A mere three days after the Australian Open ended, Serena Williams dropped an absolute bombshell in what should have been a quiet week of ATP 250s and Fed Cup: the World No. 1 announced that she would return to Indian Wells following a 13-year absence.
TTI takes a look at the cause, consequence and reaction to the American’s return to Southern California.
When Serena Williams stepped on court to play the 2001 Indian Wells final, she had no way of knowing what was about to unfold. A short time prior to the players’ arrival to the stadium, father Richard and sister Venus descended to the player’s box, amidst a cascade of boos.
Richard Williams had long been a controversial figure in the media, dogged by several allegations and rumors from “close friends” that he would decide the winner if his daughters met in an official WTA match. After losing to Venus Williams in the quarterfinals, Elena Dementieva added fuel to the fire when she was asked to predict the outcome of the semifinals:
ELENA DEMENTIEVA: I mean, I don’t know what Richard think about it. I think he will decide who’s going to win tomorrow. But it looks like Serena because I saw a little bit of this match, she play extremely well. I think she will be on the final
NB: A week later in Miami, Dementieva claimed she was joking about the matter.
The controversy came to a head when the sisters were then slated to meet in the semifinals. Minutes before the match, it was announced that Venus Williams had withdrawn from the match due tendinitis. The Williams family have since noted that they did everything within the rules, but had to wait hours for the trainer to allow the withdrawal.
For a crowd waiting to see two of the world’s best players compete, it was a massive disappointment. But the incident was hardly handled well by the tournament officials, and the lack of clear announcements certainly didn’t help matters. In the final against then-rising star Kim Clijsters, boos rained down the Californian desert; the crowd boisterously cheered a young Serena Williams’ every missed serve and mistake – but the American showed her now signature grit to prevail in three sets:
But nearly 14 years on, no withdrawal has ever triggered the same vitriolic reaction.
For a long time, it was more than boos or mean-spirited cheers that haunted the Williams family. All three present at the match more or less confirmed hearing racial insults on that fateful Saturday in Coachella Valley. First, Richard Williams talked to Doug Smith from USA Today during that year’s Miami tournament. The relative silence from Venus Williams essentially confirmed her father’s comments.
Finally, Serena Williams described the incident in her 2009 autobiography, On The Line:
“There was no mistaking that all of this was meant for me. I heard the word n***** a couple times, and I knew. I couldn’t believe it. That’s just not something you hear in polite society on that stadium court…Just before the start of play, my dad and Venus started walking down the aisle to the players’ box by the side of the court, and everybody turned and started to point and boo at them. … It was mostly just a chorus of boos, but I could still hear shouts of ‘N*****!’ here and there. I even heard one angry voice telling us to go back to Compton. It was unbelievable.”
The Indian Wells final was a match that dominated discussion for much of 2001. The 17-year-old Clijsters was asked to comment on the situation following her loss in what reads like an awkward (at best) press conference. Many op-eds emerged throughout the media, with some of them getting it horribly wrong. Tournament director Charlie Pasarell didn’t necessarily ease tensions when he conceded, “if Richard [Williams] says someone yelled something, maybe they did, but I know that’s not Indian Wells people!”
Tournament officials never received complaints of racial slurs – but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.Embed from Getty Images
Fourteen years, 18 Grand Slams singles titles and three Olympic gold medals since that infamous tournament, Serena Williams has decided to return to the stage that arguably birthed her biggest demons. Having been jeered and insulted by an ostensibly home turf crowd, the World No. 1 has stated more than once that she feels a lack of support when she played events at home.
Such a sentiment hardly comes as a surprise when, even ignoring the Indian Wells debacle, the rest of her most notable on-court struggles have arose stateside. From horrible line calls, history’s most (in)famous foot faults or hindrances – all have gone down at the US Open. For Venus Williams, too, it wasn’t until her second round loss to Angelique Kerber at Flushing over two years ago that “today [she] felt American for the first time at the US Open.”
In her essay for TIME magazine, the 2015 Australian Open champion explains the reasons behind her choice to play Indian Wells again. Perhaps seeking to reclaim the piece of herself she believes she lost, Williams plans to raise money for the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to provide legal representation to those denied fair and just treatment.
The reactions to Williams’ return after over a decade covered all facets of human emotion. Most were surprised to say the least, particularly since the American herself only recently said that she often enjoys a “mini-vacation” during Indian Wells. Others were happy about the news and impressed with her bravery to write, to borrow a phrase from Williams herself, “a different ending.” But there were also voices of disappointment over her decision to abandon her previous resolution to never play Indian Wells again.
All of these emotions, in their own way, make perfect sense.
As far as I’m concerned, if a 19-time major champion feels it’s time for her to return to Indian Wells, then it probably is. But no one could have held it against her had she ultimately decided to stay away from Palm Springs forever.
When Serena Williams steps back on court in California, it will likely be a defining moment in her career, one that ought to be met with the dignity and respect absent from her last appearance.
But none of this means that anyone should forget March 17, 2001, even if a legend of the game has graciously decided to move forward. It will forever be a stain on the sport, and the responsibility to prevent history from repeating falls on each and every one of us in tennis, as in life.