NEW YORK — Serena Williams didn’t look like herself for most of Saturday’s US Open final defeat against Bianca Andreescu, and she knew it.
“I believe I could have played better,” Williams said in her postmatch news conference. “I believe I could have done more. I believe I could have just been more Serena today. I honestly don’t think Serena showed up. I have to kind of figure out how to get her to show up in Grand Slam finals.”
Serena did show up, but not for enough of the match. Her first serve seemed to have disintegrated, and she double-faulted on key points. After far too long, she started to come back to tie the second set at 5-5 before losing 6-3, 7-5.
The crowd responded with ear-splitting roars every time Williams won a point, and then another, and then a game in the second set. They had come hoping to witness history in the form of a 24th major victory that would have tied Margaret Court’s record for most Grand Slam singles titles. They came to see what Williams does best, to witness what sportswriter Lindsay Gibbs dubbed “Catsuit Tennis.”
In 2002, here at Flushing Meadows, Williams debuted her first black catsuit, a Puma creation that was bound to turn heads. She’d won her first Grand Slam title ever at Arthur Ashe Stadium in 1999, then exited in the quarterfinals in 2000, and then lost to her older sister Venus in the 2001 final.
But 2002 — she owned 2002. Williams came into the US Open that year with the swagger of a woman who’d won Roland Garros and then Wimbledon and done it the Williams Way, the way her father, Richard, had taught her: by embracing her difference and her exceptionalism.
The catsuit said it all.
Paired with blond microbraids, it was shiny, form-fitting and more than a little bit dangerous. The sort of thing you dare not wear unless you’ve got the goods to back it up. It moved with her, gliding over her curves. Puma constructed the catsuit with two heavy parallel seams running down the front, from the armpits, over her breasts and midriff, all the way to her thighs. It had a crew neck, with a zipper that converted it into a V-neck. Serena paired it with a pink wristband and a $29,000 Harry Winston tennis bracelet.
In 2001, Destiny’s Child released a hit single, “Bootylicious.” The song opened with a guitar riff pulled from Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen.” But it was the repeated lines of the chorus that made it a hit: “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly.”
The Catsuit didn’t say, “I think.” Instead, it screamed, “I know you’re not ready for this jelly.”
Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan deemed the look “salacious.”
“… her tight black tennis romper was the stylistic equivalent of trash talk,” Givhan continued. “It looked trashy. And it did her a disservice. … Her admirers paint a picture of poise and exuberance, talent and physical grace. One only wishes that Williams would use her wealth and notoriety to paint herself in equally flattering terms.”
It didn’t matter how much it rattled tennis watchers that the Williams sisters, especially Serena, refused to be swaddled in chaste, preppy tradition. There was no romance there, just unapologetic domination.
Serena won the whole enchilada in New York in 2002, defeating Venus, the defending champ, 6-4, 6-3. Then she went on the win the 2003 Australian Open, thereby establishing the #SerenaSlam. The catsuit was a symbolic representation of everything that seemed to fuel the Williamses. They would take everyone’s disapproval, run it through the family catalytic converter and turn it into wins. They carried themselves like professional wrestling villains who relish ticking everyone off by demolishing the favorites.
It made sense then, as Williams was beginning her postpartum comeback, that she’d don a catsuit at the 2018 French Open, albeit one that ran down the length of her legs. Williams was relying on the compression to aid in preventing blood clots. She said the catsuit made her feel like a “warrior princess” from Wakanda, and it caused so much of a stir that French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli banned it from future tournaments and accused Williams of not having enough respect for the game.
Williams enthusiastically embraces her role as a tennis iconoclast — one does not show up on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar seemingly inviting haters to kiss her unretouched bottom unless one takes pleasure in being defiantly cheeky. (Her husband, Alexis Ohanian, is a philosophical match, showing up wearing a D.A.R.E. T-shirt to Williams’ first-round contest against Maria Sharapova on Aug. 26. It appeared to be a rather pointed reference to Sharapova’s 2016 suspension for using the banned substance meldonium.)
But for much of Saturday, Catsuit Serena was nowhere to be found.
Williams entered Arthur Ashe Stadium the fan favorite and in one of the more conventional competition looks she’s ever worn outside of Wimbledon: a long-sleeved lilac top, paired with a twirly skater skirt. It seemed like an odd choice for a Serena final, especially one against a 19-year-old opponent whose aggressive, muscly style mimics her own. In Williams’ two previous matches, she wore a 2019 version of The Catsuit, this one designed by Nike. She also wore it in her opening victory over Sharapova. The material was more matte than wet n wild, but the message it carried was the same: “I’m nearly 38, I almost died giving birth, and no, you’re still not ready for this jelly.”
She pounded down quarterfinal and semifinal victories against Qiang Wang and Elina Svitolina, respectively, with her brand-name style of fierce, authoritative drop shots, excellent serving and unrelenting dominance. Knowing her preference for quick, soul-demolishing baseline games, her opponents would try to force her to the net. It didn’t matter. Her look matched her game. Saturday, however, was another story.
At this point, Williams need not accomplish another thing to prove that she’s the Greatest of All Time. Saturday, she wouldn’t even acknowledge that she’s eyeing Court’s record.
“I’m not necessarily chasing a record,” Williams said in her postmatch news conference. “I’m just trying to win Grand Slams. It’s definitely frustrating, you know. But for the most part, I just am still here. I’m still doing what I can do.”
But Williams has now lost four straight Grand Slam finals, and the 2019 losses, in particular, have come after exciting tournament runs characterized, by, well, Catsuit Tennis. She’s still terrific, but her position within the game has changed. She’s no longer the upstart foil. Now she’s a respected grande dame.
If she is to tie Court’s record and then surpass it, another catsuit might be exactly what she needs.