Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Serena to end Indian Wells boycott

Serena Williams will play in the BNP Paribas Open for the first
time since 2001. File photo by Paul Bauman
   The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells has long been a glorious festival featuring numerous men's and women's Grand Slam champions, a stunning setting and spectacular weather.
   But from 2002 through last year, something was missing. Serena and Venus Williams boycotted the tournament after controversy erupted there in 2001.
   The protest, at least by Serena, will end next month. She announced today that she has accepted a wild card to play in the BNP Paribas Open, scheduled for March 9-22.
   "I’m fortunate to be at a point in my career where I have nothing to prove," the 33-year-old  Williams, who won the Australian Open on Saturday for her 19th Grand Slam singles title, wrote in Time Magazine. "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."
   Venus Williams, 34, has not indicated whether she will play in Indian Wells.
   The BNP Paribas Open broke its attendance record for the eighth straight year in 2014, drawing an announced 431,527 fans. Most, of course, come from Southern California, but the tournament also attracts many tennis enthusiasts from Northern California and throughout the West.
   Serena Williams, meanwhile, has won the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford three times, including last year. 
   Serena wrote in Time that the Indian Wells tournament "held a special place in my heart." She won her first pro match there, with Venus in doubles, in 1997 at age 15. Venus, 16 at the time, then qualified in singles and reached the quarterfinals. Serena also won her first big title at Indian Wells, beating Steffi Graf in the 1999 final.   
   The problems began when Venus defaulted to Serena minutes before their scheduled semifinal in 2001. Some fans thought their father, Richard, had arranged the default because he didn't want his daughters to play each other.
   " ... Venus jilted a stadium full of fans, left TV networks scrambling on two minutes' notice, then had a news conference to explain that tendinitis in her knee had acted up," the esteemed Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times wrote in a 2007 column urging the Williams sisters to return to the tournament. "She walked in and out of that press session without a limp and treated questions about the timing of her decision with arrogance and disdain.
   "Two weeks later, Venus won the title in Miami. She also won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that year."
   Countered Serena in Time: "Throughout my whole career, integrity has been everything to me. It is also everything and more to Venus. The false allegations that our matches were fixed hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply. The under­current of racism was painful, confusing and unfair."
   Two days after Venus' default, the Indian Wells crowd booed Serena throughout her final against Kim Clijsters. The vitriol nearly brought Serena to tears, but she won.
   "Their father, Richard, got into shouting matches with fans and told reporters that the boos had been racially motivated, not triggered by anger among fans who'd bought tickets for Venus-Serena and got doubles instead," Dwyre wrote. 
   The incident "haunted me for a long time," Serena wrote in Time. "It haunted Venus and our family as well. But most of all, it angered and saddened my father. He dedicated his whole life to prepping us for this incredible journey, and there he had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South.
   "(Fourteen) 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."
   Now all the BNP Paribas Open needs is Venus.

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