Indian Wells, a Masters 1000 event on the ATP Tour and a Premier Mandatory tournament in WTA, is often called the fifth Grand Slam by the tennis community. It is here that Serena Williams won one of her initial big titles when she beat the then superstar Steffi Graf in the final in 1999.
Yet Serena, along with sister Venus, boycotted the event for about 13 years between 2001 and 2015 due to an incident of boorish crowd behavior. It then turned into a messy episode involving match-fixing allegations, allegations of racism and one of the longest tournament boycotts in recent times.
It remains unclear whether the fixing allegations made were true but the subsequent coverage, offhand accusations, and long-standing repercussions has made it a talking point in the Williams sisters story as well as the racism faced by players in US.
Back in 2001, the tennis world was different. The Williams sisters – 20-year-old Venus and 19-year-old Serena — were successful but hadn’t yet become the bonafide superstars they are today. For many, the two with father and coach Richard were still outsiders. And, as Serena has also mentioned, the reaction against racism in sport wasn’t as vocal as it is today.
Perhaps the incident would have had a different reaction and relevance today given how we are seeing social consciousness take centrestage. But back then, it was relegated to an unsavoury instance to be brushed off.
Here’s a timeline of what happened:
- On 15 March, 2001 Serena and Venus were due to meet in the semi-final, but Venus withdrew five minutes before the match. She had cited tendinitis in her knee as her reason for pulling out of the tournament.
- This fanned the flames of the already simmering rumours that the matches between the sisters were fixed by their father and the general belief was that Venus’ ultra-last-minute pullout was a leg up for Serena.
- But it was the residual resentment from this cancelled semi-final that made the final an ugly affair as the crowd mercilessly booed Serena. When Venus and Richard came to the stadium for Serena’s clash against Kim Clijsters two days later, the crowd of 15,940 – according to an ESPN report – heckled them as they took their seats.
- These jeers, from what was described as a predominantly white crowd, were caught on camera and media reports said that Richard “shook his fist at his 15,000 critics” while Venus showed “no sign of a limp, no wrap on her controversial right knee.” This was thought to be a result of being denied the semi-final action by Venus.
- Then, Richard even called for security once they reached the player box while a video of the incident showed him raising his fist in a similar way to the Black Power Salute.
But the crowd behaviour got progressively worse as they booed Serena and cheered her errors even as she won the title in three sets. Serena later said she cried for hours in the locker room after that final. Remember, she was only 19 at the time and already a Grand Slam winner. Even without the accusations of fixing and racism, it was hurtful behaviour.
But the already deplorable situation got worse when Richard spoke to USA Today Sports a few days later saying that he heard racist comments directed at him.
“When Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me nigger. One guy said, ‘I wish it was ‘75; we’d skin you alive.’ That’s when I stopped and walked toward that way. Then I realized that [my] best bet was to handle the situation non-violently. I had trouble holding back tears. I think Indian Wells disgraced America.”— Richard Williams via USA Today
After the match, Serena said she was unsure if race was the motivation behind the boos, but once Richard’s version was out, the tone of the incident changed.
“Race? I think, you know, black people have been out of slavery now for just over a hundred years, and people are still kind of struggling a little bit. It hasn’t been that long. I don’t know if race has anything to do with this particular situation. But in general I think, yeah, there’s still a little problem with racism in America.”— Serena Williams via ESPN
Years later in 2015, when Serena announced that she is returning to Indian Wells in a column for Time magazine, she further stated that the incident was racist in nature.
“The false allegations - that our matches were fixed - hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply. The undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair... 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.”
This time, Serena walked out to a standing ovation, the 2001 incident forgotten. Venus also returned to Indian Wells a year later and in 2018 the two actually met in a singles match, where Venus beat Serena making her return from a maternity break.
However, fact remains that Serena returned after she became one of the strongest voices in tennis along with Venus. By this time, the sisters had ensured that Wimbledon also gave equal prize money to both the male and female champion and they had won more battles of perception along the way.
Not just in the stadium on that fateful day in March, however, for long this incident played out in the media with racial undertones. But when Serena returned to the stage where she said she had lost a piece of herself, she made it significant in more ways than one. A feature in the Guardian that slammed the narrative of Serena and Venus posturing, made an important observation: “Arguably more noteworthy than her return is the fact that Serena is using the contest as a way to highlight mass incarceration: every donation made will go to the Equal Justice Initiative, a criminal justice group in Montgomery, Alabama.”
Simply put, some issues transcend sport.