When Venus and Serena Williams first arrived in tennis, there was cause for celebration – and culture shock. Nearly two decades later, despite the sisters becoming the leaders of their sport and the most important American tennis stars in a generation, not much has changed.
Just three years ago, in the gold medal match at the London Olympics, Serena crushed Maria Sharapova, who is tall and blonde and gets more endorsement money than either Williams sister (or, really, anyone else in the sport). It happened at tennis’ most sacred place, Wimbledon, which represents not just the game’s history of elegance, but also elitism. And what did Serena do to punctuate her victory? A “Crip Walk” right there on Centre Court. Was that a social statement or merely a celebration? Probably a bit of both.
Because no matter how hard we try to make everything involving the Williams sisters a black-or-white issue, more often than not, there are shades of gray involved – you’re never 100 percent sure what it is that you’re seeing. In the confusion, no matter how many strides you take you just can’t get all the way there. There is no perfect understanding. So you take satisfaction in the strides.
And that’s why it’s such a big deal that Serena Williams will play at this week’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. For the first time since an ugly incident marred her 2001 tournament win – and began her 13-year boycott of the event – Serena feels comfortable going back to Indian Wells. Which is no small feat; despite all the changes that the Williams sisters have helped usher into tennis, that moment at Indian Wells has stood as an anchor to the sport’s exclusive past
“Indian Wells holds a special place in my heart,” Serena told Time magazine last month. “It’s where I won my first professional match, but it’s also where I lost a piece of myself. For a long time, I just couldn’t imagine revisiting one of the darkest moments of my career.
“Over the past few years, I’ve grown tremendously as a tennis player and, even more importantly, as a human being,” she continued. “That’s why I’ve decided to return to Indian Wells.”
Williams added that she felt tennis had grown, too. She pointed out that in October, longtime Russian tennis administrator Shamil Tarpischev made an ignorant joke, referring to her and Venus as the “Williams brothers.” A week later, the WTA fined Tarpischev $25,000 and banned him for a year. Serena saw the quick, decisive action as evidence of change. And she was right. But you can also see the sport transforming with the next wave of top young American women – Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend – and the appointment of Katrina Adams, a black woman and former player, as president of the United States Tennis Association. Tennis isn’t perfect. Nothing is. But the strides are real and meaningful.
And now Serena is returning to Indian Wells. Over the years, there has been plenty of debate about what really happened there in 2001, but these are the facts: One day before the Williams sisters were set to meet in the semifinals, reporters asked Elena Dementieva (whom Venus had just beaten to set up the showdown with Serena) which sibling would win. She answered that it would be up to their father, Richard, to decide – since he often determined the outcome of their matches. Dementieva would later claim she was joking. But the damage was done.