The day when... the Williams sisters decided to boycott Indian Wells

Mar 11, 2015, 10:45:13 AM

The real star of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells this year will be Serena Williams. The American is making a comeback after a 14-year boycott, believing to have been a victim of racism from the public. Quick Facts.

Of course, there will be the new episode of Star Wars between Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, representing between the three of them ten of the last eleven editions of the tournament. But the real star of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells this year will be Serena Williams: the American with 19 Grand Slam titles is making a comeback in an tournament that she has been boycotting since 2001, believing to have been victim of racism from the public. Quick Facts.


"This haunted me for a long time. It haunted Venus and our family as well. But most of all, it angered and saddened my father (…) 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. I’m fortunate to be at a point in my career where I have nothing to prove. I’m still as driven as ever, but the ride is a little easier. I play for the love of the game. And it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015. Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story, and I am a part of the tournament’s story as well. Together we have a chance to write a different ­ending." It's with these words that the best player in the world has announced her return to the BNP Paribas Open this year, fourteen years after her last appearance in a tournament where she had then triumphed. But behind the title, her second in three appearances, there was "the moment that disgraced America," as her father Richard called it: in the final, all the Williams family was then copiously booed by the public, following the success of Serena after her sister Venus' withdrawal in the semi-finals.


In 2001, people on the tour indeed firmly thought that the patriarch was calling the shots in the matches between his daughters, deciding beforehand which of the two should prevail. After losing to Venus in the quarterfinals, even Elena Dementieva, though known for her fair play, expressed doubts about the upcoming match between the sisters "I don't know what Richard thinks about it. I think that he will decide who should win tomorrow." And hammered the point when a journalist insisted to know if she thought that the results were arranged by family decision: "Yes, that's my impression. Just remember what happened the year that they played against each other in the final in Miami... For those who saw that game, it was very funny.”


Boos, security guards and the finger


So when Venus said that she was withdrawing of the "100% Williams” semi-finals five minutes before the start of the game - the Regulation requires theoretically to tell the organizers half an hour before, in order to change the program - the rumour mill became as crazy as the frustration that was reaching the stands. The official reason, knee tendinitis, didn't calm anyone. Even Charlie Pasarell, tournament director, had trouble swallowing the pill, « I would have had preferred for Venus to come on the court and try a little.” And too bad if the examination of the issues of the match was enough to demonstrate how a possible family arbitration would have had little chance of going in the direction of Serena.


For in that spring of 2001, the star of the family was Venus. The elder Williams wasn't very far from becoming world number 1, following a phenomenal second half of 2000, with victories at Wimbledon, at the US Open and in the Sydney Olympic Games. But it was too late, the worm was already in the fruit: when Serena Williams appeared on the court on the Saturday for the final against Kim Clijsters, the Californian Public has already ruled in favour of the conspiracy theory.


At the appearance of Venus and her father in their box during the warm-up, a volley of boos came from the stands, which is a very unusual thing to happen in a tennis stadium... and even more so for the public considered "cool" of Indian Wells. Many others will follow throughout the game, on the changes of sides or at the end of sets. Stoic, father and daughter faced the uproar rather than dodge it. Richard Williams even answered with provocation, standing up and waving his fist raised towards the stands! A few minutes later, a security guard especially dedicated to their protection arrived at the entrance of their box...


"There still is a racism problem in the United States"


On the court, the 16000 spectators decided to cheer for Kim Clijsters. Which didn't prevent Serena to win in three sets (4/6 6/4 6/2). Booed during the awards ceremony, the American looked good in press conference: "I will have a title to defend next year. So yes, you will probably see me here again… Despite what happened." She soon changed her mind, the whole family reaching the conclusion that the boos were indeed a manifestation of racism. Even if according to the organizers, the WTA officials and journalists no insult came down from the stands, Richard Williams, on his part, claimed to have heard "Nigga, nigga," and even "If by luck we were still in 1975, we would have skinned you alive" on the way to his box.


In Miami the following week – Where Venus won the tournament - the two sisters refused to discuss the incident. But their certainties announced an upcoming boycott: "I heard what I heard, and you know it as well as I do," insisted Venus, mysterious. As for Serena, she decided to put things into perspective: "You know, it hasn't been so long since blacks are no longer slaves, and some people still have a little trouble with that. I do not know if my skin colour has something to do with what happened in Indian Wells. But in general, yes, there still is a racism problem in the United States."


So racism or not racism? Individually, perhaps. But as for the group effect, The Williams probably paid for their famous haughty, contemptuous reputation that other players have regularly condemned. A clan from which no one ever says hello, never smiles or even looks. The two sisters have softened this attitude over time but, fourteen years later, the Indian Wells subject remains sensitive: If Serena decided to come back in 2015, it will be once again without Venus. Still, when one considers the strong relationship between the sisters the return of the younger probably calls for the return of the elder before the end of her career. If the reunion run smoothly this year, of course.


By Guillaume Willecoq