INDIAN WELLS, Calif.— The catalog of Serena Williams’ tennis virtues is a long one. Start with that unrepentantly furious ball striking. There’s the slobber-knocking serve—the best in the history of the women’s game—that reliably hisses past opponents. There’s speed. Competitive resolve. Tactics that don't come in for enough credit.
Flexibility would not necessarily rate high on the list. Yet this week—even before she has played her first match—Serena has distinguished herself for expressing elasticity, a capacity to assume a position and then pivot gracefully out of it.
In 2001, Serena won the title at Indian Wells, marrying power tennis and invincibility and pretty much presaging what was to come over the next 14 years. But her title, of course, was polluted by what was then euphemistically called “external events.” Serena was supposed to play her sister Venus in a much-anticipated, ESPN-televised semifinal. Venus withdrew shortly before the match, angering the crowd. A player made the shabby suggestion that their father, Richard, had determined in advance the outcomes matches between his daughters. Tournament organizers didn't exactly douse skeptical instincts, stating their wish that Venus had at least tried to play.
When Serena played in the final two days later, boos gathered volume and heft and echoed through the stadium. Only the most hopelessly naïve would deny an ugly racial undercurrent. Here’s a YouTube link in heavy rotation this week:
To say the optics were lousy would be to traffic in understatement. The enduring images: 1) an overwhelmingly white, older crowd booing before the match as Venus and Richard Williams walk into the stadium. 2) Richard, rightfully livid, shaking his fists in defiance.
Often lost in the retelling: Serena’s role. She was 19 years old and, well, let’s stop here for a second—when is it ever O.K. for adults to boo a 19-year-old? She looked thoroughly shell-shocked as she took the court to such inhospitable treatment. After a shaky first set—amid applause when she hit unforced errors and double-faulted—she steadied herself. Down 4-2, she entered what is now a familiar mode, defiantly refusing to lose, and pulled through to beat Kim Clijsters 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. When presented with the trophy, how did she address a crowd that had been so hostile? “You guys were tough on me today ... I love you anyway. Thank you!”
After grasping the totality of the ugliness, though, Serena and Venus vowed never to return to Indian Wells. The WTA tread lightly, making an exception to what would otherwise be a violation for missing a mandatory event. The tournament offered apologies that began tepidly and became more earnest once it was clear the Williams sisters weren’t budging from this principled stance.
A lot has happened in the interim. One is reminded of those “While you were out” notes that secretaries used to hand their bosses. Serena Williams? While you were out, she upped her Grand Slam total from one to 19—passing through Evert-ville and Navratilova-burg, on her way to Graf-town—winning each major at least twice. She won Olympic medals and scads of titles and more than $65 million, fourth most in tennis history, male or female. She’s seen rivals retire and un-retire, sometimes more than once. She’s been through “lying fabricating” and “bootylicious” and “big ol’ hugs.” There have been personal milestones and life changes, too, of course. The death of a sibling, the divorce of her parents, breakups and a part-time move to Paris. The composite: the greatest female tennis player ever. But also, a fully formed adult.
The Indian Wells event has changed as well. The tournament got a new owner, billionaire Larry Ellison, who has spent lavishly to upgrade the event. It’s become a personal tennis-themed stately pleasuredome. The players gush about the ever-increasing prize money purse and perks like açaí smoothies. The fans enjoy the on-site Nobu. But all of this “investment in infrastructure” also had the effect of changing the character of the event. Indian Wells has become a destination tournament. A full 80% of the fans come from more than 100 miles away, according to 2011 George Washington University study. Suffice to say, this is not the same crowd that was here in 2001.
Culturally, tennis, too, has changed and evolved in those 14 years. The cast is more diverse than ever. The stodgy stereotype—tennis as province to the privileged—has never been less accurate. We think nothing of watching a German/Jamaican play a Canadian Serb. Thanks in no small part to the Williams sisters, there are more African-American players than ever. Last year, a caveman at the Russian Federation spoke about Venus and Serena as the “Williams brothers” and by week’s end, tennis’ various alphabet-soup organizations competed to see who could condemn him on harsher terms. He is currently serving a ban from the sport.
But—while she wouldn't necessarily forget—Serena decided to forgive. The decision to return to Indian Wells wasn’t made lightly. That Venus isn’t here suggests that not all wounds have healed. She ran it by her parents first. Serena says that, after having heard of her change of heart, Richard Williams responded that it would be a big mistake if she didn’t go back.
She has been pushed to cite a single moment of reckoning, one catalyzing event. But there doesn’t seem to be one.
“I just kind of felt it,” she said yesterday. “I just felt like everything was at the right time for me to come and try to do the best that I could here.”
Serena ought to win her return-to-Indian-Wells match on Friday night against Monica Niculescu. She is, after all, the No. 1-ranked player, winner of the previous major and—let her record reflect—riding a six-match winning streak at tournaments. But she has already prevailed. She had the flexibility to open-mindedly reassess a situation and then reach a different conclusion.
What a virtue that is.