Serena Williams is ending her lengthy boycott of the tennis tournament at Indian Wells, where she and her sister were the targets of a nasty incident in 2001.
Williams explained her decision to return to the California tournament in a Time.com essay:
Thirteen years and a lifetime in tennis later, things feel different. A few months ago, when Russian official Shamil Tarpischev made racist and sexist remarks about Venus and me, the WTA and USTA immediately condemned him. It reminded me how far the sport has come, and how far I’ve come too.
I have thought about going back to Indian Wells many times over my career. I said a few times that I would never play there again. And believe me, I meant it. I admit it scared me. What if I walked onto the court and the entire crowd booed me? The nightmare would start all over.
Back in 2001, the father of Venus Williams and Serena, who was not yet 20, was accused by Elena Dementieva of manipulating matches between the women. Although she later claimed she was joking, there were a number of comments about Richard Williams’ influence over the Venus and Serena and the situation reached critical mass when Venus withdrew from a semifinal against Serena, citing an injury, just minutes before the match was to begin. The crowd booed and reporters asked Venus about whether the women’s matches were fixed. Her answer wasn’t definitive and, when Serena stepped onto the court to play Kim Clijsters in the final, the crowd got nasty. Richard Williams said there were racist comments and jeers.
Richard Williams told USA Today at the time that he was called the N-word. “One guy said, ‘I wish it was ’75; we’d skin you alive.’ That’s when I stopped and walked toward that way,” Richard Williams said then. Then I realized that [the] best bet was to handle the situation non-violently. I had trouble holding back tears. I think Indian Wells disgraced America.”
Serena Williams writes that she was raised by her mother to “love and forgive freely,” which makes a return to the tournament in early March possible.
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.
I’m fortunate to be at a point in my career where I have nothing to prove. I’m still as driven as ever, but the ride is a little easier. I play for the love of the game. And it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015.