Sometimes, just sometimes, we are reminded that in the grand scheme of things sport means nothing. Certain issues eclipse scorelines, statistics and prize money. Serena Williams’ return to the BNP Paribas Open in California, 14 years after she and her family vowed never to return following racial abuse was one of these moments of perspective. Serena walking out onto the Centre Court this Saturday wasn’t simply one of the world’s most celebrated champions heading out for a routine second round match. This was a 33 year old woman seeking closure.
Nearly 14 years ago to the day, a fresh faced, pig tailed 19 year old Serena Williams took to the court to take on Kim Clijsters in the final of one of the world’s premier tennis tournaments. What happened next remains one of the most ugly episodes in the sport’s history. Vociferous sporting crowds are nothing new, but the unpleasant chorus of jeers that rained down on not only Serena, but her sister Venus and father Richard sitting in the stands was unsettling. The crowd fervently booed Williams from the get go- greeting even her double faults and errors with applause; the tennis equivalent of a spectator slapping you in the face. The reason for Serena’s hellish reception? The crowd hadn’t taken kindly to Venus withdrawing from a highly anticipated prime time semi-final against her sister a few days prior. She pulled out just moments before the match was scheduled to get underway, citing a bout of knee tendonitis. Amongst the media rumblings were rumours the sisters’ father Richard had already pre-determined the match’s outcome.
This malicious targeting of a teenager and her family was proof that tennis as a sport was not prepared to accept the dominance of not one but two players of colour who were “Straight outta Compton” and unapologetically black.
Regardless of the accusations, the treatment of the Williams family that fateful afternoon was unacceptable. It cannot and should not be forgotten. It wasn’t just rude; it had blatant racial undertones. This malicious targeting of a teenager and her family was proof that tennis as a sport was not prepared to accept the dominance of not one, but two players of colour who were “Straight outta Compton” and unapologetically black. As Richard and Venus clambered down to their front row seats many of the 13,000 plus in attendance chose to let the pair know how they felt about her semi-final withdrawal- and then some. Richard to this day maintains he was called a “nigger” on multiple occasions that afternoon, and that one member of the crowd told him “I wish it was ’75, we’d skin you alive.” Typically defiant, he waved his fist at his antagonisers whilst his younger daughter somehow went on to win the match and the title- a fact often lost in the milieu of history. Only 19 years old, less than 200 miles away from where she first started hitting tennis balls, Serena has never forgotten that afternoon. She recalled the match earlier this year for Time Magazine stating “”It has been difficult for me to forget spending hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001, driving back to Los Angeles feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever”.
The fallout following the Indian Wells incident sent shockwaves through the tennis world, tremors still being felt today. The sisters decided to boycott playing at the tournament indefinitely. With every year that passed their absence became more and more pronounced, a shadow looming over a highly prestigious event. The duo were building a tennis legacy, a stupendous haul of titles and accolades, without even giving the Californian tennis showcase so much as a sideward glance. Serena in particular catapulted herself into the tennis history books, collecting 18 more grand slam titles whilst continually giving the tournament the cold shoulder year after year.
However, something happened along Williams’ path to greatness; she got older and wiser. Eager to cement her legacy as not only a great player but a great person, Williams began to consider a return to the scene of a moment that was arguably the nadir of her illustrious career. Throughout 2014, Williams worked with tournament CEO Larry Ellison on engineering an unprecedented comeback.
Moreover, since 2001 tennis has come a long way. A game with a decidedly elitist reputation has become more accommodating of racial and cultural differences. A fact that has only been underlined in recent times by the surge to prominence of American players from different ethnic backgrounds, Donald Young, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys to name a few. These shifts in the sport’s make up may have helped change Serena’s mind, but it was a flashpoint at the tail end of last year that was well and truly the tipping point. Russian tennis official Shamil Tarpischev dubbed the siblings “The Williams brothers” on live TV and was instantly greeted with repercussions; fined £15,500, banned from women’s tennis for one year and met with stinging criticism. Williams said “(the incident) reminded me how far the sport has come, and how far I’ve come too.” So on February 4th just days after she blasted her way to yet another grand slam title at the Australian Open, she made an announcement that rocked the tennis world to its very core. In an open letter she stated her intention to take her place in the Indian Wells draw for the first time since 2001.
“It has been difficult for me to forget spending hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001, driving back to Los Angeles feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever”
In the ultimate moment of catharsis she took to the court on Saturday evening to a completely different reception; cheers and a standing ovation that brought her to tears. This was about so much more than tennis, this was the end of a narrative of sadness, anger and humiliation. One of those moments when the scoreline was put on the backburner (she won 7-5,7-5) and equality, tolerance and progress become the talking point.