Serena Williams: The Return to Indian Wells (Part I)

This post comes from, Bowling Green State University Sport Management Professor and Maxwell Media Watch faculty advisor, Dr. Nancy Spencer.

By Dr. Nancy Spencer

March 2, 2015

On March 13, 2001, I sat in front of my TV, eagerly awaiting the sixth match that Venus and Serena Williams were to play against one another in a professional tennis tournament. The tournament was at Indian Wells, a small affluent desert community in California that was home to many retirees from the entertainment world.

About five minutes before the match was to begin, an ESPN announcer reported that there would be no live match since Venus Williams had ‘just’ defaulted. The announcement was made in front of a packed stadium of angry fans that proceeded to boo loudly. They felt like they had been robbed.

Unlike in team sports, when a superstar fails to play on a given date, the game goes on. LeBron and Kyrie may not have played against the Indiana Pacers on Friday night, but the Cleveland Cavaliers still played. There may have been different match-ups, and fans may have been disappointed that they did not get to see Kyrie and LeBron, but they still got to see a meaningful game. When someone defaults in tennis – especially in the semifinals or finals, a substitute can step in to play an exhibition match, but it is not a meaningful match.

Unfortunately, for the Williams sisters, Venus’ default coincided with published reports (albeit in the National Enquirer) that their father, Richard, may have fixed their most recent match-up in the semifinals of the 2000 Wimbledon. Venus won that match and advanced to win her first Wimbledon title. The report (in the National Enquirer) was enough to fuel speculation that perhaps Richard Williams had fixed this match. There has never been proof to substantiate that or any other allegation, even though Venus and Serena Williams have made it clear repeatedly that it was difficult for them to play one another (since they are sisters as well as best friends).

Two days later, Serena met Kim Clijsters in the finals at Indian Wells. She could not have anticipated the boisterous environment she would encounter. Even as she was introduced and again, when her father and Venus entered the stadium, fans booed vociferously.

In response, Richard raised his fist, evoking the symbolism displayed by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. Fans continued to boo Serena throughout the match, even when she hit winners and even at the end when she remarkably managed to come from behind to win in three sets. Later, Richard reported that he heard racist comments, including one fan who claimed that he was lucky it wasn’t 1975, or he would ‘skin him alive’ (Smith, 2001, p. 3C). The response from tournament director Charlie Pasarell was that those weren’t Indian Wells fans (Smith, 2001). That seemed a curious statement to make and certainly did not justify the unruly behavior in my book.

My immediate response to watching ‘tennis fans behaving badly’ was that racism in tennis was now visible for the whole world to see – except that this was Indian Wells, not the U.S. Open or Wimbledon, where the whole world would have been watching.

And this was before Twitter and social media would have quickly spread the news. In 2009, Serena’s autobiography was published, containing a chapter on ‘The fiery darts at Indian Wells.’ That was the first I learned Serena’s version of what happened in 2001 (in her own words) (Williams & Paisner, 2009). That was when I discovered that Venus had injured her knee during her quarterfinal match against Elena Dementieva.

On the morning of the semifinal, Venus checked in with the trainer, informing him that she didn’t think she would be able to play. What should have happened at that point was that an announcement of Venus’ withdrawal should have been made and another match should have been scheduled for the Stadium. But it wasn’t – for whatever reason. As a result, when Venus defaulted, it appeared that she made the call at the last minute and fans made the Williams’ sisters the scapegoats.

In her autobiography, Serena details the devastating impact of the fans’ behavior that she and Venus faced at Indian Wells in 2001. Because of that behavior, Venus and Serena determined not to return to Indian Wells since 2001… until this year… Serena is returning to Indian Wells.

Next week: Part II – Serena’s Return: How it Happened/What it Means

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