“Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story, and I am a part of the tournament’s story as well,” Serena Williams wrote in Time magazine in 2015 when she announced the end of her 14-year boycott of the event. “Together we have a chance to write a different ending.”

After her 6-4, 7-6 (1) win on Friday night over Agnieszka Radwanska, Serena is on the verge, finally, of writing the ending she must have envisioned at the BNP Paribas Open all along. In 2015, she was forced to withdraw from her semifinal against Simona Halep after injuring her knee. Now, with her win over Radwanska, Williams has reached her first Indian Wells final since that fateful day in 2001 when, as a 19-year-old in pink Puma, she beat back Kim Clijsters and thousands of hostile fans.

Serena’s return in 2015 was emotional; she cried when she walked onto the stadium court for her opening match, and nearly lost it again as she fought to avoid what would have been a dreadfully disappointing defeat at the hands of Monica Niculescu and her slice forehand. In 2016, Serena's trip has mostly been about business, which for her means winning; she hasn’t dropped a set in five matches. This year it was her sister Venus who made her own (brief) return to Indian Wells. In her press conference after her quarterfinal win over Halep, Serena wasn’t asked a single question about the boycott or its end. Two years ago, that would have seemed almost as unlikely as her ever playing a match again at this event.

While it has been largely business as usual for Serena, the same can’t be said for the tournament, or the WTA draw there; it took the world No. 1’s presence to show Indian Wells what it had been missing all these years. There was a big-match buzz before her quarter against Halep, and the stadium was packed for her semi against Radwanska, something that hasn’t often been true for that Friday women's night session in the past. I’m not sure if Larry Ellison, who has been an unflagging supporter of the men's stars at his tournament over the years, was in the crowd; if not, he should have been.

Advertising

During the Serena and Venus boycott era, there were solid draws, compelling stories and exciting matches on the women’s side at Indian Wells, but it was a little like holding the NBA playoffs without the Golden State Warriors. Champions included Daniela Hantuchova (twice), Vera Zvonareva, Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Flavia Pennetta; all are good players, but they have a total of one major title between them. Traditionally, it was the following week in Miami when Serena would make her triumphant return—she has won that event eight times—and restore the tour to order.

In 2016, Serena has helped restore order at Indian Wells, and the rest of the WTA has followed her lead and fallen in line. Remember February, when upsets ran rampant in the lucrative, but Serena-less, events on the Arabian Peninsula? In Dubai, all eight seeds lost in the first round, and 22nd-ranked Sara Errani ended up beating 47th-ranked Barbora Strycova in the final. Things were only slightly more predictable the next week in Doha, where 88th-ranked Jelena Ostapenko was the runner-up.

That familiar word, “chaos,” became the watchword surrounding the WTA again. When, critics asked, was someone going to “step up?" Those critics seemed to have a point when, at Indian Wells, No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber lost her opener and No. 4 seed Garbiñe Muguruza traipsed to another early defeat in her second match.

Then the women’s event turned neat and normal again. The top four seeds in the upper half—Serena, Halep, Radwanska and Petra Kvitova—all reached the quarterfinals. While the bottom half wasn’t as predictable, the quarters included two-time Slam champ Victoria Azarenka, talented ball-striker Karolina Pliskova and a next-generation threat in 18-year-old Daria Kasatkina. None of their runs were random.

The poker-faced, 18th-ranked Pliskova showed why she’s a player, like Gael Monfils on the men’s side, who the sport should hope goes deep at more big events. Her game has an icy brilliance when it’s clicking; it’s hard to think of a player who has purer timing. Unfortunately, Pliskova's brilliance so far has been, by her own admission, only occasional. Before losing to Pliskova, the quietly confident Kasatkina, with her wristy forehand and roundhouse backhand, showed why she could be a player to watch for the next decade. And Azarenka, after so many stops, starts and near misses over the last two years, gritted her way through three-set wins over Pliskova and Sam Stosur to finally return to the place where many of us thought she belonged: the final of an important tournament, on the other side of the net from the world No. 1.

Whether or not Serena inspired this relatively orderly week on the women’s side, her presence alone lends gravitas and import to any women’s draw; winning an event where she’s entered means more than winning one where she isn’t, even if you aren't the one to knock her out. On Friday night, Radwanska—who will be ranked No. 2 on Monday—appeared to be motivated by Serena to try to find another level to her game, and live up to her new ranking. Radwanska served harder and hit with more flat pace than usual. And she had chances to win each of the two sets, something she hasn’t done against Serena since 2012. Aga made it a match, and showed that she will at least do everything she can to try to get closer to Williams.

Advertising

But once Aga had justified herself as a No. 2, Serena reminded us again why she’s not going anywhere at No. 1. She returned Radwanska’s newfound pace with more of her own, and ended the match with a barrage of bullet winners, many of them hit off of her return of serve. In other words, it was exactly what Serena has been doing everywhere else for the last 14 years.

Afterward, Serena was asked, "How would it feel to win [the tournament]?"

She answered with what might have been a champion's version of a Freudian slip:

"It will feel good, it will feel good," she said, before catching herself and going back to the slightly less self-assured, "It would feel good."

One more match and Serena will have the ending at Indian Wells that she wants. She may only be satisfied with a win, but the tournament and its fans should know that having her there in the first place was more than enough.