Last year, it was her sister Serena who broke a decade-long boycott and returned to Indian Wells, the second-biggest tennis tournament in America and the site of the ugliest episodes of the sisters’ careers back in 2001. This year, Venus Williams, who was arguably the bigger target of the boos, derision and, allegedly, racial slurs thrown that horrendous day back, will make her return.
It was 15 years ago when a 20-year-old Venus withdrew due to an injury minutes before a semifinal match at Indian Wells against her younger sister. The crowd booed the decision, something that’s happened countless times at tournaments when fans are denied the big match they want to see or are angry about burning money on tickets. To this day, some insist the intenstity of the boos was due to the fact that Venus didn’t announce her decision until just before the match.
(FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
But there was something more there — racial overtones and a negative reaction to Richard Williams, the controversial father of the young women, who was accused of playing Svengali with their careers and had orchestrated this withdrawal (for some reason).
Serena had advanced to the final against Kim Clijsters the next day and was booed from the outset. Not gentle booing. Not "we’re still mad about yesterday booing," but ugly booing for a 19-year-old who did nothing the day before except see her opponent, who happened to be her sister, withdraw from the match. The booing continued throughout the day, so much so that you’d have thought Serena was the Belgian player and Clijsters was the hot, young American who was going to revive women’s tennis.
The truly ugly scene came when Venus and Richard, walked down the steps to Serena’s player’s box to watch the match and were greeted with boos, jeers and, it was later said, racial slurs. The incident was so bad, neither sister returned until 2015, when Serena, citing the need for forgiveness, announced she’d go back and then was treated to a rousing standing ovation that brought her to tears.
Serena, reacting to the emotion of that heated 2001 final. (JOHN MABANGLO/AFP/Getty Images)
That return was the catalyst for Venus, who admitted in the piece that even after Serena went back, she didn’t think she ever would. It was Venus who had been more affected by the racial hostility that day.
As she should have. Nobody would have blamed Venus if she’d continued to boycott Indian Wells for the rest of her career. But on the strength of her sister’s return, Venus decided to do the same.
And when she steps on the court, those 15 years of feelings won’t go away, but the love, respect and the standing ovation she’ll get will hopefully begin the healing.