Serena Williams will end her 14-year boycott of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., returning to the tournament for the first time since an ugly racial incident overshadowed her run to the title in 2001. In an essay published by TIME.com, Serena says it's time for forgiveness:
There are some who say I should never go back. There are others who say I should’ve returned years ago. I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time. I’m just following my heart on this one.
I’m fortunate to be at a point in my career where I have nothing to prove. 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.
Serena's announcement marks a seismic shift in the tennis landscape. Serena and Venus have refused to play the tournament, one of the largest WTA tournaments of the year and a mandatory one since 2009, since both were booed in the stadium in 2001. Both sisters made the semifinals that year and were set to play each other, but Venus announced her withdrawal due to injury, which put Serena into the final against Kim Clijsters. The move angered fans and raised questions about the legitimacy of Venus' injury. Elena Dementieva, who lost to Venus in the quarterfinals, didn't help the situation when she told the press that she believed the matches between Serena and Venus were rigged.
"I don't know what Richard thinks about it," Dementieva said when asked to preview the all-Williams semifinal. "I think he will decide who's going to win tomorrow."
Both sisters denied their matches were anything less than purely competitive. "We're competitors and we always go out to compete, and that's how it's always been," Serena said. "I think maybe if my dad would decide, then maybe Venus wouldn't be up 4-1, maybe it would be three-all by now." The WTA issued a statement denying the charges as well.
Venus' withdrawal before the semifinals was held until the last minute. Richard Williams wrote in his book last year that they had notified the tournament if Venus' inability to play and it was the tournament's decision to hold the news until the very last minute. Whatever the reason for the decision, the last-minute announcement riled up ticket-buyers. Fans reacted by booing Venus and her father Richard as they took their seats in advance of the final, while jeering Serena while she played. It was an ugly scene.
Watch a clip from that match below:
Watch Serena's post-match comments and the crowd booing her as she hugs her family:
"This haunted me for a long time," Serena writes. "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."
"Thirteen 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."
While Venus has been adamant about her refusal to ever play the tournament again, Serena's stance had shown signs of softening. Last year her name was on the entry list for the first time since 2001 but she withdrew a few weeks before the tournament. When asked about a return this year at the Australian Open, Serena kept her cards close to her chest. "I don't know," she said last week in Melbourne. "I like my vacation time that I get [during] Indian Wells."
Serena's decision to play Indian Wells is obviously a huge boon to the tournament and the WTA. Indian Wells has made massive strides over the last four years in overtaking the Sony Open in Miami as the best tour-level tournament in North America. Soaring prize money -- last year's winners took home over $1 million each -- and renovated facilities have helped bolster that claim. But how can you be the best tournament when you can't even offer the best field? Serena's decision now means Indian Wells can boast it has the No. 1 WTA player for the first time since Victoria Azarenka in 2012.
Serena's return also has a charity arm. She's offering numerous meet and greet opportunities in exchange for donations to the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that provides free legal representation to mistreated prisoners. You can donate here.
Watch Serena's full announcement below: