Venus Williams' rise from the rough streets of Compton, Calif., to become a world-champion tennis player is an incredible, inspiring tale. Along with her sister Serena, Venus Williams has smashed the country-club stereotype with a force harder than one of her blistering serves.
But a problem that has developed over the last few years is continuing to grow: Through two rounds of the 2011 Australian Open, before a hip-flexor injury forced her to withdraw on Friday, Williams' attire was getting more notice than her play. As a fashion designer with her own clothing line, she likes the attention. But she's sending the wrong message through some of her outfits, which skew closer to bad than good in the taste department.
Wednesday's choice in her second-round victory against Sandra Zahlavova was a citrus-colored, basket-weave top. It was another talker, for sure, but nothing compared to Monday's outfit, a formfitting, blue minidress no longer than a T-shirt. Thank goodness she decided at the last minute to forgo the "illusion" underwear she unveiled last year: flesh-colored shorts that made it appear as if she weren't wearing any drawers at all. The misimpression was so convincing, Deadspin and other outlets asked the question, "Did Venus Go Commando?"
Last year also brought us the Hoochie Mama special, which she trotted out in the third round of the U.S. Open. A glorified, Spandex-like tank top, it was paired with matching, bedazzled panties that got as much airtime as the net itself. The top rode up to her waist during most points, causing her to constantly fidget and squirm and readjust.
It became a major topic during the broadcast and led to a "tug count" graphic, showing how many times Williams and her opponent pulled at their respective outfits following a point. She led her opponent in that category 42-4. To call the outfit a distraction is a major understatement.
She also sported a lingerie-style outfit at the French Open, wearing a lacy, black-and-red dress that was part cancan, part corset and all bedroom — if not gentleman's club. The flesh-colored shorts drew more attention to her backside than to her backhand.
Maybe it's a generational thing and the controversy doesn't affect Generations X and Y, which have grown up in an era where bare skin and titillation are the norm in media and entertainment. Even folks within the same age group, no matter which one, can have wildly differing opinions on style and taste, on what's appropriate and what crosses the line. I get it. And I'm certainly not suggesting that Williams and other female players return to Victorian-style tennis attire.
I just think the racy, suggestive outfits are sending the wrong message to girls who are already bombarded with such. Yes, sex sells. But a lot of our daughters have taken that fact too far, to the point of believing that their bodies are more valuable than their brains.
Overall, Williams is an excellent role model, an example of what can be accomplished regardless of where you're from. I just wish she would tone it down a bit when it comes to her attire — for her sake and for the sake of all the little girls who look up to her.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Venus Williams' grand-slam record.
Deron Snyder, an award-winning journalist who covers sports, politics and pop culture, is a regular contributor to The Root; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.