no chance in the world of a club of negros [sic] getting membership in the Association.”
By the late 1940s, white women were struggling with rules policing their femininity and how they should look on the court. American Gertrude Augusta Moran, known as “Gussie,” wanted to feel more feminine, and reached out to a top designer ahead of her Wimbledon tournament to ask for a colorful ensemble.
The designer, knowing Wimbledon’s strict, all-white rules that are almost the same today, instead designed a short skirt and lace-trimmed underwear, which she wore for the first time at a pre-match tea party.
“Gorgeous Gussie’s Lace-Fringed Panties No. 1 Attraction on Wimbledon’s Courts,” was the headline that ran in The New York Times reviewing the party.
By the time she had to compete, she walked onto the court with the racket in front of her face, while photographers pushed for space on the floor to get a shot of the lace. She was eliminated from Wimbledon early and the designer was banned from hosting and dressing other players.
Even though she ranked fourth in the nation at her peak, because of the reaction to her lace, her legacy as a sex symbol consumed her reputation for talent.
“I really couldn’t handle the pressure,” she told the Orlando Sentinel nearly 40 years later.
‘She just wanted to be a tennis player’
This was before the Civil Rights Act and the historic Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education to desegregate public schools. And back in the U.S., a black player was exploding at the association’s smaller championships — while being excluded from the top clubs.
Althea Gibson, raised in Harlem, New York, was a young woman who pushed through a rough childhood and was groomed by two black physicians to “break the color barrier,” said Lansbury.
“She had to function not as the working class girl she had grown up as, but as an elite, conforming to white femininity,” said Lansbury. “She had to dress in a certain way, she would not have worn an afro, she would have straightened her hair.”
The association’s failure to acknowledge Gibson’s game embarrassed Alice Marble, a white, well-distinguished player when she was asked about it on tour.
Marble wrote an editorial in the the association’s magazine that said, “For every individual who still cares whether Gussy has lace on her drawers, there are three who want to know whether Althea Gibson will be permitted to play in the Nationals this year.”
“If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and a little less like sanctimonious hypocrites,” Marble wrote. “I’ve never met Ms. Gibson, but to me, she is a fellow human being to whom equal privileges ought to be extended.”
After previous denials, the association accepted Gibson’s application to become the first black woman to play its national tournaments. In an open letter back to Marble, with mixed emotions and gratitude, she said, “I believe that most the colored people watching my match … had never attended a match before. It was something new to them.”
“She learned that she could go on the court and play hard,” Lansbury said. “But off the court she had to exude this air of upper class, white femininity.”
Lansbury said at that time, the white press was holding Gibson to their ideas of white femininity, while the black press turned against her, because she was not the beacon for racial justice that they wanted.
“She just wanted to be a tennis player,” Lansbury said.
But as the best tennis player, she was also steamrolling the path for tennis legend Arthur Ashe, who practiced on the same physician’s lawn that she did, and engaged the nation on the other end of the civil rights era.
The association was also establishing the U.S. Open as Billie Jean King led the sport as both a top competitor and a fighter for equal pay.
The policing of women’s bodies must end. The “respect” that’s needed is for the exceptional talent @serenawilliams brings to the game. Criticizing what she wears to work is where the true disrespect lies. https://t.co/ioyP9VTCxM
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) August 25, 2018
Even though the association threatened to ban her for it, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association and led the first American tour for women alongside fellow player and magazine publisher Gladys Heldman. Because of her, five years after the U.S. Open started, it was the first in the world to ensure that all winners are awarded the same amount of money.
That was in 1973. But it took 26 more years until the association elected its first female president.
King earned five World Champion titles in her career, and has continued to blast sexist and classist blockades the entire way.
‘It’s all about empowering and embracing’
By the time Adams took over as president of the association in 2015, she was the fourth woman to do so, while knocking down many other “firsts.” She’s also the youngest, the first former professional athlete and the first person of color to be in her role.
Sitting in her office, with Harlem Renaissance sculptor Richmond Barthe’s bronze “Stevedore” in front of her and a “Family Circle” painting in acrylic by a black art leader John Biggers to her right, she brought up the year she picked up a tennis racquet.
It was 1975; the same year she watched on her black and white TV as Ashe became the only black man to win Wimbledon. There’s a picture of the Arthur Ashe stadium opening at the Billie Jean King Center framed to her left, and she was spending time with Williams at that same stadium on Saturday.
“When you see someone that looks like you, there’s a level of appreciation, first of all, and there’s a level connection,” she said, recalling Ashe’s win. “In that connection, you feel embraced. And so, for me, it’s all about empowering and embracing.”
Adams grew with the sport, competing in 1998 at the same tournament she watched Ashe win. But by then, she knew Ashe wasn’t the first black person to do it, Gibson was, back in 1957.
Her swagger through the stadium grounds, past the Mercedes Benz dealership, past the fountain plaza and the condiment counter in the food court, has fans, especially of color, walking just a few feet away, waiting to ask for a picture.
With her fistbumps, striking clothes, sneakers and lipstick, her sleek hair, her aviators, the art she commissions and books on her tables and the fan selfies; she brings a distinctive power to this historic space.
“It’s not something that I strive to do, it’s just stuff that happens,” she said.