Love her or not, Serena Williams earns the attention she commands.
Nowhere was that more evident than during Thursday’s pre-match press conference at the BNP Paribas Open, her first face-to-face with a packed media room since that awful day in 2001, when she won the title and vowed never to return.
It was just too hurtful, Williams declared.
“I can’t say that I thought I would come back, to be honest,” she said. “I felt like I did what I needed to do. I finished my career in terms of being here at a particular moment. But, at the same time, yeah, I actually never thought I would come back.”
No one will ever know what she felt in her heart, how her emotions were kept in check when crowds booed and hurled nasty comments at her. The barrage extended through the entire match. However many times she out served or out maneuvered her opponent, a young Kim Clijsters, the fracas continued.
“I was a teenager,” Williams began, when asked is she felt she had any reason to apologize for the incidents. “I have a tremendous amount of integrity from the day I stepped out on the court professionally until today. That’s all I’m going to say about that.”
The 2001 title was her second here; she also won in 1999, defeating Steffi Graf.
Williams’ resume since has expanded in every form of dimension. She is the number one player in the world, and the oldest number player ever to sit at the top of the charts.
Her decision to return, to face whatever lay in front of her, was a group effort, she said. She spoke with her family, spent time with her father and relied as always, on the guidance of big-sister Venus.
“I feel if she didn’t support me I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “If she said, ‘Serena, I don’t think this is good; I don’t think you should go,’ then there is no chance I would be here right now. She one-hundred percent supports me and is very happy that I’m here, and even encouraged me to come.”
Forgiveness, in part, motivated Williams to reverse the tide of her boycott.
“In order to forgive you have to be able to really let go of everything,” she began. “I kind of did that a long time ago. But I still wasn’t at a point where I was ready to come back to Indian Wells. I was a little nervous. Trying to get over those nerves of coming back, and how will I feel, and what’s it’s going to be like. I have to experience that.
“When you do forgive, you have to let a lot those emotions go.”
The top seed barely moved a muscle during the 20-minute press conference. Her hair was neatly pulled back and tied snugly at the nape of her neck. She wore a Nike shirt and jacket; the Puma she donned during her two title runs, a distant memory. A simple combination of black and white, nothing as bright as her neon yellow dress she wore at the Australian Open. The only bling was a sparkly emerald green headband.
It stood out in an otherwise subdued show of fashion.
In addition to forgiveness and her sister’s blessing, Williams relied on family for strength as she waded through the years and experiences each spring brought. Finally, she approached her parents, Oracene Price and Richard Williams.
“I told mom, and I was a little nervous about what she would say,” she said. “She just listened to my whole story. I kind of told her what I felt about it, what she thought about it.”
This was long before conversations with Larry Ellison – co-founder of Oracle and biggest stake holder in the the BNP Paribas Open – Tournament Director Steve Simon, and CEO Henry Moore, all on hand today. This was long before she approached Time Magazine.
“She said, I’ll be there for you. Whatever you need, I’m going to be there to support you.”
She was a little shocked, but the feeling coming from her mother was “wonderful.”
Her father was also supportive.
“He said it would be a big mistake if I didn’t go back. I thought that was really admirable.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner and President of South Africa from 1994-1999, Nelson Mandela, further steered her toward acceptance; she had read his much-acclaimed book, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.
“I met Mr. Mandela a couple times,” she said, looking thoughtful. “We had some interesting conversations, which hit me hard. He made such an impact on my life, and the things that I do with charity.”
Early in March, Serena joined forced with EJI — Equal Justice Initiative — using her return to Indian Wells, “as an opportunity to support EJI’s work confronting racial inequality and justice,” a statement which appears on its web site.
“I think a lot of the things that have been happening lately definitely played a part in the whole picture,” she said. “I thought it was really good timing, not just for me but for American in general, to step up and say, ‘We as as people, we as Americans, we can do better, we can be better, and we are better.’”
The BNP Paribas Open is certainly better with Serena Williams in the draw. Since her departure, she’s accumulated 63 career titles (65 overall), and over $66 million in tournament prize money. She has a grand total of 19 Grand Slam singles and 13 Grand Slam doubles crowns, plus a Gold Medal in singles from the London Olympics, and three Gold Medals in doubles.
Serena “honestly” doesn’t remember what the Indian Wells Tennis Garden looked like in 2001. Maybe her lapse in memory can be attributed to post traumatic stress, but no medical conclusion has ever been revealed. No one needs that type of confirmation, either. The years away speak clearly.
“I remember sitting down and praying,” she said, her head bent forward. “I think I was losing actually in the first set and I said, I don’t want to win this match I just want to get through this moment. I don’t know what happened. I just won after that.”
Sounds about right. And, she’s done just that since.