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Venus' moment mattered more than a match

Venus Williams' match may not have gone as planned, losing in straight sets to qualifier Kurumi Nara, but it was clear just being back at Indian Wells after a 15-year absence was more important than the result. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- The match was ugly. Cold, windy, wet and full of errors. In a perfect world, Venus Williams goes unscathed in her first match at Indian Wells after 15 seasons of self-imposed exile. She sweeps past her 89th-ranked opponent, a 24-year-old Japanese qualifier named Kurumi Nara, who hadn't won a set in their two previous matches. This then becomes a story about both reconciliation and on-court triumph.

Friday's result didn't fit that tidy narrative. Nara upset Williams on a frigid desert night. The match can be summed up quickly. Nara barely missed. Venus could never reliably find the court. Her forehands sailed. Her serve looked constantly off-kilter. The final score was 6-4, 6-3, but it didn't even feel that close.

Still, reconciliation and triumph remain important themes. For this was a night when the moment was bigger than the match. Venus Williams simply stepping back into a stadium where she'd once faced scarring hostility was more than enough.

"Wonderful," was how she described it, in a postmatch news conference that was remarkable for how often and how sincerely she smiled. "You know, 15 years later, to have such a joyous return ... a blessing."

The crowd had bathed her in a wave of ovations when she took the court, driving home the point that she'd been deeply missed, the same kind of reception given during younger sister Serena's return to the desert last year. Venus admitted she was so caught by emotion that she fought tears during the prematch coin toss and couldn't stop grinning during the warm-up. Not exactly the best way to prep for a big match, but afterward, looking back, she didn't seem to have regrets.

"We could have come back here and everyone could have picked up where they left off, but everyone was welcoming," she said, referencing her sister's appearance last year. "We came back. The change of attitudes on both ends isn't always easy, but it definitely was a two-way street. For it to work, both parties involved, both us and the fans had to have a positive attitude toward it. [And] that's how it worked."

What a difference the passage of time makes.

In 2001, Serena was still up and coming and Venus stood at the pinnacle of women's tennis. The year before, she'd been the player of the year and the winner at Wimbledon, the US Open and of an Olympic singles gold.

Indian Wells was Venus' third tournament in 2001. She struggled with a bum knee, inflamed by tendinitis, a tennis player's curse. Then came the decision that would shadow her family, and this tournament, for well over a decade. Just minutes before the semifinal against her sister -- the center-court stadium filled to its upper edge, television crews poised for a national broadcast -- she decided that she was so badly injured that she couldn't play.

The reaction was ugly. The stadium echoed with boos and swirled with a kind of en mass anger that, given the country's sordid racial history, African-Americans are keenly attuned to.

Some of the seething was no doubt fueled by the unfounded suspicion that Richard Williams, the sisters' father, had orchestrated a default so Serena and Venus wouldn't have to face off on the tournament's semifinal day. The harshness only peaked during the final. As the crowed aimed its ire at Serena for much of her hard-fought win over Kim Clijsters, Venus sat glumly with her father in the stands.

"We just cringed," recalled Steve Simon, chief executive of the Women's Tennis Association, when asked for his memories this week. In 2001, Simon was the Indian Wells assistant tournament director, as close to the scene as anyone. "It was the worst thing you could imagine. A very, very sad day for tennis."

For many on hand, the seething reaction had nothing to do with race. It was simply a natural response to the notion that the Williams family had duped the fans and was pulling a fast one on tennis. The Williams family, outsiders in a virtually all-white sport, felt differently. Richard Williams, who did not attend Friday's match, described the crowd as deeply racist and said he'd been called the N-word.

So, for years, both of the sisters stayed away. Even as the tournament became arguably the biggest title on the pro tennis calendar outside a Grand Slam, even as Venus continued winning major titles and Serena developed into one of the best to ever play, Indian Wells stayed off their calendar.

"If you feel like there is a place where you don't feel that welcome, then you can choose not to go somewhere where you don't feel comfortable being," Venus said after the loss to Nara. "At the time, I didn't feel comfortable. I wouldn't have felt comfortable coming back through those doors."

Of course, that all changed last year, with Serena's emotional return, the great champion fighting her own tears during the lengthy ovation before her first match.

Friday, finally, was all about Venus.

At 35, she is now likely edging toward the end of her career. 2001 seems a universe away. She has matured, becoming one of the tour's most astute leaders, and a fashion designer with her own clothing line. But in important ways, she remains the same: a private champion. Think about it: When was the last time you heard her really reveal herself? Unlike her sister, she doesn't really go there. In the run-up to Indian Wells, there were no news conferences, nor were there lengthy chats with reporters. She simply published an essay online, in The Players Tribune, writing about how she paved the way for Serena early on but now it was Serena's turn. Little sister's courage had cleared the path for big sister's comeback in the desert.

She wanted to let her game do the talking, but her game was too loose. The high emotion couldn't have helped. Same with the rain and cold and cyclonic wind. Or her dialed-in opponent. But the moment mattered more than the match. When it was over, Venus gathered her gear and walked slowly from the court, the finality of a hard loss forgotten as she waved at a stadium, fans loudly making it clear that she was loved.

"It would have been an even better moment to have a win and share that with the crowd, who have been so supportive and amazing," Venus said. "But not everything can end in a fairy tale. It's enough of a fairy tale to be here. Sometimes there's a little bit of a glitch. Doesn't mean I can't come back here next year and do better."