Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 15, 2015

Serena And The Power Of Forgiveness

Serena Williams is playing at Indian Wells this fortnight. Most weeks the fact that the top-ranked women’s tennis player is participating in the WTA tournament then in progress would scarcely be news. But when Williams stepped onto the hardcourt at Indian Wells Tennis Garden Friday evening for her first round match at the BNP Paribas Open it was the first time she had played at this event since winning it in 2001.

That was the year Serena and her sister Venus were scheduled to meet in the semifinals. Venus had been bothered by knee tendinitis throughout the event which was aggravated during her quarterfinal win over Elena Dementieva. The record is unclear about exactly when the elder Williams informed tournament officials that she was withdrawing from the semifinal. Serena’s 2009 autobiography includes an account of Venus telling a trainer the morning of the match that she didn’t think she could play, and then trying for hours to get approval from the tour to withdraw. Tour officials at the time insisted that they had been informed only minutes before the sisters were scheduled to meet.

The incident came at a time when the sisters were starting to dominate the women’s game. Rare players of color in a sport in which historically it isn’t just the attire that has been overwhelmingly white, the sisters were both widely admired and closely scrutinized. Their father and coach, Richard Williams, has played an outsized role in both of their careers. During the period leading up to Indian Wells in 2001, some other players and tennis writers had suggested that Richard Williams would decide who won whenever the two sisters played each other.

That was the atmosphere of the times when a disappointed crowd was told on short notice that the scheduled semifinal match had been canceled. Two days later, Serena took the court for the final against Kim Clijsters. As she did so boos rained down from all parts of the packed stadium. Shortly before the match began Richard and Venus Williams made their way to their seats, assaulted by verbal abuse as they did so. The crowd continued its behavior, which could be characterized as anything from boorish to racist, depending on how closely one listened to the specific taunts throughout the match. Unforced errors or double faults by Serena were greeted with cheers, while the referee made no attempt at crowd control.

In time Serena would become renowned for her mental toughness on the court. It is that as much as raw talent that has led her to the top of the women’s rankings six different times. Perhaps an early inkling of that determination was on display in 2001. Playing through the catcalls, Williams defeated Clijsters in three sets, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. During the trophy presentation Williams took the high road, saying only “You guys were pretty rough on me, but I love you anyway.” But within days both sisters announced that in light of the racist comments and the refusal of the tournament director to extend an apology for the ugliness, they would not return to Indian Wells.

Veteran sportswriter Selena Roberts was there that day, and in a recent interview with ESPN described the event as unlike anything she had ever seen. “I’ve covered a lot of baseball and football for 25 years, but I have never seen a single athlete booed and jeered as harshly and as sustained as it was [toward Serena] as I did through that match,” she said. “It wasn’t just about Venus pulling out of the [semifinal], but how people perceived them back then.” The same ESPN article quotes one Howard Back, a local who was in the stands for the semifinal that never was, saying he “heard all kinds of nasty racial slurs. I can’t give an exact quote. I just remember coming away and saying to my wife, ‘It’s amazing how many people are so bigoted.'”

For more than a decade both sisters boycotted Indian Wells, which has become a major event for both the men’s and women’s tours. The stadium court at the Tennis Garden is the second-largest tennis-specific stadium in the world. Then in February Serena announced that she would return this month, writing in a column in Time magazine that she “was raised by my mom to love and forgive freely.” In the same piece she noted that when a Russian tennis official recently made racist and sexist remarks about the Williams sisters the WTA and USTA were quick to condemn him.

It has been a century and a half since Abraham Lincoln issued a New Year’s Day executive order freeing slaves in the states then in rebellion. Five decades have passed since Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We live in a time when an African-American has been elected and then reelected President. Yet no one would pretend that the great preacher’s dream that all would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character is far from realized.

Reminders of that, as if any were needed, assault us with depressing regularity. There are the widely divergent reactions to events in Ferguson and Staten Island. There is the shaky YouTube video of entitled fraternity brothers oblivious to the notion that singing racist chants might be perceived as something other than just good fun. For that matter, there are quotes in the ESPN article cited above from Palm Springs fans professing to have never liked the Williams sisters because they once wore their hair in dreadlocks.

Yet if the dream is ever to become reality, then people of goodwill must press on. Any single act may seem small, against a task that looms impossibly large. There will always be those who hate, and stereotypes will always be the easy redoubt. But forgiveness holds its own great power, and reconciliation can herald real change. Serena Williams went back to Indian Wells, stepping onto the court Friday evening for the first time in more than a decade. Fans rose as one and cheered for more than a minute, as the woman who had been a teenager when she last left Indian Wells in tears, wiped away new ones of joy.

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