The Triumphant Return of Serena Williams to Indian Wells
Niall Clarke, Tennis Atlantic
Despite all the action that will take place on the court, the biggest news circulating around the event is that Serena Williams will be returning to the tournament for the first time in 14 years.
In 2001, the world number one’s triumph at Indian Wells was overshadowed by an incident which has “haunted” her and her family for a long time. The reaction they received during the women’s final that year meant that the Williams sisters refused to play one of tennis’ most prestigious tournaments for over a decade, and it’s only now that Serena has decided to end her boycott.
In an exclusive with TIME magazine, the 19 time Grand Slam champion announced her decision to return to the Indian Wells tennis Garden this year, the setting of the ‘darkest’ moment of her career.
The controversy started before the Williams sisters were set to clash in the semi-finals of the Indian Wells tournament in 2001. After Venus had dispatched Elena Dementieva to set up the sibling match-up, the Russian controversially stated that Richard Williams (father of Serena and Venus) decides the outcome of their matches.
From Dementieva’s Press conference:
Q: Any predictions on tomorrow’s match between sisters?
Dementieva: I mean, I don’t know what Richard thinks about it. I think he will decide who’s going to win tomorrow.
Q: Do a lot of players in the locker room feel that way — that Richard decides who wins the matches?
Dementieva: No, I don’t think so. I didn’t talk about it with the other players.
Q: But you have that feeling?
Q: That it’s a family decision?
Dementieva: Yeah, because I remember when they played in Lipton. If you saw this match, it was so funny.
The WTA didn’t refute the comments made by the tournament’s eighth seed. On top of Dementieva’s comments, The National Enquirer magazine had also accused the Williams family of match fixing, saying that Serena had let her older sister win their 2000 Wimbledon semi-final. The magazine quote two sources, claiming that Richard Williams had pre-arranged the outcome.
Richard’s nephew Franklin Davi, was reported saying at the time that ‘Richard told me he ordered Serena to lose.’
And Diane Tucker, who had a romance with Richard, alleged: ‘Richard said to me, “I am feeling kind of sad because Serena is all sad. I told her to lose and let Venus win. Serena is devastated”.’
On the day of the semi-final showdown, fans were anticipating the players’ arrival onto the court. However, neither sister appeared. Unfortunately, Venus had pulled out the semi-final four minutes before the match was set to start, citing tendinitis. This caused uproar among fans and tennis commentators, as we were only a day removed from match-fixing claims.
Tournament director Charlie Pasarell expressed his disappointment. “I only wish she had at least gone out and given it a try.” He said. “This hurts the game of tennis more than the individual tournament.”
Later that evening, Venus conducted a press conference about her withdrawal.
From Venus’ Press conference:
Q: You and Serena often don’t play non-Slam tournaments together. Elena, yesterday, and a number of people before her, made the charge that your dad decides the matches. Some people putting these two things together are saying that this was something decided within your family. What would you say to people who would make that comment?
Venus: Everyone has their own opinion.
Q: Is that opinion a false one or otherwise?
Venus: No, it’s not a true opinion at all. Everyone makes their own comments. That’s how rumours get started. I guess rumours are more exciting than the truth.
Serena also conducted a press conference that night.
From Serena’s press conference:
Serena: We’re competitors and we always go out to compete, and that’s how it’s always been. I think maybe if my dad would decide, then maybe Venus wouldn’t be up 4-1, maybe it would be three-all by now.
The following day, the media began asking questions. Bill Dwyre of the LA Times wrote a column asking why the sisters weren’t more assertive with their denials. ‘They deny, but with less than the normal conviction, even anger, one would expect in the face of such serious issues. How about pounding on the table and saying it ain’t so? How about some tears, some anger?’ Dwyre wrote.
A Reuters reporter approached Richard Williams to discuss Venus’ withdrawal. He said, “From now on, I don’t speak English, I don’t speak English.”
WTA then-CEO Bart McGuire refused to call a press conference, but he issued the following statement.
McGuire: “The tour is aware of the assertions being circulated regarding Venus and Serena Williams’ head-to-head matches. We have seen no evidence to support those assertions, and both players have denied them.”
Finals day soon came that Saturday, and there to show support for Serena were Venus and Richard Williams. As the pair took their seats to watch Serena face Kim Clijsters in the final, they were received by loud boos from the 16,000 fans in attendance. There were no comments about racial remarks made to the tournament officials. The heckling continued throughout the match, as Serena was also received with a negative reception. She went on to win the match 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
From Serena’s press conference:
Q: Even if the crowd booed you today, do you wish to come back next year?
Serena: I have a championship to defend next year. You’ll probably see me here.
Q: Do you think race has anything to do with this?
Serena: Race? I think, you know, black people have been out of slavery now for just over a hundred years, and people are still kind of struggling a little bit. It hasn’t been that long. I don’t know if race has anything to do with this particular situation. But in general I think, yeah, there’s still a little problem with racism in America.
The following day, the media reported the negative reception Venus, Serena and Richard Williams received that day. Comments were made about Venus’s lack of strapping on her ‘injured’ knee, and Richard shaking his fist at the crowd before signalling for security.
It wasn’t until the following week at the Miami open that Venus was pressed about the issue.
From Venus’ press conference in Miami
Q: Venus, given that you like to take the fall, you’d rather absorb the hurt than see Serena absorb the hurt, how hard was it for you to sit in the stands and hear her being booed or you or dad being booed?
Venus: I didn’t feel bad about being booed because if people feel like that, if they aren’t my fan, I can’t change their mind.
Q: Did you think the response to last week via the crowd and press was unfair, or do you understand how that response was?
Venus: Well, I think the crowd may have felt slighted in a way that they didn’t have the opportunity to see the match, and I understand that they, you know, paid money, possibly the semifinals — I don’t understand the ticketing. Maybe it costs more than a first-round match, the ticket. I can understand that. As far as the press, I don’t always understand you all, but I do know that you want a big story. I do understand that you’re interested in selling papers. It’s all a business. Everything is tennis for me, it’s my career and it’s entertainment, but it’s also a business. But all of it, I think, was a lot — not very necessary.
Nine days removed from the Indian Wells final, Richard Williams finally broke his silence on the issue. In a USA Today article he was quoted saying “”When Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me ‘n…..er.’ One said, ‘I wish it was ’75, we’d skin you alive.’ … I think Indian Wells disgraced America.”
No racial comments were reported at that time.
The press questioned Venus on these comments.
Q: On that article that was in the paper, do you have any comment on it about what they claim, racism and all that junk?
Venus: I, um, did not see that article. Nor do I read the papers, especially during tournament time. But I don’t think racism is junk at all.
Q: Your dad talked about racial taunts that he heard, I guess, before the final involving Serena. What were you aware of?
Venus: As far as what?
Q: What did you hear? Did you hear the same kind of thing?
Venus: I heard whatever he heard.
Q: Which was what?
Venus: I think you already know.
Q: Have you considered if you’re going to go back to Indian Wells?
Venus: It’s a year away. Hopefully, I’ll be healthy enough to just be playing.
Q: So you would go back there?
Venus: Only if they want me.
Q: Did you think the booing was racially motivated?
Venus: What do you think?
Q: I wasn’t there.
Venus: I can’t say. I mean, the questions are redundant. It’s already 10 days ago. Whatever happened, happened. I can’t change it. There’s nothing I can do about it.
Serena was also questioned in a press conference that day.
Q: Regarding the comments that there is racism. Is this something you think people need to address?
Serena: Yeah, I understand that he did make comments. But you know what, like I said in my other interviews, I don’t really read the papers and that’s it. I just — I woke up late today and I was running late on practice, I haven’t — I just actually saw something in the USA Today, just briefly. But then I had to run here.
Q: Did he not talk to you about the racial comments he made?
Serena: My dad never told me that. I’m glad he didn’t because I — maybe I would have been a little more emotional about it. So fathers and parents know what’s best to do for their child. They try to safeguard them and keep them in a bubble, so to say, so if something hits it, it just bounces off and I won’t be able to feel it.
Q: Have you heard any similar comments yourself while playing tennis on the court?
Serena: Let’s see. Let me think about it. I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t remember. I don’t know.
Interestingly enough, Elena Dementieva retracted her comments about the Williams sisters’ match fixing, claiming that she was ‘Kidding’.
Nevertheless, the incident massively affected Serena, Venus and their entire family. So much so, that neither would play at Indian Wells again for well over a decade.
Serena commented about the effects in her TIME magazine exclusive.
“When I was booed at Indian Wells—by what seemed like the whole world—my voice of doubt became real. I didn’t understand what was going on in that moment. But worse, I had no desire to even win. It happened very quickly.” Serena stated.
“This haunted me for a long time. It haunted Venus and our family as well. But most of all, it angered and saddened my father. He dedicated his whole life to prepping us for this incredible journey, and there he had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South.”Embed from Getty Images
14 years later, the world number one has decided to make her long awaited return to Indian Wells much to the delight of tennis fans across the globe. Serena has stated that she felt the sport has grown, evident by the swift action taken by the WTA after Russian tennis administrator Shamil Tarpischev called Serena and Venus “The Williams Brothers.” He was fined and banned for one year. The growth of the sport is largely be attributed to the Williams’ sisters, who have become the face of the WTA and women’s sport in general. Their success and general popularity has transcended the barriers of sport, as over the years Serena and her sister Venus have become not only big names in Tennis, but across popular culture. Despite the calls for the sisters to come back from fans, and the tournament director, Serena and Venus continued to stay strong to their word until Serena announced her return last month. The world number one claims she has followed her heart on this one, and has picked now as the right time to return to Indian Wells.
Despite the 2001 controversy, Serena has had a lot of positive experiences as a player at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. She made her professional debut there in 1997, partnering with her sister in the doubles. It was also Serena’s first major title, as she defeated Steffi Graf in the final two years later.
The events in 2001 are still open to perception this very day. Whether or not any racist comments were made, Serena and her sister certainly believed their father. With that plus the reception they received on that Saturday, it is understandable why they were upset. Did it warrant a 14 year boycott? I don’t know, but it’s certainly an issue that ran deep into the hearts of the Williams sisters.
As a fan of the sport, I am glad Serena has decided to return to Indian Wells, as the tournament has certainly missed her and Venus (who still continues to boycott). As one of the most prestigious tournaments on the calendar, you want to see the very best compete for the right to be called champion, and they don’t get much better than Serena Williams. It will be great to see the world number one compete against her fellow top players in front of a capacity crowd of 16,000, as they produce the best tennis the WTA has to offer.
Serena will enter the favourite as she does in every tournament. However, the most interesting aspect of her return will not be what happens on the court, but rather the reaction she will receive. Will the Indian Wells crowd welcome her back with open arms? Or will we see a negative reaction due to the boycott? We won’t find out until she steps on to court this week.
I for one hope it all goes smoothly and we can enjoy one of the all-time greats doing what she does best; playing tennis.