Reading the Readers: March 7

Thursday, March 07, 2013 /by

I'll be writing from Indian Wells for the next 10 days or so, but I'll start with a Reading the Readers question on a well-known topic related to the tournament. If you have questions or comments for future versions of this column, please email me at stignor@tennismagazine.com.

*****

Right after Serena becomes No. 1, [Times of London tennis writer] Neil Harman tweets that she should play Indian Wells. Forgive and move on. Show maturity and humility. He took some flak over it, and my initial reaction was not in favor of her changing her mind. That in today's world, where so few take a stand when it might cost them money or sponsors or points, Serena's continued boycott is admirable. 

Then I read this piece from Joel Drucker in 2009, and I'm not so sure anymore. 

But if Serena’s right, why is this just her problem to bear? Shouldn’t this be everyone’s problem when the the No. 1 player on the WTA refuses to show up at a very popular dual-gender tournament in her own country? If she’s still upset (and maybe rightly so) shouldn’t we all—players, fans, journalists—still be upset about what happened as well? Outside of a few mentions, we all seem fine with just going about the business of a tennis tournament. Or we seem fine with a little victim blaming. Makes me wonder if Federer or Nadal weren’t showing up for a similar reason, the reactions would be very different.—Michele

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For the past five or six or seven springs, I’ve dreaded the inevitable questions about whether Venus and Serena will come back to Indian Wells. It seemed to me that once the tournament became mandatory in 2009, and there was change from them, that the point would finally be moot. Then Larry Ellison bought the event, and there was speculation that he would do whatever he could to mend fences. That didn’t happen. Now, for some reason, the fact that Serena is back at the top of the rankings has made it a question again.

Still, the thought of Serena back on center court at Indian Wells, getting what I would have to believe would be a warm welcome, is an appealing image. Is it right, as a tennis fan, to ask her and her sister to give us that moment after all of these years?

I wasn’t at the tournament in 2001, and have no idea exactly what was said to Serena or Venus or her father. The two competing viewpoints can be summed up in Joel’s ESPN article from ’09, which you mention above, and the chapter on the incident in Serena’s memoir, On the Line

The Drucker article takes a skeptical look at the Williams’ version of the story. We're reminded that, on the day of the final, neither Richard nor his daughters mentioned hearing racial slurs from the crowd; those accusations didn’t come from Richard until nine days later. We're also reminded that there was widespread suspicion in those days that Richard “fixed” his daughter’s matches, and that the big issue in Indian Wells was the timing of Venus’s withdrawal from her semifinal against Serena: It didn’t happen until four minutes before the match was scheduled to begin, when fans were already in their seats. The crowd believed that the sisters didn’t want to play each other, and they had gone about canceling the match without any regard for anyone else.

You get a very different view, obviously, from Serena in her book. She says that Venus, who had hurt her knee in her previous match against Elena Dementieva, had been trying unsuccessfully throughout that day to get the WTA trainer to give her an OK to withdraw. “For hours and hours, [Venus] got a kind of stiff-arm from the trainer, who kept telling her to hold off on making any kind of final decision.” Serena speculates that the tour, the tournament, and their TV partners wanted the match to go on, no matter what. Serena also says that she heard the N-word shouted at her during her subsequent final against Kim Clijsters. (At the top of this post is a clip of Richard and Venus getting booed as they enter to watch that final; below it are highlights of the match.)

What’s more interesting is Serena’s attitude toward that day, and what happened with the crowd, as she looks back on it. She begins the chapter called "The Fiery Darts of Indian Wells," by saying that it had once been her favorite event:

“I had already won at Indian Wells in 1999, beating Steffi Graf in three sets in the finals when I was only 17. That was a big deal. After that, it became my absolute favorite tournament, for a lot of reasons. It was in a small town, just outside Palm Springs. I loved the setting...I loved that the fans were knowledgeable and respectful and appreciative. And I especially loved that it was one of the few tournaments that allowed us all to be together as a family...I came to Indian Wells at such a positive time in my career that I naturally attached all these positive feelings to it. But then the 2001 tournament came around and changed things up on me.”

So Serena was surprised when she walked out for the final and everyone in the place began to boo.

“They were loud, mean, aggressive—pissed!...What was most surprising about this uproar was the fact that tennis fans are typically a well-mannered bunch, and in Palm Springs especially, they tended to be pretty well-heeled, too. But I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people—mostly older, mostly white—standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob....There was no mistaking that all of this was meant for me. I heard the word nigger a couple of times, and I knew.”

That’s a powerful scene, and you can understand how it would stay with Serena, especially at a favorite event so close to home. As she looks back, what seems to bother even more is that it was done to a 19-year-old girl.

“I look at pictures of me from that tournament—all fresh faced and excited and looking sharp in my pink Puma jumper, my hair in braids and gathered into high pigtails in back, held in place by my black Puma visor [did she write this book when she was still with Puma, by any chance?]. I looked so cute! And yet these people were just ripping me. I was just a kid, and they were ripping me. I feel so badly for the little girl I was back then. How can you justify treating a child so badly?”

Later, Serena explains the reason for her continued boycott in similar terms. 

“I call attention to [this moment] because I believe it’s instructive, because I think we need to call out bad behavior, especially when it cuts across racial lines and is aimed at our children.

You don’t make these stands to accomplish a specific goal, I’ve come to realize. You make them because they’re right. You make them because you wouldn’t be here if someone didn’t make them for you, long before you were even born. You make them because somewhere some little girl might be watching.”

Clearly the boycott means a lot to Serena. It’s probably part of what drives her—never forgetting moments like that. She also sees it as an extension of the stands that Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe took to further the cause of black athletes. It even seems, as she’s aged and can now look back on her younger self, to have grown in importance for her. As Drucker points out, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, when the sisters were asked if they would go back to Indian Wells, neither of them said no. Serena said she had “a title to defend,” and Venus said she would be back, “if they’ll have me.” 

But you’re right, Michele, that the Williamses’ stand doesn’t seem to have resonated much with the wider tennis world. Would things be different if, say, Novak Djokovic refused to play a certain event because of slurs that he heard from the crowd? You’d have to think there would be articles asking what was going on with sports fans in that city or country. Those articles may have been written at some point about Indian Wells, but they aren’t now.

I think people do respect the Williamses' decision; by now their commitment to it is obvious. But I think there's also lingering distrust—as the ESPN article shows—over Richard’s involvement, and his version of the events. As Serena herself wrote of Richard’s fist-pumping gesture before the final, “Daddy didn’t help matters, I’m afraid.”

Like everyone else, I’d love to see Serena back at Indian Wells. But judging from the words in her book on the subject, you can’t ask her to just drop something that means so much to her.

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