BY DR. NANCY SPENCER
This is the time of year when tennis is heating up. As a former player, coach/teaching pro, and fan of the game, this is a time when I would normally be watching what is considered by some to be the “fifth Grand Slam” – i.e., the BNP Paribas Tournament at Indian Wells. But to be honest, I have had difficulty watching that tournament ever since March 17, 2001, when the Williams family faced “one of the ugliest scenes in the sport’s history” (Jenkins, 2013, para. 3). From my perspective, I cannot think of an uglier moment.
In 2001, I was among those eagerly awaiting the live televised match that would feature the Williams sisters playing one another professionally for only the sixth time. I remember seeing them play in their first match at the Ericsson (in 1999) when Venus won in three sets. I also watched as Venus defeated Serena in their 2000 semifinal match at Wimbledon. I could not have been more excited to see their sixth match-up, especially since it was scheduled to be shown live on ESPN. Naturally, I was disappointed to learn that Venus had defaulted – supposedly just moments before the match was scheduled to begin. I don’t remember if they showed another match to fill in the time slot. But I do remember seeing the finals between Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters when it was played two days later.
Watching that final match left an indelible mark on me, so I can begin to understand how it must have felt for the Williams sisters. Pam Shriver and Mary Joe Fernandez were commentators for the final match. I remember Fernandez said tournament officials knew “something might happen,” and they had warned ushers to be prepared. In light of their forewarning, I could not understand why no one intervened when the ugliness began. The vitriolic booing by fans started as soon as Serena was introduced; it escalated when Venus and Richard Williams entered the Stadium to take their seats for the final. As the match got underway, fans did the unthinkable – for a tennis crowd – they booed loudly each time Serena made an error or lost a point.
In a powerful article on SI.com, Elizabeth Newman (2013) argues that “Calls for Williams sisters to return to Indian Wells are wrong.” Newman explains how unusual it is to display such behavior in tennis, writing, “we’re talking about tennis, a sport steeped in etiquette, decorum and protocol; a sport where errant catcalls and whistling are considered low brow” (para. 10).
In 2001, several things struck me as I watched the Women’s Singles Final at Indian Wells. One was that “no one did anything.” When Serena’s autobiography, On the line (Williams & Paisner, 2009), came out, I was particularly moved by her chapter on “The fiery darts of Indian Wells.” In it Serena wrote that, “Some tournament official could have gotten on the loudspeaker and explained to the fans that Venus had been legitimately hurt, that I had nothing to do with her withdrawal, that every effort had been made to cancel that semifinal match in a more timely manner. Some effort could have been made to quiet the crowd. But no one did anything” (Williams & Paisner, 2009, p. 81). Like Serena, I too was astonished to watch the match and observe that no one did anything.
Another thing that I learned as I read the chapter was that Venus had told the trainer earlier in the day that she was injured and would not be able to play. So why was an announcement not made until four minutes before the match was to begin? At the time, it appeared that Venus was solely responsible for the late withdrawal. To this day, I wonder why the tournament director and/or trainer never acknowledged their complicity in what happened.
In the aftermath of the 2001 Indian Wells final, Richard Williams reported that he heard “racial epithets” and that someone even yelled that he was lucky it was not 1975 or “he would skin him alive” (Smith, 2001, para. 29). Venus heard it. Other fans reported hearing the boos and racist epithets. And yet, Tournament Director Charlie Pasarell’s response was simply to say, “If Richard says he heard racist epithets, maybe he did… but I know that’s not Indian Wells people.” Really? What does that mean? Why was it so important to establish that if there was a racist response from the crowd, it wasn’t “Indian Wells’ people.” It was still racism. Was Pasarell only responsible if Indian Wells’ people were yelling epithets?
Since 2001, the Williams sisters have (understandably) not returned to Indian Wells, a decision I fully support. Yahoo! Sports’ Merlisa Lawrence Corbett (2013) writes that the 12-year boycott taints Indian Wells tournament – which is not to suggest that the Williams sisters are to blame, but that Charlie Pasarell never stood against “overt racism.”