INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – “At this point I would play Indian Wells — anything to get back!”
It was March of 2011. Serena Williams called out these words from her front doorstep as I left her house in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. We had just concluded an interview, her first in months, since slashing her foot on glass after Wimbledon and suffering from a pulmonary embolism that traveled from her leg to her lungs. The month before, Williams had been rushed to the hospital to remove a grapefruit-sized hematoma from her stomach. She was rattled. She was desperate to rejoin the tour.
Her unprompted remark was a joke, surely, and she laughed when she said it. It showed the American’s smart-aleck sense of irony. But it also revealed that Williams remained mindful of the uncompromising stance she and her older sister Venus Williams had adopted. Caught in the crossfire of a racially tinged incident, they would never return to the tournament at Indian Wells. In hindsight, a more serious internal debate, conscious or inchoate, was percolating.
By now, everyone in the tennis universe and more remote sports galaxies knows that Serena will compete at the BNP Paribas Open this week for the first time since 2001. Her first match in 14 years will be under the lights on Friday night against Monica Niculescu. Venus — her blood, her protector, her confidante and tennis soul mate — will not. Neither will her father, Richard, the other protagonist in the ugly drama.
On Feb. 4, shortly after winning her 19th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, top-ranked Serena announced on Time.com her decision to end the Williams family boycott and accept a wild card. Serena explained how the experience had left scars, but 13 years later she “felt different.” The overarching theme: forgiveness.
“This haunted me for a long time,” she wrote. “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.”
“There are some who say I should never go back,” she added. “There are others who say I should’ve returned years ago. I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time. I’m just following my heart on this one.”
There are multiple versions of what happened at Indian Wells in 2001 (I did not attend). Joel Drucker, the longtime tennis writer, reported one of the most even-handed summaries here. This much is certain: Serena, then 19, advanced to the final when Venus withdrew from their semifinal with an injury, not long before match time. Fans were not pleased. Conspiracy theories of match fixing ensued, fueled by comments from Russia’s Elena Dementieva. At the final, fans booed Venus and her father, Richard Williams, as they took their seats. Richard later said he heard racial epithets from the mostly white crowd. Some spectators jeered Serena during the contest, which she won against Kim Clijsters. The family vowed never to set foot there again.
Serena’s decision to return to the Southern California desert can, and will, be viewed from multiple lenses. Clemency? In a sports culture where payback and scandal rule – why not? Righteousness? On the 50th anniversary of the Selma march and ongoing divisive relations between law enforcement and minorities — absolutely. Homecoming? Indian Wells is a two-hour drive from Compton, Calif., where the sisters grew up. Opportunism? It wouldn’t be beyond Serena or her handlers to exploit a public-relations opening.
I see it as through a different prism. I see it as the ultimate act of individuation.
From their childhood in gang-scarred Compton to the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon, where each has won five singles championships, one constant has ruled the Williams sisters’ lives: family. Richard, the strict descendant of sharecroppers, instilled in his two youngest daughters a sense of duty, respect and most of all, filial loyalty.
Tight-knit barely does justice to the family from Compton. No matter who coached Serena and Venus, or for how many years, credit for building their games always circled back to their parents, Richard and Oracene. No matter whom they tussled with on the court, from Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport to Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, their toughest opponent was always one another. If one retired, they have often said, the other would too. They only play doubles together. Their mutual devotion is beyond dispute.
Family fealty never wavers. “They gave me everything,” Serena, now 33, gushed about her parents on ESPN shortly after defeating Maria Sharapova for her sixth Australian Open crown last month. Neither was in attendance. “They gave me the whole opportunity to be here….Growing up, I wasn’t the richest but I had a rich family in spirit and support.”
The tribal quality is best expressed by the annual tournament the sisters host. The “Williams Invitational” is a private, hit-and-giggle tournament-cum-party in South Florida for family and close friends – invitation only, of course. Could anything say more about an us-versus-them worldview? “We were outsiders,” is how Serena begins her Time.com essay.
On most fronts, the sisters, 15 months apart, have walked in near lock step. Of Indian Wells, Venus said it would take an “act of god” for her to return. Serena often swore the same. The sisters have been asked ad nauseum if they would end the ban. The party line has been consistent: Not in this lifetime.
Compared to the more circumspect Venus, Serena has always been the live wire – “meaner,” her father once famously said, but also more raw, unpredictable, dangerous. Still, well into their pioneering careers, they were often lumped together as the “Williams sisters,” as if they were professional Siamese twins, conjoined by their tennis success. “They are very different people,” says Maiken Baird, one of the filmmakers of the 2013 documentary “Venus and Serena.”
The sisters increasingly forged discrete identities as they grew from braided and beaded upstarts to giants of the game. They have different sponsors, different agents, and disparate outside business interests. They rarely enter the same lower-tier events. When not globetrotting, they had shared a house in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., but each is now building a separate home.
When it came to Indian Wells, Serena showed signs of divergence. There was her offhand remark to me in 2011. At last year’s Australian Open, she told reporters the idea of returning crossed her mind after seeing the film “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” Not long after, her coach Patrick Mouratoglou let the cat out of the bag, saying Serena had considered a return the previous year. Then the American left her name on the 2014 tournament entry list, which she never had before. She later dismissed the whole incident as a clerical error.
There is no mistake this time, and no going back. But why take a chance? Why risk disrupting family harmony? Why come back? Why come back without Venus? Serena doesn’t need to play. She doesn’t need the money or the title. She doesn’t need the positive P.R. Frankly, she couldn’t care less what others think.
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Ultimately, only Serena knows the reasons for her return, apart from what she has said and written and what she will say in the days ahead. I am not part of her inner circle. I have not discussed it with her. However, for the past few years I have had a closer seat than many to her moods and motivations. I saw Serena, ripped and unflappable, defeat Venus in a fourth consecutive Grand Slam final to complete the 2002-03 “Serena Slam” in Melbourne. I spent time with her in L.A. at one of her most vulnerable moments. I sat courtside at the 2009 U.S. Open when the enraged American threatened to choke a lineswoman with a tennis ball. I visited the bleary-eyed star at her Paris pied-a-terre the morning after her second French Open title in 2013. I was at Wimbledon last year when she stumbled around the court in a daze before forfeiting a doubles match with what she later called a viral illness. I’ve seen some of her best and some of her worst.
She inspires and repels in equal measure. She takes no prisoners and doesn’t pretend otherwise. Her champion’s heart is unquestioned. But she has long straddled the boundary between empowerment and entitlement, and not always with the same fluid grace of her service motion. Her motto is simply: “Play on and be damned! I’m here to win, and nothing else!”
Serena is taking the same attitude to Indian Wells. Her return is a smash-mouth assertion of independence and individuality, now encompassing her closest and dearest. This is Serena proclaiming – not to the media, not to fans, not to sponsors – but to her family: I am my own person. I am an adult. I make my own decisions. Deal with it.
Chris Evert believes this process accelerated when Serena joined forces in 2012 with Frenchman Mouratoglou, who runs a tennis academy outside Paris. “I think her independence started then for sure,” says 18-time major winner Evert, who also had a controlling father and older sister who played on the pro tour. “That was the first time she went to a resource outside of the family that her dad didn’t have control over. That goes with the evolution of her being her own person.”
Venus, typically, has shed little light on her true feelings. Were there heated debates with her sister? Discussion of a joint return? Family powwows to hash it out? Asked in Dubai last month if she would also return to Indian Wells, the 34-year-old offered little. “I made my schedule up,” Venus said. “I think I’m entered in Miami, and that’s pretty much what it is. I haven’t really given a lot of thought to (playing Indian Wells). I have just been focusing on this year.”
How did she receive Serena’s lightning-rod decision to return? “She just said, ‘I might be playing there,’” said Venus flatly. “I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ That’s pretty much the conversation. I just respect every decision she makes, pretty much. It’s nothing complicated about it.”
We may never know what Serena and Venus think, or even Richard, whose fiery sense of racial injustice has always been front and center. “Silence in the face of fevered speculation is a Williams family trait,” Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price penned in a trenchant Serena story last summer.
So too, Price pointed out, are “mixed messages.” Among the many lessons Serena learned from her fanatical father is that words are weapons. They can be used to obfuscate. Serena can be charming, brutally honest and insightful, but she is no stranger to spin, expediency or utter nonsense. Parse her words carefully. The truth is more transparent in her body language. Posture, facial expression, footwork — that is where Serena will reveal her feelings.
By her mere presence, this year’s Indian Wells tournament will be the Serena Show. We can applaud that because there is no show quite like it in women’s sports. “It’s great for her, it’s great for tennis, it’s great for fans,” says Martina Navratilova.
Remember, too, that her participation in 2015 is not because she’ll “do anything to get back.” She wants to be here. That usually means get the hell out of the way.