PostHeaderIcon Indian Wells 2001: A Perspective on Race and The Williams Sisters

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Though rooted in an incident that’s a distant memory to many, it’s impossible to discuss the Indian Wells women’s draw without discussing the elephant in the room i.e. the absence of Serena and Venus Williams.

Many tennis fans are already aware of the reason behind the sisters’ perennial no-show, but I’ll do a quick recap for the newbies. Serena was booed mercilessly in her final against Kim Clijsters due to Venus’ withdrawal a day earlier from their semifinal because of injury. The crowd, certain that Richard was behind a match fix, let their animosity and derision rain down on the teenage Serena.

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Additionally, Richard and Venus were booed when they entered the stadium to take their seats for the final.  I remember watching it on TV and recoiling at the ugliness of it all.  Richard also claimed that he heard racial epithets being yelled in their direction. Serena overcame the jeers (and an inspired opponent) to win the match, but the damage was done.  Neither sister has returned to Indian Wells since, and both have stated publicly that they will never go back.

There were always been rumblings of racism on the pro tours, but this was the first time it spilled over so openly into public discourse. Twelve years later, the issue of race and the Williams Sisters still provides a silent and unintended backdrop to the Indian Wells tournament.

Ben Snyder, a fellow writer I met while in Cincinnati at the Western and Southern Open, sent questions last November regarding this incident for a planned article. I recently discovered my response document in my Dropbox.  In the spirit of “want not waste not”, here is the cleaned up and edited version. (It was written pretty quickly AND late at night, hence the need for cleaning.)

I realize that I probably don’t need to say this, but I will anyway. The fact that I’m African-American doesn’t make my perspective on this racially-charged situation more valid than anyone else’s.
Enjoy, and feel free to discuss via email or comments.

1. Just to get a sense of your relationship to the event, did you cover the tournament as a journalist? Were you a spectator? Watching it on television?

I watched the match on television.  My current relationship to tennis as a blogger/journalist only started 2 years ago, well after the fact.

2. How would you characterize coverage of the 2001 Indian Wells controversy in which Venus Williams retired from her match?

To be honest, I don’t have a “specific” recollection of that coverage.  I do remember feeling that the network commentators could have done a better job of reporting the events surrounding Venus’ withdrawal.  There was a great deal of speculation at the time — too much — rather than getting the facts from the WTA spokesperson.  As we know from our vantage point within the title of “media”, people give more weight to what we say over someone who isn’t as well-connected.  If we speculate, the audience picks up on it.  I think that was more or less how it transpired.  Venus appears to have followed WTA protocol for the injury pullout, and the final decision was made in concert with a WTA trainer and physician.  The speculation inside of the commentator booth could have been quieted the situation if that information had been better disseminated.

3. How about fan reaction? It was racially motivated, according to the sisters’ father.

Racism is an ugly word, and a very polarizing charge.  It’s one that must be used with discretion.  Though there are many genuine instances of racism in the world, many other situations are, perhaps, misread as racism when they are, in actuality, something very different.  I say this as an African-American who has experienced pointedly racist comments, but who has also misread a situation that I thought was racially-based when it was actually something very different.

That said, I think the fan reaction was outrageously boorish and ignorant, and some of it might have had a genuine basis in racism. We need only look at our 2012 Presidential election to see this same dichotomy in action.  Quite a few GOP and Romney supporters were genuinely unhappy with Obama’s policies.  Some, however, were explicit in their racist views while voicing their support for Romney, like the man in Ohio who was photographed wearing a “Put the white back in the White House” t-shirt. I’m not saying that all Romney supporters were racist, but there were many who proudly used this moment to support Romney while denouncing the President solely because of his African-American heritage.

With regards to the incident in Indian Wells, I can’t say with assurance one way or the other whether it was racism without having been there. But I will say this in defense of the Williams family. In the absence of verifiable information, we humans tend to formulate our own theories in order to explain the world we perceive, and we base these theories on what we believe to be the defining characteristics of a situation.  Serena, Venus, and Richard were being booed lustily by a crowd that was overwhelmingly white.  In the absence of any precipitating act that warranted such booing AND feeling not quite accepted on tour anyway (in those days), the only explanation the Williams’ could put their finger on was the difference between them and the crowd:  their color.  So whether it was true or not, that became the narrative.

I’d like to add two additional items for consideration.

The first is that none of us are privy to what Richard heard on that day, which he claims were a few racially-tainted shouts of the N-word. Other spectators who may have been booing for other reasons might not have realized it at the time, but whatever their reason for booing had been co-opted by an racist act.

Also, there is a world of difference between watching an event on TV and watching it from the stands.  With the detached announcers and select camera angles, watching on TV takes away the true emotion of “the moment”; something that is palpable when sitting in the stands.  I would have loved to have been in the stands to see how other African-Americans were feeling.  That would have been a great litmus test for any charges of racism.  Just imagine how different the situation would have been if the cameras had shown African-Americans booing like the Caucasians in the crowd?

4. What do you think about the Williams sisters’ decision to stop playing the tournament since the 2001 event?

Given what they perceive as the correct interpretation of the day’s events, it’s no wonder that they haven’t returned to Indian Wells.  It was a horrifically ugly scene for a 19 year-old to endure, one that proved significantly scarring.  Whatever assurances they were given by the IW directors for future tournaments, nothing can ever erase the ugliness of the day.  It’s in our natures to avoid places where we feel are unsafe.  There are streets we don’t walk down, places we don’t find ourselves at certain hours, etc., all in the name of personal safety: be it rational or irrational.  So I completely understand why they haven’t gone back. I also don’t have feelings one way or the other as to whether it’s a good or bad decision.  Good or bad, right or wrong, it’s their decision to make; and it’s been made.

Serena, Venus and Richard Williams

5. How would you characterize the way the Williams sisters are written about by the press? Does it differ from other players on Tour?

I think that the Williams sisters have always lived by the sword and died by the sword with respect to the press. When Venus first appeared on tour, she was given a huge amount of ink in papers, magazines, and online.  As Serena came up, it wasn’t quite the same level of attention as Venus.  She soon caught up within a few years.  Admittedly, they were given press attention over many who’d labored on tour for years.  Their color, their background, their talent, their unorthodox training, Richard’s unorthodox approach to the juniors, his idiosyncrasies… all of it played into the equation.  An equivalent situation was that of Anna Kournikova, who seemed to barely warrant all of the undue attention she got.  But when you look the way she looked i.e. tall, blonde, beautiful and sexy in a society that favors those who possess those attributes, the press attention was certainly understandable if not well-liked by the other players.

As to the nature of their press coverage, I think it’s mostly been positive: even given the polarization around some of Serena’s on-court behavior.

6. How about coverage of Sloane Stephens, especially regarding comparisons to her with the Williams sisters?

I don’t think coverage of Sloane has hit the same level (yet) as it did initially with the Williams sisters.  And I hope it doesn’t. Sloane is a great personality, and a promising young player.  But she is no Venus or Serena, at least not yet.   Thankfully, the comparisons have been few; which is a good thing.

Sloane is kind of lucky in a way. We’re finally at a point within the sport where we can view young African-American players through the lens of who they are within themselves, and not in comparison to Venus and Serena.  She’s funny, pretty, smart, a good player, and extremely photogenic.  When I saw her in Miami in 2011, I loved seeing a young, strong black girl on tour because there are still so few.  I wish her much success.

One player who did get compared initially was Angela Haynes.  Her backstory was comparable to Venus and Serena’s, so it seemed like a good tie-in whenever people wrote about her.  But she didn’t have the talent to live up to any comparisons, and struggled financially to get the proper training in order to live up to her potential.  I always felt sorry for her in that she couldn’t just be another up-and-coming junior, instead of “the next Venus/Serena”.

7. Is there anything else regarding tennis and race, or the 2001 Indian Wells tournament, which you would like to mention?

Though you can’t avoid injecting race into discussions of the Williams sisters, I think it’s hard to equate that with racism.  They are African-American, and you can’t separate their race from their experiences in a mostly-white environment.  It’s worked for them at times, and against them at others.

As far as Indian Wells goes, I’m glad people stopped making such a big deal of it with them and moved on.  The pressure to be magnanimous about it all and come back for forgiveness was, frankly, a little obnoxious.  They weren’t going to come back, and no amount of bullying was going to make it happen.  So I’m glad everyone has finally moved on, for the Williams sisters’ sake as well as the women who continued to play the event and were burdened by the Williams’ absence “asterisk”.

ADDENDUM to 7 after my first set of responses

On my way home, I had a few other thoughts about Serena, Venus, and the overall issue of racism.

One can’t innocently claim racism while simultaneously using the race card to their benefit, and I think that both Richard and Serena are guilty of this.  With Richard, there wasn’t a day in the beginning when he would be talking about the white establishment and how hard he had to battle them for his daughters to succeed.  There’s more in this article that you can look at http://www.independent.ie/national-news/from-ghetto-girls-to-superstarsisters-371689.html, but the gist is that Richard is just as guilty of being a racist as those at whom he’s pointed an accusing finger.  Put another way, Arthur Ashe claiming racism is one thing, Richard Williams claiming racism is another.

Serena has also used the “black card” when it suited her needs.  Whether it be shaking her finger and bobbing her neck after bad calls against Jennifer Capriati (in that infamous US Open match), rolling her eyes during pressers, or doing the “Crip Walk” in celebration after winning Wimbledon, she has used her blackness as part of her on-court identity.  So she shouldn’t be surprised when some of her actions are described as ghetto.  That’s what they are, so she needs to own it.

Venus is the only one of the three who has generally shied away from overt identifications of race.

4 Responses to “Indian Wells 2001: A Perspective on Race and The Williams Sisters”

  • David says:

    Great article Kevin. Admirably bold to take on such a topic.

    I remember it all happening, and that there was a racial component associated with it. The crowd was most pissed at team Williams because they wanted to see sisters play each other. (little did they know how often that would eventually happen) They wanted the spectacle to see sisters competing against each other. Both had already won a slam or two, so they were big names. Richard set a Williams policy in 1998/9 that Serena and Venus wouldn’t play the same smaller tournaments so that they wouldn’t have to face each other. People were somewhat unhappy with this as well. They wanted to see sisters compete. Venus defaulting was viewed by everyone as match-fixing, and personally I think they were right. It was Venus’ turn to default for whatever reason so that they wouldn’t play each other.

    I do remember that there was a lot of racial division when Venus showed up on the WTA. The famous “bump” with Spirlea in the US Open ’97 semis had racial undertones. Everyone knew it. Venus is such a class act, that she just kept her focus and moved on.

    Richard Williams was as drama queen as it got. Serena gets this from him. Did he hear racial statements that day? I bet he did. Was it really a cumulate feeling from years of racial tension (some caused by Richard of course)? IMO yes.

    By 2002 everything changed. The Williams sisters dominated everything, they made sure everyone knew why they were boycotting IW. Richard was not as prominent at their matches. Suddenly they just were Venus and Serena, not two black women.

    I do believe the whole Serena as a mentor for Sloane has some serious racial undertones. But let’s face it, if anyone knows what it’s like to be a talented black girl on the WTA, Serena and Venus are it. Let’s see what happens when Taylor Townsend (who is now pro and won her first IW match) gets to Sloane’s level. Will Serena and Venus be considered mentors for her as well?

    It is too bad that the Williams camp hasn’t bent after all these years. I bet everyone would freak out with joy if they made their inner peace and played IW. That would truly show that the racist undertones of that time were in the past.

  • Chelsia says:

    Venus, Serena and family are right to never grace Indian Wells again. Having one’s family publicly demeaned over a tennis match was the last straw in the racism (mostly subtle snugging) they have endured to that point. And as to the false rumors of match fixing they had endured to;if Richard had been fixing matches, then why didn’t Venus just play and lose? They were not in a final against each other and did not know who their next opponent would be? This was 2001, Venus had 2 slams (2000 W and US) and Serena had 1 (1999 US); the IW was no big deal. There was no need for a fix; Serena had defeated Graf at IW final in 1999-so it should have been Venus’ turn to win; if one believes the b.s. of match fixing!! All they ever had on tour, besides their success, was each other and they have made it!

  • Mark says:

    The article seems to accept the claim of racial slurs as fact. None of the Williams family filed any complaint with the WTA to allow an investigation of the facts so no one other than those present know what actually occurred. The tournament has evolved significantly since 2001 with new owners, etc. For two of the top Americans to refuse to play the second largest tournament in their home country is a disservice to those that support them, which also includes the vast majority of the Indian Wells tennis fans.

    • Thanks for submitting a comment on this piece Mark. I just wanted to clear up a few things on it. I don’t accept the claim of slurs as fact, but I do accept the reality that Serena and Venus perceive around the incident. Whether it was real or imagined, their reality has guided their actions over these many years of not going back. Their absence is certainly a loss to the event and their supporters who would like to see them there, but this is all water under the bridge now. Right or wrong, they will never go back.

      As I wrote in the piece while answering my buddy Ben’s questions, I wasn’t there so can only comment on what I saw on TV. The fans’ behavior was boorish, and Venus didn’t deserve to be booed when she walked into the stadium with her dad. She followed WTA protocol on the injury withdrawal, and the lack of information to the fans led to the perception of a “fix” with Serena. It was equally boorish for the crowd to boo Serena so heavily in the match. Venus’ withdrawal wasn’t her fault, and she was just a teenager playing a match. She was traumatized. Honestly, I can’t blame her for not going back. I don’t know if I would.

      As for the race part of it, if even one person in that whole crowd uttered a racial epithet at Venus and Richard, that one person’s words colored the entire experience for them. And as a black man, I can tell you from experience that I haven’t gone back to places where I felt maligned because of race. It’s human nature, though I agree it’s unfortunate for their fans in the area.

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