INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Serena Williams could not contain the tears in her eyes as she stood on the podium, thanking the crowd for their unbridled support the past 10 days at Indian Wells.
Williams lost the championship match 6-3, 6-4 to Victoria Azarenka, but the forgiveness and affection she showed outweighed her rather lackluster performance Sunday.
It was the kind of forgiveness Indian Wells tournament CEO Raymond Moore probably hopes he will receive one day.
Hours before the final began, Moore unleashed some offensive and sexist comments, saying that in his "next life, when I come back, I want to be someone in the WTA because they ride on the coattails of the men."
Fortunately for women's tennis, Williams and Azarenka provided the actions and comments we should pay far more attention to. Even if the match was not an instant classic like so many of their other encounters, the finalists undoubtedly validated just how significant and far-reaching women's tennis is today when they spoke afterward.
"I wanted to first address a personal thank you to Serena," Azarenka said. "I know how emotional it was for you to be back here and you truly inspired so many people out there. To see the type of commitment you have to the game is truly inspiring. Thank you for that from the bottom of my heart. You are an amazing competitor. You changed our game, and honestly, and if it wasn't for you, how hard you work, and seeing you play so well, I wouldn't have been motivated to come back and work so hard."
Serena has played professionally for 20 years, but she said she never felt that emotional at a postmatch presentation ceremony.
"Obviously, the last time I was there was probably the worst moment of my whole career," Williams said to the crowd. "Not probably. Sure it was. To be back out there, which I never thought I would be, was really different and special. I was overwhelmed with emotions and nerves. Obviously, I think everything kind of played a part."
Serena was looking to win her first Indian Wells final since the infamous 2001 tournament, where she was soundly booed a day after sister Venus withdrew from their semifinal match with an injury. The sisters boycotted Indian Wells for well more than a decade; Serena returned last year and Venus this season.
Serena was expected to win this year, but she was frustrated throughout the encounter to the point where she smashed her racket onto the court at one point.
On the cusp of winning a calendar Slam last year, Serena has not won a tournament since Cincinnati last August. In January, she reached the Australian Open final but fell to Angelique Kerber in straight sets.
Before Serena, Azarenka was the world's No. 1 player. But she had been dealing with a string of injuries and personal issues she says led to a bout of depression.
But largely inspired by Serena, Azarenka is back in the top 10, and showed it Sunday. She attacked aggressively and took chances. She saved 11 of 12 break points and became the first player to beat Serena in four career singles finals. Although she is 4-17 against Williams overall, Azarenka is now 4-5 versus her rival in finals.
"I'm very honored to play against the best player in the world,'' Azarenka said. "I really mean that. She's absolutely transformed women's sport. Her and Venus brought something unique and lifted it up. The power, the intensity, the records that I'm pretty sure she's going to break at some point."
Keep working. Keep playing. Keep trying to win. Keep trying to be the best. And be happy to stand tall. Those are the words that fans should pay attention to and follow, not Moore's.
"A sad irony is these comments were made on a day we should have been celebrating Serena getting back to a final and all the forgiveness and recovery made after all that happened 15 years ago," ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said. "Women's tennis had a great day today, and I hope at the end of this controversy that it was a great day for tennis."