*It’s the end of an era … or an error thought to be made by tennis fans in Indian Wells, California. After 13 years of boycotting the BNP Paribas tournament held there at the Tennis Gardens due to what she, her sister and the rest of her family deemed to be overt racism, Serena Williams has decided to at last return to compete.
The story goes: Both sisters advanced to semifinal round, which would’ve found them playing one another. Venus got injured and had to pull out right before the match started, giving Serena a walkover. The fans were angry that the match was canceled, feeling as if it were fixed, and … what happened next seems to differ in the minds of the Williamses, the “angry fans” and Indian Wells organizers. The Williamses recall boos, jeers and racist names being shouted from the crowd as Serena took to the court play in the final and her family made their way to their seats, while many of the accused deny it happened that way. Whatever the case, Serena Williams won the tournament, but fled the stadium in tears shortly thereafter as a result of her perception of what happened. Her father and at-that-time coach Richard Williams and sister Venus Williams unequivocally attest to Serena’s version of the events.
But what’s done is done and – sans what’s going on outside the tennis world right now #SAE – it’s a new day.
Indian Wells isn’t a Grand Slam, but it is a Premier Mandatory Master’s level tournament that features all the top players. And 2015’s competition will be all the more momentous due to women’s tennis’ biggest and most bankable star’s return.
Serena Williams will be joined by fellow Americans, Taylor Townsend, Madison Keys, and Sloane Stephens, and her arch nemesis, Maria Sharapova, world no. 2 is also scheduled to play. She will also be joined by her “friend” and most formidable opponent on tour, Victoria Azarenka, who’s not too long back from injury. AND the Belarusian will be on deck with who used to be Serena’s trusted hitting partner, Sascha Bajin. Her long-time friend and colleague defected to Azarenka’s camp sometime after this year’s Australian Open with – according to twitter – no hard feelings:
@bigsascha @vika7 don’t have too much fun without me congrats Sasha
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) March 4, 2015
He tweeted back:
Thank you @serenawilliams you know @vika7 and me won’t be having any fun. Lol! Thank you for 8 unforgettable years, what a ride it was….
— sascha Bajin (@BigSascha) March 4, 2015
Azarenka joined the tweet-vo in appreciation of Serena’s “coolness” about the change:
“@serenawilliams: @bigsascha @vika7 don’t have too much fun without me congrats Sasha” all love and respect! Thx for being cool
— victoria azarenka (@vika7) March 4, 2015
Could it have really been that simple? Hmmmm … but, if the two meet, which could only be in the final, it should make for a very interesting match.
“It wasn’t an easy decision. Sasch said he wanted to be more of a coach, so yeah, he decided to do that,” she said – in short – of the split during her presser.
Back to Serena’s return, IW tournament staff had been reaching out to the Williams sisters for years in an attempt to illicit a change of heart, but no dice from either. Even in the face of annual fines (due to mandatory tourney), STILL no dice. But fast forward to today – when racial tensions in the nation are arguably on the rise again – where you’ll find Venus still in boycott mode, but Serena having gone against the grain and forgiven … but would like to forget:
“The whole point of me coming back was not to necessarily focus on what happened 13 years ago,” she told the press. “It was more or less to focus on how I felt, if it was the right opportunity for me to come back now and for me to be at this tournament.”
As part of her return, which she partly attributed to the late Nelson Mandela’s biography, the 19-time Grand Slam champion even issued a challenge to her fans to donate to her charity and earn a chance to win a free trip to support her as she makes her “desert debut” of sorts. Kinda like a being a born again virgin; done it before but it’s been such … you get the picture.
“I read the book about a year ago and then I saw the movie,” she said. … that hit me hard, because I met Mr. Mandela a couple times, and we had some interesting conversations. I just really thought that he made such an impact on my life and the things that I do with charity as well as having an opportunity to meet him. “
“I thought it just — in reading the story, it really hit me in an interesting way.”
Serena will serve her first ball as a mature, 19-time GS winning world no. 1 on Stadium 1 tonight, Friday, at 7 p.m. PST against Monica Niculescu of Romania. It’s sure to be standing room only, but no word if Richard or Oracene will also show up in support.