Serena Williams told Sports Illustrated's S.L. Price that returning to Indian Wells this year was the best moment of her tennis career.
Williams, who won three Grand Slam titles this year, is Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsperson of the Year. Despite bringing her total number of Grand Slam titles to 21 this season, she says her “greatest moment” was playing the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells this year for the first time since 2001.
Williams declined to play Indian Wells for 14 years after an ugly episode in 2001, when she was booed during the tournament's final. The jeers followed Venus Williams's decision to withdraw from a tournament with a knee injury, which allowed younger sister Serena to advance to the final and prompted unfounded rumors of match fixing. She later wrote that she heard some in the crowd yell racial slurs, something her father had alleged at the time.
After a lot of deliberation, Williams returned to Indian Wells this season, in part because she wanted to use her platform to speak out against racism. Price writes that she felt particularly moved by the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I had been a teenager at Indian Wells, and that was hard for me to go through—especially when I was thinking, It’s 2001, I [shouldn’t] have to deal with that stuff as much anymore,” she told Price. “Now fast-forward to 2015, and we still have young black men being killed. Someone needed to do something. And I thought then that there was something greater than me and tennis. I needed to go back there and speak out against racism.”
Despite some last-minute doubts and skepticism from her family, Williams returned to the tournament. She was greeted with a standing ovation.
“Everyone always asked, ‘What was your greatest moment in tennis?’ and I always said it hasn’t happened,” Williams told Price. “But I think it has happened now, and that was going back to Indian Wells and playing. It released a lot of feelings that I didn’t even know I had. I was really surprised at how emotional I got—and how relieved I felt after everything was said and done.”
Williams advanced to this year's Indian Wells semifinal, but she withdrew due to a knee injury.
For more on Williams, read Price's full cover story.
- Stanley Kay