By Gary Montgomery, Photo by Jon Gaede
After 14 years, Serena gives Indian Wells a second chance but fate steals the ending.
I remember it as if it were only yesterday. Saturday afternoon March 17, 2001 and the women’s finals were set. Serena Williams versus Kim Clijsters. As Richard and older sister Venus entered the stadium to take their seats, a chorus of boos rang out louder than at any tennis match I have ever seen. And the booing continued throughout the match as Serena Williams topped Clijsters to win what was then the Tennis Master’s Series at Indian Wells.
It was an ugly and unnecessary series of events that combined and fueled by human emotions collided on that day to keep the Williams away for the next 14 years. The family saw it as a racial attack although hardly any of the reporters sitting near the family admit to hearing any racial epithets. The fans characterize it has a demonstration to voice their displeasure with what they believed was match fixing.
As one who personally witnessed the ugliness, I can see both sides and yes race was a key element in the eventual ugliness.
At only 19 years old, Serena was just beginning to make Richard’s predictions that she would surpass Venus as the better player a reality. And I am sure it was an uncomfortable time for both sisters. The two had played each other only a few times at that point and the anxiety was obvious.
The media had spawned a very contemptuous relationship with Richard as it was becoming clear that Richard had been right all along about managing his daughters’ careers. The media had long asserted that he was mishandling their careers and they would never achieve greatness. He was beginning to prove their assertions wrong. And believe me, pundits hate eating crow. With those feelings as a backdrop, the media continued publishing sour grape interviews with wild accusations of Richard determining who will win matches, which was never the case.
With a solidly adversarial relationship between the family and the media and the WTA mostly quiet or releasing benign statements, fans had to choose who they would believe and there you go. Even today, the black athlete will lose that battle.
So, the youthful and normally giddy Williams sisters were forced to endure an afternoon of boos and jeers. In the press conference after the match Venus had to put up a strong front and defend the family pride. Venus said, “Everybody has their own opinion. It’s not a true opinion at all. Everybody makes their own comments and that’s how rumors get started. I guess rumors are more exciting than the truth,” she told the media.
At that point in their careers Venus had a 4-1 advantage over her little sister in head to head competitions but none of that mattered and to a certain extent Venus was right. Rumors tend to make the better story.
Obviously, there was great anticipation from the moment Serena announced her return. Media requests poured in and local publications like the IE Voice were issued only limited coverage access. The excitement continued to grow as Serena fought her way the competition approaching a possible finals appearance at center court after 14 years.
All of that anticipation was reduced to one gigantic sigh of despair when it was announced that Serena would not compete in the semifinal match against Simona Halep due to a sore knee. Serena addressed the crowd briefly and received a round of applause but only a trip to final match at center court would determine if all is healed. I’m hopeful that enough healing has occurred that Serena will give it another go next year and we might finally see if the wounds have truly healed.
Gary Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org