By Jessica Luther
In 2001 at the Indian Wells Masters in southern California, Richard Williams, the father of Serena and Venus Williams and their coach at the time, told the media that after Venus withdrew with knee tendinitis minutes before her semifinal match against Serena, the crowd booed. They booed again at the final. According to Richard Williams, someone shouted, "'N-----, stay away from here, we don't want you here." He also said that "as he and Venus were walking to their seats for the final, about a dozen fans used the racial slur and one spoke of skinning him alive." Pam Shriver, a commentator that day for ESPN, described it as "a very tense situation. I've never seen anything like that at a tennis match before." Fans jeered Serena and cheered at her mistakes. Serena beat Kim Clijsters and took the title despite the crowd's behavior.
Neither of the Williams sisters has returned to Indian Wells since. It was announced earlier this week, though, following Serena's shocking defeat in the fourth round of the Australian Open, that she has entered Indian Wells and may play there for the first time since 2001. This should not be treated as a moment to no longer discuss what happened in Indian Wells that day but rather as Serena opening up yet another avenue for us to make an honest assessment about racism in tennis, and about what it has meant to for the Williams sister to be black female tennis players and leaders in the game over the last 13 years.
Indian Wells has been a mandatory event on the WTA tour for the last few years, one that all top 10 players must participate in or face fines, loss of potential bonus money and a hit in the rankings. And so it has become an annual media event, what could be called the "Indian Wells Watch," to speculate on whether either sister would finally return to the site of some of the worst racist heckling they faced in their careers. Alongside the event are the yearly articles from multiple sports journalists about whether the sisters should return. In 2009, Paul Oberjuerge reported at the New York Times that Indian Wells wanted the Williams to return but "will not grovel" to see it happen (Indian Wells has never made a formal, public apology the Williams' family). The next year, JA Allen wrote a piece for Bleacher Report chastising the Williams sisters and downplaying the racial element of the crowd's anger that day.
Last year, Bruce Jenkins at Sports Illustrated asked, "Shouldn't Venus and Serena be past all that? After 12 years, isn't it time to rise above the rubble and make an even stronger statement?" Jenkins argued that a return to Indian Wells would be fighting "the specter of injustice," not withdrawing from it, and quoted Arthur Ashe to make his case. He concluded, "After 12 years, I no longer see dignity or integrity in the Williams' stance, only stubbornness and a grudge." Billy Jean King was also quoted last year as saying that she hoped the sisters would "forgive and just move on," though she understood why they had not.
In response to Jenkins' piece, Elizabeth Newman wrote her own op-ed at Sports Illustrated in which she explained why telling those who have faced racism to get "past all that" is unfair. "It places all of the responsibility on the person who is distressed to shake off whatever it is that is ailing her and pretend to be OK," Newman wrote, "while liberating everyone else from any obligation to listen or try to understand what's going on."
Following her third-round win over Daniela Hantuchova, a reporter asked Serena about Nelson Mandela and Indian Wells, saying, "Mandela's message was pretty much forgiveness and reconciliation... Do you think that spirit could affect your thoughts about what happened in the desert? There is a new generation of people who would love to see you there. Would that ever cross your mind as a possibility?" Probably to most people's surprise, she said, "Yeah, it actually crossed my mind a couple days ago, or after I saw the movie."
Thus began Indian Wells Watch 2014, which has only increased since Serena entered the competition officially. Serena's coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, has been careful though to say that her entry "open[s] the possibility of playing, which was still not guaranteed. 'It's an option,' Mouratoglou said. 'It can be yes, it can be no.'"
And, as we should expect by now, reporters are starting to chime in about how they feel about Serena's possible return. Melissa Isaacson at ESPN has argued, in a familiar vein, that "the Williams were certainly justified for not wanting to go back to Indian Wells the following year. Maybe even the year after that. But 14 years was too much and just built up more ill will on both sides."
It's a big moment for tennis that Serena has even considered returning to Indian Wells, and it goes well beyond that one day in 2001. When discussing the Indian Wells tournament, most journalists talk about in isolation from other moments of racism that Serena has faced since. For example, in 2007, she was heckled in Miami, with one man yelling, "hit the ball into the net like any negro would." She has received subtle racist critique of her game, her smart play being boiled down her "natural ability," and has been painted as a problem when she dominates the tour. When she got angry on the court in 2011 at the US Open, there were endless thought pieces about whether she had been unjustified in her anger (some of which sound very similar to the recent "controversy" around Richard Sherman).
Serena's body, not thin and lithe like some of the white tennis players across the court from her, has been constantly scrutinized, and people are quick to argue about whether or not she is fat. Most recently, Caroline Wozniacki came up against intense criticism when she stuffed her shirt and her skirt with towels to impersonate Serena's chest and butt during an exhibition match in late 2012. When Serena won the singles gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics, she did a quick dance on the side of the court -- the so-called Crip Walk -- and instantly there was more discussion about her five-second-long dance than her incredible win.
Serena was 19 when the incident at Indian Wells took place. For 12 years, every year, she made a conscious decision to not attend, as did her sister. As Elizabeth Newman wrote last year, "We often criticize athletes for not taking a stand, for not doing enough on matters of politics and social justice. In this case, however, Venus and Serena have quietly taken a stand against what they perceived to be an injustice by politely saying, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'" Neither woman has shrunk back, especially Venus, when it comes to standing up for equality between men and women in professional tennis. To simply push aside the reasons that Serena and Venus decided to make this choice year after year, all through their 20s and into their 30s, and to call for them to "move on," belittles the stand they have made against the racism they faced that day (and many times over in their careers).
Sports commentators and fans who see Indian Wells as a single day in their careers may need to expand their view and consider what it has meant day-to-day to be Serena or Venus Willliams. If Serena ends up playing Indian Wells this year, we should not push under the rug the racism that led to her boycott, or the instances of racism she has faced since, and treat this as an indication that now all is well in tennis. Rather, it should be a moment to draw those shameful displays out into the open and to have an honest conversation about the very thing that Serena and Venus have actively fought for 13 years.
* * *
Jessica Luther is a writer and journalist who lives in Austin, Texas. Her writing on sports have appeared at the Guardian, the Atlantic, Salon, Think Progress, RH Reality Check, and in The Texas Observer. Her site and podcast about sports and culture is Power Forward.