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Tennis

It's time for Williams sisters to return to Indian Wells

Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Serena and Venus Williams last played at Indian Wells in 2001, boycotting the event since.

Beyond the on-court deeds and unforgettable personalities, tennis has a history of courage and sensibility in the face of cultural injustice. Arthur Ashe spent a lifetime confronting racism with calm, measured logic. Billie Jean King brought women's rights to the forefront against a torrent of skepticism. Martina Navratilova knocked down the barriers of homophobia and continues the fight to this day.

Given those lofty standards of historical significance, perhaps the tennis community shouldn't be overly concerned with the Williams family's ongoing boycott of Indian Wells. Just wondering, though, as the tournament once again proceeds without them: Shouldn't Venus and Serena be past all that? After 12 years, isn't it time to rise above the rubble and make an even stronger statement?

Let's be clear on one thing: What happened that day in 2001, before and during the final between Serena and Kim Clijsters, was one of the ugliest scenes in the sport's history. You didn't have to be in the stands (and I was not) to be appalled and disgusted by the crowd's hostile response to Venus, who showed up to watch after pulling out of her scheduled semifinal against Serena two days earlier, or to the Williams family in general. I believe I would be haunted, as well, by the sights and sounds lingering in memory.

It is instructive, though, to understand exactly what went down over the course of two controversial weeks. The definitive rundown, presented thoroughly and objectively, can be found in Joel Drucker's 2009 retrospective on ESPN.com. A few things to know:

? The sisters were playing in a climate of suspicion, fans and fellow players wondering if their matches against each other -- meticulously avoided whenever possible at that time -- were "fixed" by their father, Richard. Elena Dementieva essentially made that claim after losing her Indian Wells quarterfinal to Venus, and a National Enquirer piece had accused the sisters of fixing the result of their 2000 Wimbledon semifinal.

? Venus withdrew from her Indian Wells semifinal against Serena just four minutes before it began, prompting anger among the patrons who had come to witness the sisters -- arguably the two best players in the world at that time -- facing each other.

? Despite Richard's fierce assertions, there is considerable evidence that the booing centered on Venus' controversial withdrawal, and was not based in racism. As Venus arrived to watch the final, "There was no sign of a limp, no wrap on her controversial right knee," wrote Selena Roberts in The New York Times, adding that "few wanted to forgive" Venus because "her penchant from withdrawing from tournaments had ruined her credibility. Few wanted to believe that her exit was not part of a fix conjured up by her father."

? I heard this week from Bud Collins' wife, Anita, who was on the scene. "Bud was about to do TV when the Venus-Serena match was canceled with about five minutes' notice," she wrote via e-mail. "I happened to be walking through the inner corridor and saw Venus running past me. I said, 'Good luck.' She said, 'Hi' and ran on. It did not appear to me that she had the slightest injury. The audience was well within their rights to boo. They were booing poor manners. Venus never came out to explain or apologize. There was nothing racial about it."

? One always runs a risk in dismissing racism outright. How can anyone be certain? "You hear people speak of 'subconcious racism,' " Drucker said this week. "And I understand that. I think I could speak to 'subconscious anti-Semitism.' But what are you going to do about that?"

? The so-called "fifth major" in the California desert had always been among Serena's favorite tournaments, and in the news conference after her championship victory over Clijsters, she said, "I have a championship to defend next year. You'll probably see me here." She acknowledged that "there's still a little problem with racism in America," but said, "I don't know if race has anything to do with this particular situation."

? When the press caught up with Venus the following week in Miami, she was typically dismissive of any controversy. It was Richard, speaking publicly for the first time, who described the Indian Wells crowd as a "lynch mob" and claimed to have heard many racist insults. From that moment on, the sisters announced they would never return, and they have remained true to their word.

I go back a long way with the sisters, to Venus' professional debut at the Oakland Coliseum in 1994. I've covered most all of their matches at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and I've consistently defended them on many fronts, from the match-fixing accusations to their news-conference demeanor to their in-and-out presence on the tour (a key to their remarkable longevity, I would surmise). I think people too often forget what it took for the Williams family to emerge from humble beginnings.

Still, there comes a point where one has to fight the specter of injustice, not withdraw. To "never close a door behind you," as Ashe liked to say. Not that a tennis tournament has one thing to do with the shattering of baseball's color barrier, but for Jackie Robinson in 1947, every day was Indian Wells. He stood tall for months and years on end, a beacon of dignity, when an ordinary man would have lost all composure or simply withdrawn.

The Times' Neil Harman, one of the best and most respected tennis writers in the business, took some heat for a comment he made after Serena regained the No. 1 ranking last month.

"I tweeted that I thought she should now be big enough to take on the Indian Wells situation again," Harman told me this week. "I received a shed-load of responses from those accusing me of being a white man (correct) who obviously had no idea of what all this meant to blacks. I appreciate that line of thinking, but surely it is time to let bygones be bygones. I think it would show that she had won, and the haters (whoever they are) had been defeated. I think it would do her enormous credit to come back here."

As I polled others who follow the tour with distinction, I heard the following:

? Matt Cronin, tennisreporters.net: "I don't think players should feel they have to go back to a place where they were clearly traumatized. I've spoken to Venus and Serena at length about the issue on a number of occasions, and the feeling I get is that they are both still deeply hurt about what occurred, and maybe always will be. To me (and I was there), it doesn't really matter any more what Venus and Richard alleged they heard (racial insults). What matters is what Serena told me the last time I spoke to her about it: How do they know they won't get the same reception again? And why would they want to put themselves through that situation again, if it's even remotely possible?

"Although I doubt that would occur again, I'm not convinced, either," Cronin continued. "All it would take would be a few idiots in the crowd who want to stir things up, and it could become a nasty experience for the Williams sisters. I don't think they deserve that. What's too bad is that so many new fans at Indian Wells don't get a chance to see them play, and that 12 years later, they're still not comfortable enough to play such a big tournament just two hours away from where they grew up (Compton).

"There are times in life and in tennis that I agree with 'turn the other cheek,' but in this instance I feel that other cheek was so battered and bruised, the sisters are still wearing those scars today. The tennis community needs to allow the scars to disappear before asking them to consider returning. To me, that's not going to happen until after they retire."

? Chris Clarey, The New York Times: "It's a boycott on principle, and the sisters have made their point annually for the majority of their careers. I think it has been effective, and I think their absence has hurt Indian Wells and its leadership more than it has hurt them. But at this stage, I think it would send a more powerful and eloquent message if they would return.

"The tournament has new ownership and many new fans who played no role in the incident. Based on interviews with Serena, I would be surprised if either of them changes her mind, but they have made their stand and their point and then some. They would bring much more positive energy and productive discussion to tennis, and the issue of racism in sport, by putting Indian Wells back on their schedules than by leaving it off."

? Doug Robson, USA Today: "I don't think they will ever budge, which is too bad, because if one or both of them decided to come back, it would create so much good will."

Perhaps it's too late to expect anything to change. Venus doesn't really need Indian Wells as she glides through the twilight of her career. The women's tour needs a Serena-Victoria Azarenka matchup as often as possible, and certainly this week, but as Drucker said, "She'll just go play Miami, and that will be that. 'Go ahead and fine me. Put it on my tab.' "

I just know this: After 12 years, I no longer see dignity or integrity in the Williams' stance, only stubbornness and a grudge. I find that disappointing, and a little bit sad.

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