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Tennis

Calls for Williams sisters to return to Indian Wells are wrong

Photo: Charles Krupa/AP

Venus and Serena Williams are not playing Indian Wells, a mandatory event, for the 12th straight year.

Few things anger me more than being told to just get over it. That I should rise above it all and forgive and forget even when I feel I've been slighted or wronged. The phrase "Get Over It" is particularly irksome because it essentially means, "Whatever it is that has caused you to be upset is not important." It places all of the responsibility on the person who is distressed to shake off whatever it is that is ailing her and pretend to be OK, while liberating everyone else from any obligation to listen or try to understand what's going on.

I imagine this is how Venus and Serena Williams feel each year in March, when tennis enthusiasts around the world debate whether the sisters should "Get Over It" and end their boycott against Indian Wells. It's been 12 years since the sisters were relentlessly booed and shouted down in their home state at a top tour event. Twelve years since Venus unwittingly started a firestorm by daring to pull out of a much-anticipated semifinal match against Serena, citing tendinitis in her knee. Twelve years since the sisters hastily exited the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in a cloud of shame, vowing never to return.

I have read several editorials (including one by Bruce Jenkins at SI.com) suggesting that Venus and Serena should suck it up and move on, that they should set aside all of the pain and embarrassment from that fateful day and be the bigger people for the good of the sport. Sure, each plea for the sisters to come back to Indian Wells is written with a convenient eloquence and soft undertone so as not to overtly offend. They are often written by white male critics who have never experienced the complexities of race and discrimination and who use patronizing language like, "I know I can't begin to understand what it felt like for the sisters in that moment, but I am disappointed that after all this time they can't just get past it." If the sisters were to read such commentary, they would likely roll their eyes and respond, "It's been 12 years people, why can't you get past it?" I know I would.

Each year as Indian Wells, now the BNP Paribas Open, rolls around, Venus and Serena are incessantly poked and prodded about whether they will return. Every year the answer is the same: a resounding NO.

"Even now, all these years later, we continue to boycott the event," Serena wrote in her 2009 autobiography, On the Line. "It's become a mandatory tournament on the tour, meaning that the WTA can fine a player if she doesn't attend. But I don't care if they fine me a million dollars, I will not play there again."

I can't say that I blame her. If it were me, I would never go back. I would never subject myself to the possibility of such shame and ridicule ever happening again. The words "Indian Wells" would never form on my lips again. I wouldn't waste my time acknowledging the city and the fans who reduced me to tears or the tournament that failed to stand up for me in my time of despair.

As a black woman, it has always been difficult for me to find the right words to describe to others the effects of racism on the psyche. To describe what it feels like to be stripped of your dignity and made to feel as if you're nothing, simply because your skin is of a darker hue. To describe why certain words immediately set you off because there is no way to mask the hateful intent behind them. No, I was not in the stands in 2001 to witness the chaos at Indian Wells, so I cannot verify any claims by the Williamses that the crowd's anger was racially motivated. However, one can only imagine how easy it was for Serena and Venus to feel as if the contempt and hostility emanating from the crowd had everything to do with race.

For two hours, the packed stadium of 15,000 mostly white fans viciously booed and shouted obscenities, first at Venus and her father, Richard, as they entered and then at Serena as she began her final against Kim Clijsters. The crowd booed and heckled Serena after every point she won and cheered her double faults and unforced errors. When she finally won the match, the boos drowned out any applause. When she held up the trophy, the boos became even more intense as the shouts of condemnation grew louder.

Remember, this is all happening at a tennis event. Not a football game where boorish behavior runs rampant and drunken fans fill up the stadium. Not a basketball game where unruly fans have gone so far as to throw sodas and water bottles at players on the court.

We're talking about tennis, a sport steeped in etiquette, decorum and protocol; a sport where errant catcalls and whistling are considered low brow and where even standing up during a point will get you a stern admonishment from the chair umpire. This was an event where Venus and Serena would normally feel safe and loved, not only because it was tennis but also because the tournament was in their backyard, in the very state in which they grew up. Yet on this day, all propriety and respectability was left at the gates. The negative reaction to the Williamses was blazing with anger and outrage, to the point where some black fans in attendance have said that they, too, feared for their safety.

Twelve years later, the details that led to the ruckus at the women's final still remain in dispute. According to tournament organizers, Venus pulled out of her semifinal against Serena four minutes before the match was to be played. Venus, however, maintains that she injured her knee in the quarterfinals against Elena Dementieva and that she alerted the trainers of her injury soon after the match was over.

In the post-match press conference, Dementieva seemed to back up Venus' claims, alluding to something being off about Venus' physical condition by saying, "I think we both played very bad today. I didn't expect such a bad play for Venus. It looks like she has some injury or something. ... I didn't expect this play from Venus. I thought she's going to hit the ball like she did hard, and she didn't."

Serena wrote in her memoir that Venus had been telling the trainer for hours that day that her knee didn't feel right and that she didn't think she could play, saying, "I really don't know why they're not making some kind of announcement. I told them [tournament officials] I couldn't play two hours ago."

Yet regardless of who said what to whom and when, the perfect firestorm was already set in motion. After tournament officials announced Venus' withdrawal, the fans were incensed and wanted blood. And blood is what they got when Serena took the court against Clijsters.

For everyone who has the gall to say that Venus and Serena should move past the ugliness of that day, I implore you to close your eyes and imagine yourself in that moment. Stop hiding behind the "I can't begin to imagine what it must feel like ..." one-liners and put yourself in their shoes.

Imagine being a 19-year-old black female mercilessly booed by a mostly white crowd for reasons that she cannot explain. Imagine looking up at the chair umpire expecting some type of support and relief from the vitriol but receiving none. Imagine looking up in the stands and seeing the despair on your sister's face while also seeing the festering fury in your father's eyes as everyone around you is screaming, yelling and pointing the finger. Imagine all of this happening while no one dares to do a damn thing about it. Would you really be so quick to dust off your shoulders and go back? Would you not feel betrayed by the very sport and fans to whom you had given so much?

Maybe the Williamses would have been more inclined to return to the tournament if someone, anyone, from Indian Wells or the USTA had offered some type of apology, publicly and privately. Some type of acknowledgment of what happened was a disgrace and assurances that nothing like it would ever be allowed to happen again. Instead, all the Williamses got were a bunch of passive-aggressive denials and senseless babbling from then-tournament director Charlie Pasarell, who was trying to save face and defuse the situation.

"If Richard says someone yelled something, maybe they did," he said after the tournament in 2001. "But I know that's not Indian Wells people."

What Pasarell and critics of the Williams sisters fail to understand even now is that when a 19-year-old woman is booed, reduced to tears and made to feel as if the world is raining down on her with a bevy of racial slurs and epithets, nothing short of an immediate public apology will ever suffice. It doesn't matter if a few fans and journalists who were in the crowd claim they never heard any racist language. This is what Venus and Serena say they heard; this is what they say they felt. For people to trivialize and discount these feelings in favor of moving on for the good of the sport is not only self-serving but also absurd. It speaks volumes about how, even in 2013, racism is still one of those things that people want to quickly dismiss because the reality of it is too uncomfortable.

For their part, Pasarell and the officials at Indian Wells have claimed that they have reached out to the Williams family on numerous occasions in recent years to try to make things right. But again, what's the point in all of that now? You can't come back several years later after the fact, when Venus and Serena are the biggest names in American tennis and when your tournament needs their presence to boost its sales and visibility, and say, "Oops, we're sorry. Can't we all just get along?"

The Williamses' boycott has never been about two petulant young ladies crying over spilled milk. It has always been about the tournament, its fans, its leadership and the wounds that were opened on the court that day.

"It's not about not doing our best for the sport," Venus said in 2008. "We have a legitimate issue here [at Indian Wells], and it's something we've all been dealing with over the years. But ultimately, sis and I psychologically cannot play at Indian Wells."

We often criticize athletes for not taking a stand, for not doing enough on matters of politics and social justice. In this case, however, Venus and Serena have quietly taken a stand against what they perceived to be an injustice by politely saying, "Thanks, but no thanks." To them, we're the ones who need to move past Indian Wells. We're the ones who need to simply Get Over It.

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