We've been watching Serena Williams play tennis for 17 years now. For those 17 years, we've dissected her every move, from her relationships to her injuries to her attitude to her wardrobe choices.
We've been lucky enough to see her make history, most recently last Sunday in Melbourne, when Serena Williams won her sixth Australian Open, her 19th Grand Slam overall.
But now, it's time to stop watching her and talking about her. Now, we simply need to listen to her.
On Wednesday, Serena announced that she was officially ending her 13-year boycott of the Indian Wells tennis tournament in March.
"Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story, and I am a part of the tournament's story as well," she wrote in an essay announcing her decision in Time. "Together we have a chance to write a different ending."
To understand what a huge deal this is, you have to go back to 2001. At the time, Serena was a 19-year-old with only one Slam to her name, the 1999 U.S. Open. Since winning that title, she hadn't made it back to a major final. She was ranked No. 10 in the world, and seeded seventh at Indian Wells. Her sister Venus was a 20-year-old two-time major champion, and ranked No. 3.
The two African-American siblings were already making headlines and history, but they weren't legends yet, and they certainly weren't universally adored.
They were slated to play each other in the semifinals at the tournament, but Venus pulled out before the match due to an injury. Although the Williams family has said that Venus told tournament officials of her withdrawal hours before, the tournament didn't make an announcement until right before the match, which angered many fans and media members. Rumors that the Williams family fixed the matches between Serena and Venus were already running rampant, and this didn't help.
When Serena came out onto the court to face a young Kim Clijsters in the final, she was greeted with a chorus of boos and jeers. They continued as Venus and their father and coach, Richard Williams, made their way to their seats. (Venus has also not played the tournament since 2001, and has currently not announced any plans to play this year.)
In the hours since Serena announced her comeback, I've been hearing the same sentiment echoed from many members of the tennis community and the media at large: "It's about time."
That's far from surprising, considering the sentiments that have been echoed in the 14 years since this ugly incident: That Serena and Venus were being selfish for not going back to Indian Wells. That they were punishing their fans. That the incident hadn't been that bad, really.
That they needed to just get over it.
Most of these people saying such things in the media are (like most media members) white, middle-class, middle-aged and male. In other words, people who rarely feel out of place due to their skin color or gender. People who could not possibly understand what the Williams family went through on that day back in 2001.
So, of course, the sooner Serena and Venus got over it and returned to Indian Wells, the sooner we could all put this horrible, embarrassing incident in the past. We could stop talking about it every year and simply forget about it.
Not only are these thoughts insensitive and dismissive of the feelings, they're also selfish.
You can't put a timeline on a person's recovery. This is something that the Williams Sisters had to work through in their own way, in their own time. And if Serena decided to never step foot back on Indian Wells ground again -- and if Venus still never does -- that decision would be just as legitimate and respectable as this one.
If you don't believe me, then you need to be a better listener.
Go back to the clip. Turn up the volume. Hear the boos rain down from all corners of the stadium. Watch the look on the faces of Serena and Venus and Richard as the boos get louder and more hostile as time goes on. Read what Serena said in her Time essay about what an impact those boos had on her:
…The undercurrent 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.
For all their practice, preparation and confidence, even the best competitors in every sport have a voice of doubt inside them that says they are not good enough. I am lucky that whatever fear I have inside me, my desire to win is always stronger.
When I was booed at Indian Wells -- by what seemed like the whole world -- my voice of doubt became real. I didn't understand what was going on in that moment. But worse, I had no desire to even win. It happened very quickly.
Somehow, Serena was able to win on that day, fighting off Clijsters in three sets and even graciously addressing the crowd afterwards. But it didn't end there.
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. He dedicated his whole life to prepping us for this incredible journey, and there he had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South.
In his book that came out last year, Richard addressed the incident as well:
The chorus of boos that cascaded through the stadium sent a powerful message to America, to Venus, to Serena, and to me. It was a message from the past, one America tries to put behind it but can never forget. It was a snapshot from the days when the open humiliation of the black race was accepted without question. Accusations and racial epithets flew through the stadium.
Serena has grown as a person over the past 13 years. But, perhaps more importantly, so have those around her. She used to feel like such an outsider -- and I'm sure she still does at times -- but now she is not only appreciated, but respected almost universally in the tennis community.
In her Time essay, Serena specifically notes the incident last year when the president of the Russian tennis federation, Shamil Tarpischev, went on a Russian TV show and called Venus and Serena the "Williams brothers." Immediately, he was fined and suspended by the WTA. Whereas she used to feel like she was a part of a community that didn't have her back, now she feels differently.
She's also nearing the end of her career, and there's no doubt that part of this is as an attempt to turn one of the ugliest parts of her career into something beautiful. It's something she wants to do, for herself, but she also realizes that this is bigger than that.
Serena is using her Indian Wells comeback to raise money for the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. (You can read more about her fundraising goals here.)
I have thought about going back to Indian Wells many times over my career. I said a few times that I would never play there again. And believe me, I meant it. I admit it scared me. What if I walked onto the court and the entire crowd booed me? The nightmare would start all over.
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 hope, more than anything, that Serena's return to Indian Wells is magical. I hope that she receives more love and crowd support than she could ever dream. I hope that it is a time to celebrate progress and for Serena and the entire tennis community to do some healing.
But I also hope that we can all accept that this isn't about erasing the past, but rather, it's about coming together to build a better future. By tying her comeback to the Equal Justice Initiative, Serena is sending a very clear message that while she is ready to forgive and move on, she's never going to forget about what happened. Neither should we.