Negotiations behind Serena's return
The dramatic return of Serena Williams -- after a 14-year absence -- to the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells was the byproduct of intense, behind-the-scenes conversations initiated by Williams and aided by the WTA and Indian Wells Tennis Garden officials, including the tournament's multibillionaire owner, Larry Ellison, according to several people with direct knowledge of the events.
Talk of Williams' return started over a year ago, after she lost in the fourth round of the 2014 Australian Open to Ana Ivanovic, but only became a reality during the final two months last year, when Williams and Ellison were able to reach an agreement.
"This is huge for us," said Raymond Moore, chief executive officer of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. "The incident several years ago was an ugly one. There were no winners, as far as we're concerned. This was Serena. She made the decision. She took the initiative and deserves all the credit to close an ugly chapter, and now we should be able to think about better days ahead."
Four days after her Australian Open victory against Maria Sharapova for her 19th career Grand Slam title, Williams, who could not be reached for comment for this story, announced her Indian Wells return. It was in hopes of, as she wrote in an exclusive essay for Time Magazine, "creating a new history," a reference to the infamous incident before her semifinal showdown against sister Venus at Indian Wells in 2001. Shortly before the match, Venus withdrew with injury, which set off a reaction from the crowd, one that was reportedly so hostile, filled both with racist overtones and suggestions that the Williams family (especially father Richard) was manipulating the sisters' matches, that the family vowed to never return.
It was a promise Serena and Venus Williams kept until Serena engineered a thaw a month ago, when she and Moore renewed dialogue from early 2014. According to Moore, Williams had given signs she would play and at one point was on the player list to participate in 2014 but did not because of injury.
"I had tried as much as I could to engage and talk with Serena, and it was with the help of chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster with the WTA where there were initial signs of light," Moore said. The 2014 Australian Open was the first time, after Nelson Mandela's death, and I think she saw the film 'A Long Walk to Freedom.' I think she took to heart what Nelson always preached about forgiveness and moving forward. It was there that we finally saw a little light at the end of the tunnel."
When Williams announced she would return during the first week of February, Carlos Fleming, the agent for Venus Williams, told ESPN.com at that time that Venus would not be joining her sister in returning to the tournament.
"We never sat back and said, 'It is what it is.' Like I said, there were no winners. We just wanted to make amends," Moore said. "We wish we had Venus and Richard back. I would love to have a glass of wine with Richard and talk. That's what we'd like."
As Serena was winning the WTA year-end championships in Singapore in October, talks began to percolate. Moore and Jill Smoller, Williams' agent and key member of her inner circle, began discussions. Both Smoller and Moore said the original plan was to get Ellison, the Oracle founder and tennis enthusiast who bought the BNP Paribas Open in 2009, and Williams in a room together so the two power brokers could meet and talk. Moore had taken over as CEO in 2012 and believed the change in ownership from IMG, which owned the tournament in 2001, to Ellison made the possibility of Williams returning more plausible. The new regime, Moore reasoned, was not in place when the original rift occurred.
Moore was aware of the stalemate between the Williams family and the tournament. He also recognized the obvious issue of the two greatest active American champions refusing to appear at a signature American event often referred to as the "fifth major." The absence of the Williamses, Moore said, was a constant note in tournament feedback he received from fans.
"A year wouldn't go by when I wasn't approached by a person or group who asked, 'When are you going to get her back?'" Moore said of Serena, adding that on several occasions he met with groups of African-Americans in prominent positions to reach out to the Williams family -- without success.
Getting Serena Williams and Ellison in a room proved difficult. At one point, they were to meet in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving 2014, but Serena had been in Singapore and Ellison in Japan. With conflicting schedules, the face-to-face never took place. "It just didn't work," Moore said. Instead, he called Williams, and he, Williams and Smoller began to break the ice.
"I got her on the phone and we talked about everything," Moore said. "It was a good conversation. I told her how much we wanted her here, that Larry wanted her here. She wanted to hear it from Larry."
For years during the frost, Allaster served as an intermediary between the two sides. What was different this year was Williams' willingness to give Indian Wells a second chance. As chair and CEO of the WTA, Allaster found herself in the unique position of representing both the tour and tournament, as well being an advocate for the tour's best, most important player.
Trying to negotiate a reunion was, in Allaster's words, "nothing new," but what might have proved key was her recent sanction of Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpischev in defense of the Williams sisters. Tarpischev referred to the siblings as the "Williams brothers" during a television program, which he said he meant as a compliment to their power game, but what was widely considered a slur. Allaster forced an apology from Tarpischev and suspended him for one year.
For Serena, who has not always been convinced of the support from the sport she has dominated, Allaster's actions behind the words placed the full weight of the WTA behind defending the Williams sisters and was a sign of respect that had not always been a given during their history on the tour.
"Stacey has always been helpful in this equation and the handling of the Tarpischev situation aided the process," Smoller wrote to ESPN.com via email.
The following month, Williams, Smoller, Moore and Ellison spoke by conference call and came away with a verbal agreement. According to sources, Ellison asked Williams what it would take to get her to return to the tournament. Ellison's enthusiasm for tennis was well known. Fourteen-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal, for example, stays in a house on Ellison's property during the tournament. It was an example of how the Indian Wells tennis culture had changed with new ownership. Nearing the end of the call, Williams agreed to play, with a caveat: She would be the one to make the announcement after the Australian Open.
"This was 100 percent Serena's decision. She's a true leader and special champion," Allaster said in an email. "It's really exciting for the fans at Indian Wells and for millions around the world following the tournament to see her play here again. For our fans, for our tournament and for Serena, I'm glad she's back."
In addition to the headlines of a reconciliation, returning to Indian Wells also allowed Williams to shrewdly manage her schedule. Indian Wells is a signature joint event with 1,000 points at stake, enough to allow her to avoid smaller tournaments and maintain her top ranking. Williams is also holding somewhat precariously to her world No. 1 ranking; without decent showings at both Indian Wells and Miami, she is in jeopardy of losing it to Sharapova.
Serena's return has been received as an unqualified triumph, both for her and the tournament, but the victory has not been a completely clean one because of the separate matter of Richard and Venus Williams, who were both deeply affected by their treatment at the tournament in 2001, but neither of whom were engaged by Moore and Ellison as Serena was, a sign to some family members that it was Serena, far more than the tournament, that sought reconciliation to get back to Indian Wells.
"If Larry Ellison really wanted her back, and would do whatever it took, why didn't he initiate the call?" that source asked. "Why didn't he pick up the phone and reach out to her? If something like this had happened with Roger, they would have definitely handled it."
Sources in the older sister's camp said Venus Williams, who is currently the world no. 17 and second-ranked American overall, did not receive the attention of her younger sister. According to her representatives at IMG, Venus was not asked to return and no one at IMG has been in communication with the Indian Wells Tennis Garden regarding Venus' return.
Nevertheless, after a year of discussion and 14 years of stalemate, part of the reconciliation is complete. Serena is coming back, but it is a fragile peace because there was optimism in 2014 -- and the deal fell through.
This time, it didn't.
"We still had to wait for the decision, until the Wednesday after the Australian Open," Moore said. "She was busy. It wasn't as though she was on vacation. She had to fly to Argentina for Fed Cup, and she said she would make the decision Thursday. So those days were very nervous ones. Needless to say, we were ecstatic -- excited beyond belief."