A welcome return for Serena Williams
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Good. That's how I felt when I heard Serena Williams had entered the Indian Wells tennis tournament after a 14-year absence.
It's not just the fact that the BNP Paribas Open is one of the more prestigious events of the year and Williams' absence from a tournament in her home state has been conspicuous and just a bad thing for tennis and for Williams.
When the trouble occurred there in 2001, frankly, I thought it sounded overblown on both sides. Venus had pulled out of her semifinal match against Serena, citing a leg injury, just four minutes before taking the court. Two days later, when Serena took the court for the final, fans booed her badly, and their father Richard later said racial epithets were directed at him in the stands.
The backdrop was comments by Elena Dementieva, who, after losing to Venus in the quarters, was asked for a prediction for the all-Williams semi and said it depended on who Richard decided would win.
It was nothing new, really. The sisters had a hard time playing each other in their early years; it often brought out the worst tennis in both of them, and there were always whispers about the influence of their dad, who, like many tennis parents, was an enormously strong influence on his kids.
Also, though Venus (then No. 3 and 20 years old) was ranked higher than Serena (No. 6 and 19), Serena was a considered the faster rising star and the prevailing thought was that Richard wanted to give Serena more confidence.
Any proof? No. And I'm not even sure the Williams cared much about the whispers until the National Enquirer got a hold of the story and accused the sisters of fixing the result of their 2000 Wimbledon semifinal, which was won by Venus.
It was an ugly accusation, to be sure, and there was no concrete evidence to support it. At the time, the Enquirer had a lot less credibility than it does now -- and it doesn't have a ton now.
But the Williams were mad at everyone.
Richard shook his fist at the booing crowd before Serena's final. Serena suggested race had something to do with the booing, and a week and a half later, Richard told USA Today:
"When Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me 'n-----.' One said, 'I wish it was '75, we'd skin you alive.' … I think Indian Wells disgraced America."
Since then, the Williams have not returned to Indian Wells.
One of the things that exacerbated the problems, in retrospect, was that though the Williams and their father were seldom given the benefit of the doubt, Richard had long been a polarizing and sometimes disruptive figure who was fiercely protective, which often came off as hostile.
Also, Venus and Serena were not just loyal to each other, they were, and still are, loyal to their father. They also were young, and did not always express themselves well, preferring, it seemed, the sarcastic comment to straightforwardness.
Was the treatment of the women and their dad all shrouded in racism? No doubt some of it was, and coming up in a largely white sport, they had certainly learned to recognize it.
Did the tournament take the brunt of the blame for a handful of racist fans? Yep. But the boos, whether Venus was injured or not, should have been expected in that case and even Venus acknowledged a week later that fans had paid for their tickets, though she ended up saying the boos were still unfair and lectured the media for the treatment of the whole thing in the interest of selling papers.
The Williams were certainly justified for not wanting to go back to Indian Wells the following year. Maybe even the year after that. But 14 years was too much and just built up more ill will on both sides.
Give the tournament and today's fans -- few of whom were probably there in 2001 -- a chance to make it up to them, to apologize again, to move on. It's time.
Tournament officials have made a point of saying that although Serena has entered the event, she can withdraw at any point beforehand.
Last week in Melbourne, Serena was asked if, in the spirit of the late Nelson Mandela's message of "forgiveness and reconciliation," she might reconsider playing in the March event.
"It actually crossed my mind not too long ago when I went to see the movie," she said. "I thought about it. … Mandela was a really amazing man. I felt really honored to have a chance to meet him, get to know him a little bit and get to know his story a little better."
It's a good thing.