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.
The next day, four minutes before their semifinal matchup, Venus withdrew with an injury, thereby sending Serena to the finals. She’d play – and defeat – Kim Clijsters, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who remembers anything about the actual match. Fans thought the fix was in; Serena was booed and mocked throughout, and when Venus and Richard appeared in the grandstands to watch, they were heckled mercilessly. At one point, Richard turned and shook his fist at someone. Nine days later, he would tell USA Today that he was responding to racial taunts.
“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,'” he said. “I had trouble holding back tears. I think Indian Wells disgraced America.”
Some people say it didn’t happen that way, that Richard either made up what was said or exaggerated it. ESPN wrote that officials at Indian Wells did not receive a single report of racist comments from any of the other 15,938 spectators in attendance that day. I can’t speculate about what a few people might have said in a crowd. But I can tell you that crowd was ugly. And why? It was about distrust of the Williams sisters based on culture shock.
The Williams sisters were still young then – Serena was 19 – yet they were wise enough to read the writing on the wall. Soon after the incident, they both said they’d never come back to Indian Wells, one of tennis’ most important tournaments. And despite the efforts of tournament officials over the years (and the occasional tease from Serena herself), they’ve remained true to their word. Until now.
“There are some who say I should never go back. There are others who say I should’ve returned years ago. I’m just following my heart on this one,” Serena wrote when announcing her return. “I’m fortunate to be at a point in my career where I have nothing to prove. I play for the love of the game. And it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015.”
In a lot of ways, her return is fitting. Indian Wells is a resort community near Palm Springs, about 125 miles from Compton, where Richard Williams used to hit half-deflated tennis balls to his daughters. Thirty years later, they have combined to win 26 Grand Slam singles titles (and another 13 Grand Slam doubles titles), and profoundly changed the sport in ways we’re still attempting to measure.
Thanks to their accomplishments and efforts, perhaps tennis – more than any other sport – is equipped to have meaningful discussions about race. And maybe, by coming back to Indian Wells, a place that made her feel “unwelcome, alone and afraid,” Serena is showing us the true power of forgiveness, the genuine grace of acceptance. It’s worth noting that she isn’t returning with a chip on her shoulder; instead, she is older, wiser, at ease with both her game and her place in tennis history.
“I have faith that fans at Indian Wells have grown with the game and know me better than they did in 2001,” she wrote in Time. “Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story, and I am a part of the tournament’s story as well. Together we have a chance to write a different ending.”
And you can bet this is one chance she’s not going to waste. Serena has enjoyed no shortage of success since that Indian Wells tournament in 2001, but by ending her boycott and coming back, she’s letting it be known that she is no longer willing to be defined by the past. Forgive? Sure. Forget? Probably not. Because this is about something more: She’s coming to California to take the power back.