An emotional and visibly tearful Serena Williams made a glorious return to Indian Wells, California at the BNP Paribas Open on Friday, triumphantly taking in the crowd’s cheers and waving American flags, after she defeated Monica Niculescu in two sets (7-5, 7-5).
The atmosphere at Indian Wells on Friday was a very different scene from one 14 years ago, when the crowd booed and jeered the teenaged tennis phenom, and allegedly hurled racial epithets at her, her sister Venus Williams, and her father Richard Williams. At that time, the Williams family said they would never set foot in the stadium again.
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In 2001 at Indian Wells, Serena defeated Kim Clijsters of Belgium but was jeered by the crowd, who, according to dad Richard, hurled the n-word as well. That’s right – Williams, an American from the very same state where the tourney was held — was booed by an American crowd after she won over a Belgian.
USA Today reports that the crowd’s hostility stemmed from a controversy that began two days earlier, when Venus withdrew from a semifinal against her sister minutes before they were set to take the court, renewing accusations that Richard was “fixing” the sisters’ matches so that they would not play against each other.
Father Richard said to the news outlet at that time that he kept hearing the n-word that day, and that Indian Wells disgraced America:
“When Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me [expletive],” Williams said. “One guy said, ‘I wish it was ’75; we’d skin you alive.’ That’s when I stopped and walked toward that way. Then I realized that (my) best bet was to handle the situation non-violently. I had trouble holding back tears. I think Indian Wells disgraced America.”
Serena, now 33, wrote an exclusive Feb. 4 essay for Time magazine to explain her about-face, including her mother’s Biblical embrace of forgiveness, and following her heart:
It has been difficult for me to forget spending hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001, driving back to Los Angeles feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever—not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality. Emotionally it seemed easier to stay away. There are some who say I should never go back. 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.