Serena Williams makes her return to Indian Wells on Friday
She hasn't played at the tournament since 2001
Her dad said he was racially abused at the tournament in 2001
Venus Williams still has not returned to the California event
“This is going to be a test for Serena Williams. We’re going to find out what she’s made of. How mentally tough she really is.”
Those were the words of tennis analyst Mary Joe Fernandez in 2001, early into Serena Williams’ decider with Kim Clijsters in the final of one of tennis’ most prestigious tournaments. The match was being televised on one of the biggest sports networks in the world, ESPN.
The then 17-year-old Clijsters had just held to love amid vociferous cheers and – in a breach of tennis etiquette – a large portion of the fans on center court at the event now known as the BNP Paribas Open roared approvingly when Williams struck a double fault to begin the next game.
Despite Williams growing up about 130 miles away in a suburb of Los Angeles, while Clijsters hailed from Belgium, there was clearly no home-court advantage.
Williams’ father, Richard, and older sister, Venus, were booed as they made their way to their seats prior to the finale, with Richard claiming in USA Today he was the victim of racial abuse. Venus Williams, meanwhile, said in a press conference at her next tournament she “heard whatever he heard.”
It was Richard Williams who shaped his daughters into grand slam winners from a humble background, bereft of the type of money used to help manufacture many a champion.
“One guy said, ‘I wish it was ’75, we’d skin you alive,’” Richard Williams told USA Today. “I had trouble holding back tears. I think Indian Wells disgraced America.” Charlie Pasarell, then the tournament director, said in the same story that he didn’t discount Richard Williams was racially abused.
CNN.com did not hear back from Pasarell when it put in an interview request for him and Clijsters declined an interview request.
The fans’ reaction apparently stemmed from the sisters’ semifinal – or lack of it. Venus Williams pulled out a mere minutes prior to the start, citing a knee injury.
Whispers of Richard Williams pre-determining the outcome grew, no doubt aided by the comments of Elena Dementieva.
After Venus Williams beat Dementieva in the quarterfinals, the Russian said the sisters’ father would “decide” who won.
Serena Williams, who was 19 back then, ultimately passed the ‘test’ that day against Clijsters, judging by the result: A three-set win.
Serena Williams has certainly, too, shown her mental toughness over the years, adding 18 grand slam singles titles to the one she won prior to 2001.
But what transpired tarnished the tournament, the sport and hurt one of tennis’ all-time greats to such an extent that she stayed away from Indian Wells.
Serena Williams plays her first match in Indian Wells in 14 years on Friday, saying she was “following her heart” in deciding to return.
In the years that have passed since 2001, Williams went from teen to young adult to veteran, all the while collecting major titles elsewhere.
“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 – not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality,” Serena Williams told Time.com in February. “Emotionally it seemed easier to stay away.
“There are some who say I should never go back. There are others who say I should’ve returned years ago. I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time.
“I’m just following my heart on this one.”
Raymond Moore, a former owner of the tournament and now its chief executive, was “elated” to have Serena Williams back in the field.
“In the past, the things that happened, there were no winners,” Moore told CNN.com. “I think it was a terrible incident. Regrettable from all sides. Now, Serena has been able to change that. We’re grateful, excited and happy and we’re going to welcome her with open arms.
“In terms of her reception, I would like her to be here feeling that her decision was received with the greatest and warmest reception possible.”
But Serena Williams will be the lone Grand Slam winner in her family attending.
Even with the best efforts of the tournament – now owned by billionaire Larry Ellison – Venus Williams is continuing her boycott, as is Richard Williams, according to Moore.
The siblings’ mom, Oracene Price, will be alongside Serena Williams, though, added Moore. Serena Williams told reporters in Indian Wells on Thursday that her father, mother and Venus Williams gave her their blessing when she contemplated coming back to Indian Wells.
“We wanted to get Venus,” said Moore. “In fact we’d like to welcome the whole family. But Venus I think is not quite in the same place as Serena is. And so we’ve not been successful in enticing her to enter or take a wild card.
“But Oracene is coming and so are some other family members.”
Serena Williams scoffed at suggestions that the sisters’ match in Indian Wells – or any other between them – was fixed.
“Throughout my whole career, integrity has been everything to me,” she told Time. “It is also everything and more to Venus. The false allegations that our matches were fixed hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply.
“The under-current of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.”
Reflecting on the incident, Bart McGuire, the chief executive of the women’s tour in 2001, said Venus Williams had been suffering from a genuine injury and that the notion that Richard Williams dictated the outcome of matches between his daughters was off the mark.
But he admitted things could have been handled better.
Venus Williams, for example, might have explained her withdrawal to fans on court and then signed autographs, he said, citing the example of last year’s World Tour Finals.
Roger Federer withdrew from the final in London – but not before he addressed fans and signed autographs.
What happened in the final between Serena Williams and Clijsters was awful, said McGuire.
“I thought it was horrible,” he told CNN.com. “I thought it was very tough on the players.
“By that time I’d known enough to know that Venus had been significantly injured and that it was not a set-up of any kind. I thought it was unfair to Serena and Kim.”
Serena Williams is twice a champion at the tournament and winning this year would be “fantastic,” said Moore. But even if not, he added: “I think it’s a wonderful ending in closing an ugly chapter. We’re just looking forward, we’re not looking backward.”