What happened at the Indian Wells 2001 that forced Serena Williams and her sister Venus to boycott the tournament for a better part of a decade? We remember the incident and its fallout from all those years ago.
Serena Williams is probably the greatest female tennis player of all time and one of the best all-time tennis player too. Her career, however, has had its share of on and off court controversies.
Some of them have been her own doing while at other times she has been at the receiving end. The 2001 Indian Wells Open saw Serena (and her sister Venus Williams) getting involved in a controversy which saw them boycott the tournament for a whopping 14 years before making a comeback.
How did Serena Get Involved in the 2001 Indian Wells Open Controversy?
It was the 2001 Indian Wells Open and Serena was playing in her fourth edition at the tournament. Seeded seventh in the tournament, Williams had won the title at the Indian Wells Open two years prior to this and at the time, was a growing star, having also scooped her first ever Grand Slam title in 1999 (at the US Open).
Heading into the tournament, Serena had a first round bye and skipped past all her first four opponents without any trouble. Adriana Gersi was beaten 6-3, 6-2, Gala Leon Garcia went down 6-3, 6-1, Magdalena Maleeva only stretched her a little before losing 7-5, 6-2 before Williams crushed Elena Dementieva 6-0, 6-3.
All this brought her to the semifinal where she was to play her sister Venus, who was also the third seed and a two-time Grand Slam winner herself. However, minutes before the start of their semifinal, Venus opted to withdraw from the match because of what was described as a right knee injury.
The Indian Wells Open crowd, who was only just settling in, waiting with bated breath for the sisters to fight it out for a place in the final, wasn’t impressed when the announcement about Venus’ withdrawal was made. A loud round of boos went around the courts from the disgruntled crowd.
That Wasn’t the End of the Story Though…
If the Williams sisters – and family – thought that was going to be the end of the story there, they were in for a surprise. On March 17, Serena was drawn to play Kim Clijsters in the final and just before the match was to begin, Venus and her father Richard walked into the stands to take their seats.
The crowds repeated their performance from earlier, unable to forgive Venus’ decision to withdraw from the semifinal. There was a sense of belief her withdrawal was lesser to do with an injury and more Richard’s machination to get one of them to play in the final.
While the jeering obviously stopped once Richard and Venus settled in, it was Serena’s turn to face the music as the match began. Double-faults and unforced errors from Serena were cheered loudly by the crowd and it had a rattling effect on her, as she lost the first set to her Belgian opponent.
Serena later admitted she wasn’t even looking to win but only wanted strength to be able to ignore the crowd. She said in an interview:
“At first, obviously, I wasn’t happy. I don’t think mentally I was ready for that. To be honest, what I literally did on a changeover, I prayed to God to help me be strong, not even to win, but to be strong, not listen to the crowd.”
Come the second set, Serena began to find her own game and levelled the match before crushing her opponent in the final set and win 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 to clinch the title. The crowd wasn’t having too much of it though as applause was mixed with rounds of boos and jeers yet again.
A visibly relieved Serena, however, thanked those in the crowd who supported her and added, “if you didn’t [support me], I love you guys anyway”.
Meanwhile, Richard and Venus later alleged they were subject to racial abuse by the crowds but no supporting evidence was found. On his part, Richard had shaken his fist in a gesture synonymous with Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ 1968 Olympics Black Power salute. However, that aside, there was no response from him.
Williamses Boycott the Indian Wells Open
However, that was the last time both Serena and Venus played at the Indian Wells for more than a decade. Despite being a Premier Mandatory tournament – which meant the only way players could opt not to play in it other than injuries is if they promoted the tournament – the Williams sisters decided against participating in it.
The WTA decided not to push them into promoting the tournament, while tournament director Charlie Pasarell opted to accept the WTA decision. Some fans were critical of WTA’s decision to bend rules for a star player, while there were others who criticised the sisters for not talking about the incident, which according to them only accentuates the racism issue.
Serena went on to write her autobiography in which she dedicated a chapter to this incident. Named “The Fiery Darts of Indian Wells”, Williams alleged Venus wanted to withdraw much earlier from her semifinal match that day, but for a long time the tournament officials refused to acknowledge the same.
Serena Williams finally decided to return to the tournament in 2015, ending a 14-year-long hiatus from the Indian Wells Open. Writing a column for Time.com, Williams explained, things had changed for the better in the times leading up to that edition of the tournament with WTA and USTA supporting her when she was at the receiving end of disparaging comments from Russian official Shamil Tarpischev.
The American explained she meant it when she said she would never play at the Indian Wells again because she was afraid of a similar incident to the one in 2001 repeating itself. However, she added:
“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.”
In her first edition on return, Serena made it to the semifinal before becoming a finalist in 2016. She is yet to win the title again since that victory against Clijsters.
Venus Williams made a return to the Indian Wells the following year. In 2016, she was knocked out in the second round while making it as far as at least the quarterfinals in the next three seasons, including a semifinal in 2018.