Why A Whole Mess Of Emotions Awaits Serena Williams At Indian Wells

With 19 majors and her place in tennis history secure, Serena Williams is back at Indian Wells hoping to find support and appreciation. Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Out of breath after battling three hours of traffic, Glenn and Sheila Alperstein settled into their seats at the 2001 Indian Wells tournament for a semifinal match between Venus and Serena Williams.

They had purchased tickets just days before in anticipation of seeing at least one of the Williams sisters, who had three Grand Slam singles titles between them, and were excited for an evening of tennis when Glenn nudged his wife.

"My God, we came here to see this big match and they're putting up the doubles net?" he said. "What the hell is going on?"

It's a question that still burns today.

Venus Williams defaulted the semifinal, Serena Williams was loudly jeered and booed in the final two days later and their father, Richard Williams, accused the fans of racial abuse. Serena said she left the tournament she won in tears, and the sisters refused to play there again.

Until now.

Serena Williams' return this week to the California tournament now called the BNP Paribas Open, the most well-attended event outside the four Grand Slams, was a decision arrived at in the spirit of forgiveness, the top-ranked women's player in the world wrote in a Time magazine essay.

After spending many years "scared" to go back, she wrote, "I'm just following my heart on this one."

espnW interviewed more than a dozen fans, media members and tournament employees who were there in March of 2001, those who have similar recollections but very different interpretations of the events that unfolded, a confluence of regret and bitterness that still exists 14 years later.

And all the while, against the backdrop of society's ongoing discussion on what racism looks and sounds like, there is this: Who exactly is forgiving whom?

The match that never happened

The sun was just starting to set on another hot day in the desert on March 15, 2001, as the crowd, including the Alpersteins, on the Tennis Garden's stadium court was getting ready for a Thursday night that would feature the Williams sisters followed by Pete Sampras versus Sebastien Grosjean in a men's match.

Venus, 20 and ranked third in the world, and Serena, 19 and ranked sixth, had advanced to the semifinals in what was to be their sixth head-to-head pro meeting. And it was a matchup so eagerly anticipated, even with Venus' 4-1 advantage and their track record of uneven competition against each other, that fans described a tangible pre-match buzz.

"The anticipation was really quite electric," said Martha Church, who flew in for the tournament with friends from Bend, Oregon. "The weather was incredible, still the high 70s, low 80s, and I was happy for some shade. We were wondering what was going to happen and thinking it was going to be good. We were very excited."

As it neared 6 p.m., Lucille Bernard, who had been flying in from Seattle with a group of tennis-playing friends to attend the tournament since 1995, was getting impatient on the non-shade side of the stadium.

"We were waiting and waiting, sitting in the hot sun and everyone was wondering what was going on," said Bernard, now 72, who remembers paying $65 for her ticket.

Then the announcement came.

The New York Times' Selena Roberts put it at four minutes before the match was to begin when the crowd was informed that Venus had defaulted with tendinitis in her knee and that Serena would be advancing to Saturday's final.

"We were expecting them to walk out of the tunnel and we get that instead, and we were like 'What?'" Church said. "We probably would've thrown things if we had it. It was a moment of having it sink in, like almost a moment of silence, and then the boos started."

Sampras, who had just entered the grounds, later described the scene, saying "[Venus] pulled out and all hell broke loose. ... It's just unfortunate for the fans."

While some fans headed to the box office to demand their money back and a men's doubles match was put on the stadium court, the buzz of anticipation quickly became a whirlwind of rampant speculation and gossip that spread through the complex like a game of telephone gone wild.

The talk had been simmering over the previous year and seemed to take hold that week -- first with a National Enquirer story quoting unnamed sources saying the result of the sisters' Wimbledon semifinal the summer before had been predetermined by their father.

That spark was then ignited further after Venus defeated Elena Dementieva in the Indian Wells quarterfinals, when Dementieva was asked for a semifinal prediction. "I don't know what Richard thinks about it," Dementieva said. "I think he will decide who is going to win."

Months later, Dementieva claimed she was "kidding." But at Indian Wells, the theories flowed.

Lee Parkinson, 70, a seasonal resident of Palm Desert who remembered purchasing her ticket that day from a neighbor for approximately $50, recalled the scuttlebutt.

"The immediate supposition going around was that Richard made the decision," she said. "He had made a lot of statements in the past about their draws, so people thought that was his statement -- that they shouldn't have to play one another before the finals and he was manipulating it. That's where the bad feelings came from."

The theory that Richard had been trying to give Serena a boost did not make sense to some because if Venus had come out for a few games before retiring, Serena would have earned bonus points toward her ranking.

"I don't feel either player ever threw a match to the other," said Katrina Adams, who played 12 years on tour until 1999, and was named USTA president last fall. "It's just something that's very difficult mentally to be across the net from someone for practically 24 hours a day with practice, travel, etc.

"If [the Williamses] wanted Serena to move through, Venus could have gone on court and lost the match. That was a decision made by she and doctors at the event."

Pam Shriver, who covered the tournament for ESPN with Mary Joe Fernandez, recalled that Venus, who had sprouted to 6-foot-1, had problems early in her career with knee tendinitis. Venus had even cut back her schedule prior to Indian Wells, and Roberts recalls her having issues with her knee earlier in the tournament.

"[Having a flare-up] wasn't a surprising thing for her at the end of a tournament at that stage on her career," Shriver said. "When you have a bad bout of tendinitis as an elite athlete and you're in pain and you don't think you have mobility to play at the highest level, we see it countless times on tour. Look at [Rafael] Nadal's career and his knee."

Exacerbating the situation was a spotty tournament attendance record for both Venus and Serena that was often pointed out in the media. Church's friend Peggy Falcaro just remembered being annoyed.

"We see these athletes pretty much throwing up on court and they at least make an appearance," she said. "That's their jobs, that's what they get paid for. ... I have tendinitis right now in my knee and I still play with it and I'm 61, not 20. ... It just wasn't cool."

It was only a precursor, however, to the venom aimed at Serena and her family two days later in the final.

A champion booed

Women's tennis had heard boos before and has since: Martina Hingis, the villain in the 1999 French Open final against Steffi Graf for her on-court behavior; Victoria Azarenka, jeered in her 2013 Australian Open final against Li Na in response to Azarenka calling a medical timeout following five blown match points in her semifinal against Sloane Stephens.

But Roberts said the Indian Wells final remains unlike anything she has ever experienced.

"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 final pitted Serena against 17-year-old Kim Clijsters, and the boos began when Serena took the court and got louder when Richard Williams and Venus entered the stadium and descended the steps toward their court-level seats.

Church and Falcaro brought a handmade sign.

"It said, 'It's Kim's party and everyone's invited' because of the stupid sign Richard held up," Falcaro said, referring to Williams holding up a sign which read 'It's Venus' party and no one's invited' after Venus' victory over Lindsay Davenport to win the 2000 Wimbledon singles title. "It was rude to all of us tennis fans."

Only booing could be made out on the telecast, but Shriver described Richard, who was partially obscured from the camera by a ball boy as he walked with Venus down the steps, stopping to address a heckler. When he reached his seat, he briefly raised his fist, interpreted by some as the black power salute -- Shriver called it a flashback to the '68 Olympics and the medal-stand protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Nine days after the final, Richard told USA Today: "When Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me 'n-----.' One said, 'I wish it was '75, we'd skin you alive.' ... I think Indian Wells disgraced America."

What was audible to fans there as well as the television audience, was that at 16,000-strong, the crowd's displeasure toward Richard and Venus would extend to Serena, loudly cheering her errors, including double-faults, as she lost the first seven points of the match and trailed 3-0 before dropping the first set 6-4.

"It was an embarrassing situation," said Cheryl Evans, 57, a resident of Rancho Mirage. "And I kept feeling horrible for Clijsters and this 19-year-old girl because it wasn't [Serena's] fault. It was her dad. And I wondered how they could play a decent match."

Jerry Musgrove, 77, who was at the match with her husband, Thomas, was also among those who felt for Serena.

"It has stood out in our minds ever since because it was such a shocking event," Musgrove said. "We were terribly disappointed in the audience and don't want to be painted with the same brush. Our throats were sore trying to counteract their insensitivity.

"My first thought and I kept coming back to it was if you truly believed her father was choreographing [the default], then don't blame that poor teenage girl out there doing the best job she can to play tennis."

The crowd appeared to settle down a bit as Serena took the second set 6-4, but even in the third, fans cheered her mistakes. And following her forehand winner on match point, a cascade of boos showered down on Williams, drowning out the scant applause as she held her arms aloft and waved to each corner of the stadium.

Following the 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory and after going over to the stands to give her father and sister hugs, Williams was interviewed on court via headset by Shriver.

Asked about the booing and how she was able to deal with it, Williams, who had one Grand Slam singles title at the time (the '99 US Open) responded: "That was the best thing for me. I think it was just a mental match more than a physical match. I didn't even play well. I just was able to perform mentally. It was a little tough because I won here before and the reception wasn't so good, but if you're a champion, you should be able to get through it."

Apparently, she held it together for only so long. In her Time piece, Williams said she cried for hours in the locker room and returned to Los Angeles "feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever -- not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality.

"Emotionally, it seemed easier to stay away."

Both Williams sisters have paid a price for their absence.

Players who withdraw from one of the WTA's four premier mandatory events, which includes Indian Wells, are subject to fines up to $75,000, forfeiture of bonus pool money and rankings points as well as possible suspension. Fines can be avoided by taking part in promotional activities for the missed event, which the Williamses did, according to the WTA, but they still lost bonus pool money and rankings points.

But the lingering issue for the Williams sisters and for Indian Wells fans has gone well beyond punitive measures to the much more complex subject of racism and now, as Serena (but not Venus) prepares to return, to the issue of forgiveness.

"I was surprised they didn't come back because all the years before when they were young girls and had the beads [in their hair], everyone loved them," Evans said.

"From my point of view, [Serena] held the area accountable for what happened that day and that was unfair because it wasn't the area. It's an international tournament. I was offended as a fan that she took it so personal to call us out, like we're a bunch of racists."

Howard Back, a Palm Desert resident who was not at the final but was in attendance when Venus defaulted the semifinal, was not surprised at all that the sisters stayed away. He said 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.'"

Church and others called the accusations of racism a diversionary tactic by Richard. She is not, however, a Serena fan.

"I didn't feel sorry for her at all," Church said. "I think [Richard] really ran the show back then, but I didn't take it as far as feeling bad [for Serena and Venus].

"I was there at the first tournament they played here. I have pictures of them. They had their beads and dreadlocks and everybody was pretty excited about them in the beginning because they were so new and different and amazing, but that has sort of worn off ... "

And Church's theory as to why?

"It was just a gradual thing," she said. "They've both had attitudes and it's not like they're America's favorites, sweethearts we like to embrace. They've had their own style and it was not exactly the kind you want to love. We want to love our tennis stars, but I don't think they're favorites of too many of us basic fans."

What awaits?

Author and journalist Alex Kotlowitz, who wrote the bestselling book "There Are No Children Here," and examined racial stereotyping in "The Other Side of the River," wondered how the California crowd would have reacted if a blonde-haired, blue-eyed player such as Mary Pierce, whose volatile father, Jim, was banned from tournaments for his abusive behavior, was playing that day.

"I suspect," he said, "they would look at that girl and begin to feel some empathy for her because 'She could be me.'"

Adams said she was "shocked" watching the '01 final on television, calling the situation "disrespectful and wrong."

"People get hurt and sick all the time, but to punish an athlete going out with the sole purpose to perform and entertain them, to be received that way and blamed for something she had no control over was just totally unnecessary and a big step back in what sport offers as far as equality is concerned," Adams said.

It was an impression that Glenn Alperstein said remains with him today, particularly as he recalls the discussion he and his wife heard back in their Southern California community and at their tennis club after the forfeited semifinal.

"We found it very offensive that most of the Caucasian people were so bitter," said Alperstein, who has an adopted daughter of mixed race. "I don't think it would have happened if the Williamses weren't African-American, and I was angry enough that I said to my wife -- and I've been playing tennis for 50 years -- that I will never go back to that tournament until the [Williams] girls come back. So now I'm looking forward to see if I can get some tickets."

The fact Venus and Serena lived in Compton, California, as children, less than a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Indian Wells, made their decision to stay away hard for some fans, and it doesn't endear them now.

Parkinson said because of Williams' verbal abuse of US Open umpires in 2009 and 2011, the player's general "demeanor" and what she deemed as the her lack of respect for the game, "I've had no use for her" since 2001.

"I heard [recently] she was coming and I was stunned," Parkinson said. "A couple friends said, 'We'll miss that match. We don't care about seeing it.' I will probably let somebody else sit in my seats. It won't be a match I'll be watching, either."

A week after the 2001 Indian Wells event, tournament founder and then-director Charlie Pasarell condemned the booing to USA Today. And while the Williams family has maintained they have never received a formal apology, in a 2008 interview with the New York Times, Pasarell said the tournament had tried to reach out to the Williams family.

"We'd love them to come here," Pasarell said at the time. "What happened way back then was unfortunate, and we hope someday they do come back."

Pasarell did not respond to repeated interview requests by espnW. But the tournament's current CEO, Raymond Moore, called it "an unbelievable coup for us" and "a crowning achievement" to have Serena return.

And how does he think she will be received?

"I think she will receive a hero's welcome," Moore said. "Will we have a couple yahoos in the crowd? That's possible. Her first match, we [should] have 16,100 people (a sellout). ... It's just a positive chapter in her life and for the tournament as well."

Shriver also predicted "an incredible standing ovation. Some people might be conflicted -- 'You should've been back a long time ago, we were just upset we didn't see the match' -- but in 14 years there will be a new audience too, a new owner and I think a lot of forgiveness on both sides."


Church, who now works as a volunteer at Indian Wells, said she will be "a good tennis fan" and "clap for good points," when attending Serena's matches. She said she thinks Williams will have support "but not overwhelming."

"Most of my friends are like 'Whatever.' I think tennis fans like myself are not as enamored of those two as the media is, even though they're obviously incredibly good," she said.

Musgrove said she and her husband agreed in 2001 that Serena would never return to Indian Wells. "And I didn't blame her a bit," she said. "After that kind of treatment, I wouldn't either.

"My guess, after this length of time, is that she will be welcomed back with open arms. I hope I'm not wrong."