History has a funny way of repeating itself. Fourteen years ago at Indian Wells, 20-year-old Venus Williams withdrew from her semifinal match against her sister, 19-year-old Serena, citing a knee injury.
On Friday, 33-year-old Serena was forced to withdraw from her semifinal match against World Number 3 Simona Halep at the same tournament, also citing a knee injury. Thankfully, the parallels stopped there.
Fourteen years ago, the tournament made a PA announcement just four minutes before the much-anticipated match between the Williams sisters was due to start. Venus later claimed she had informed the event of her injury much earlier than that. At any rate, the crowd was not thrilled: they booed.
Last Friday, the tournament was told about the decision during the second set of the first women's semifinal, and Serena Williams used Instagram – where she is followed by more than 1 million people – to make the announcement during that same set. The tournament itself (follower count: 87,800), after tweeting out that the match between former World No. 1 Jelena Jankovic and one time Wimbledon runner-up Sabine Lisicki was heading to a deciding third set, followed suit.
As a natural consequence of living in 2015, we had this, just 39 minutes after the tournament made their announcement:
Murmur is swelling in the crowd at Indian Wells. And I am holding my breath.— Louisa Thomas (@louisahthomas) March 21, 2015
In 2001, a doubles match was hastily arranged as a substitute for the Williams Sisters Derby, many ticket holders angrily headed to the box office to demand a refund and wild rumors involving all sorts of conspiracy theories spread. Venus Williams did not address the crowd, and it's not clear whether she was even given the option to.
In 2015, Serena was not only allowed to explain her situation, she pushed for the opportunity. Once Jankovic beat Lisicki, the tournament made an announcement over the PA system, and then Andrew Krasny, the emcee for the event, came onto the court, followed by Williams. Then this happened:
Notice that Krasny, before asking Serena a single question, puts his arm around her, and proceeds to shower her with compliments. He's not representing his own views exclusively; he's obviously talking on behalf of the event itself. He welcomes Serena "home," and tells her that "we love you" not once, not twice, but three times. Serena proceeds to explain the situation with her knee – she had hurt it in practice before the tourney, kept playing, but the situation worsened ahead of the semifinal, and she could barely walk – and promises to come back next year. Krasny tells her that "we love you" once again, and tells Serena there's always a place for her at Indian Wells. Everyone cheers, and Serena remains in the stadium signing autographs. The following sentiment is shared by many:
Also: whew.— Brian Phillips (@runofplay) March 21, 2015
In 2001, after Venus retired from her semifinal against her sister, the main stadium at Indian Wells witnessed a truly abhorrent scene. Those wealthy/fortunate enough to acquire tickets to watch the women's final decided to express their opinions on Venus' retirement by booing Serena throughout the match. What was fueling the fire? Here is a day-by-day account of it. In short: rumors that Venus' injury was a hoax, and her father and coach, Richard Williams, was the one making the call in order to give Serena passage to the final. No proof has ever been found to substantiate any of this, even if Elena Dementieva, a fellow WTA player, made the allegation. As an added "bonus," the National Enquirer had earlier claimed that the 2000 Wimbledon semifinal between the two siblings had also been fixed. At any rate, the crowd started booing the moment Richard and Venus appeared in the grandstands to take watch Serena play, and they didn't let up. It was an ugly scene, to say the least.
Later, Richard would make allegations that he and Venus were racially abused amidst the jeering, claims that were recently substantiated by fans who attended that day. The crowd booed Serena's arrival, and the jeers didn't stop throughout the final. The Williams sisters have said the tournament never apologized to them. Indeed, it took a whole week for the tournament director to condemn the booing. Venus and Serena would not set foot in Indian Wells for 14 years.
Yesterday, the Indian Wells final between Simona Halep and Jelena Jankovic transpired without issue (there was drama, but it was limited to the tennis. Halep won, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4).
What's changed since 2001? Pretty much everything. Technology, the tournament itself, Serena (and Venus and Richard), shoot, even tennis fans. Fourteen years ago, Venus' retirement from Indian Wells was the detonator of a powder keg that had been sitting dry for a long while. Back then, you could argue that the two young sisters weren't integrated into the wider tennis family; they were the new outsiders that were threatening to shake up women's tennis.
In 2015, Venus is the multi-Slam winner who doubles as the venerable elder stateswoman, an icon full of wisdom and experience. Serena is the ultra-dominant all-time great who, with 19 Grand Slam titles and a long stay at the No. 1 spot in the rankings, keeps strengthening her case as arguably the greatest women's tennis player in history. The sisters, now in their early thirties, are widely admired and embraced. Indeed, the crowd's reaction to Serena returning to the court at Indian Wells for her first match there after so long says it all:
So while technology, and a very proactive tennis tournament, did help make Friday's event go much smoother than in 2001, the circumstances surrounding the retirement are vastly different. No fellow WTA-er is alleging match-fixing against Serena. No tabloid is making similar allegations against her, her sister or her father. The WTA reacted swiftly and decisively last fall when someone (in this case, none other than the Russian Fed Cup captain) made crass remarks about the sisters' physicality. In 2001, when Elena Dementieva received no fine, let alone public censure from the WTA, for her match-fixing comments.
In 2001, a prominent tennis tournament was dealing with two young outsiders with no foothold in the tennis establishment. In 2015, that same tournament was dealing with a living legend. That's the difference, and it's not a small one. Which is why, to the relief of everyone involved with the sport, history did not completely repeat itself on Friday in Indian Wells, California. Serena entered this tournament with the hopes of rewriting history, and there's no denying she accomplished that. And while her hopes of a championship there may have to wait until next year, perhaps when she returns in 2016, she'll be bringing her sister back with her, to make history once again.