Wednesday 17/10/2018 - 08:51 pm


Serena Williams Strikes the Right Note in a Time of Turmoil


2015.03.13 03:21

 INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Serena Williams officially ended her 14-year boycott of the annual tennis tournament held here when she addressed members of the news media Thursday to explain why she returned.

“I just felt like it was time,” she said.
At the same time, Williams said there was a time when she felt this day might never come: “I didn’t think I would come back, to be honest.”
In March 2001, Williams, then 19, was booed without mercy as she played a championship match here. Fans were angry that the much-anticipated semifinal between her and her sister Venus never materialized after Venus pulled out with an injury. Their father, Richard Williams, was accused of orchestrating the outcome.
Many say they are not clear about what happened over that weekend, but Richard Williams is very clear about what happened. In his autobiography, which was published last year, Williams described the events in detail.
 
He wrote about the chorus of boos that greeted the announcement that Venus would not play, and charged that accusations and racial epithets “flew throughout the stadium” when he and Venus arrived two days later to watch Serena play in the final.

Photo
Serena Williams during her win over Kim Clijsters in the 2001 final at Indian Wells. She discussed her return Thursday. “I didn’t think I would come back,” she said.CreditJohn Mabanglo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“My daughters were treated without an ounce of dignity or respect,” he wrote. “They were treated like criminals.”
When the Williams sisters and their father left the tournament, they vowed never to return. They stood by the vow with steely resolve until February, when Serena Williams revealed, through Time magazine, that she would return to Indian Wells in March to play in the BNP Paribas Open.
I cheered the stance the Williamses took when they decided not to return to Indian Wells, and I have long felt that Serena should continue to stay away.
Along with Althea Gibson’s rise from Harlem to back-to-back championships at Wimbledon and Forest Hills in the late 1950s, the rise of Venus and Serena Williams is one of the most phenomenal — and underappreciated — stories in American tennis history. Like Gibson, the Williams sisters became lightning rods for race and class.
 
Richard Williams added the extra dynamic of power, and that, as much as anything else, set off many fans at Indian Wells 14 years ago. A black man controlling the product in an almost all-white, country club sport was bad enough. Possibly exercising the power that went with that control seemed to be too much to bear. The result was outrage from the fans, followed by a boycott from the Williamses.
Acts of racism must be punished whenever they occur, and while we certainly can forgive — African-Americans have been in the forgiveness business for centuries — one can still make sure there are consequences.
In this case, the consequence would have been one of the greatest players in tennis history sending a painful but clear message to a community that she felt had wronged her and her family.
On the other hand, journalists sit on the sideline and record — even cheer — acts of defiance by athletes ranging from Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos in past years to today’s athletes wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to protest police brutality.
These acts of defiance carry consequences; there is a price to be paid for challenging the status quo. Just ask anyone who has.
John Thompson, the former Georgetown coach, used to lecture me about chiding athletes like Michael Jordan for not taking stronger public stances. Thompson said that when you had nothing to lose, it was easy to criticize people for not taking stances that might cost them millions of dollars or, in another time, perhaps even their lives.
During a 10-minute session with the news media on Thursday, Serena Williams said she wanted to look forward, not back, but she made references to the events of 14 years ago.
Asked if she could remember being happy after she won the championship, Williams said, “No, not at all.”
 
Williams said that when she told her father she was thinking of coming back, “He said it would be a big mistake if I didn’t go back.”
She added, “In order to forgive you have to be able to let go of everything, and I kind of let go a long time ago, and I kind of forgave, but I still wasn’t at a point where I was ready to come back to Indian Wells.”
Time heals all wounds, but the scars remain.
Much has changed in the intervening years. The tournament has changed its name, and Williams has done fine without it while becoming the best player of her generation. The two weeks here will be Williams’s 231st and 232nd as the world No. 1.
The Indian Wells tournament, which dates to the 1970s, has done fine without her. But this affluent community has been tarnished, some would argue unfairly, by the charges of racism stemming from the 2001 event. Williams’s presence here provides a level of absolution no amount of wealth could buy.
Before Thursday’s news conference, I felt that Williams should have continued her boycott. But after hearing her remarks, it became clear that she had made the wise choice.
Without mentioning events in Ferguson, Mo., in Cleveland and on Staten Island, as well as the recent racist rants by members of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma, Williams said she was convinced that returning and sounding a note of forgiveness were the right things to do, and this was the right time.
 
“I think a lot of the things that have been happening lately, I think definitely played a part in the whole picture,” she said.
“I thought it was really good timing, not just for me but for Americans in general, to step up and say, ‘We as a people, we as Americans, we can do better, we can be better, we are better.’ ”
When Williams plays her match Friday evening, the fans at Indian Wells should give her an ovation for that thought alone.
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