At the Indian Wells Masters Series Tennis Tournament in 2001, Venus Williams pulled out of a semifinal match against her sister, Serena Williams, just four minutes before the match was scheduled to start. The enthusiastic crowd, assembled and anxious to see the dynamic duo take the court, were upset and booed the sisters.
The match was to be televised nationally on ESPN2. When Venus and her father, Richard Williams, entered the stadium the next day to watch Serena in the finals against Kim Clijsters, they were booed, as was Serena all during her match.
Even as Serena held the championship trophy aloft, the crowd voiced their displeasure with the Williams sisters, feeling that Venus’ withdrawal was a contrived way out of a difficult match for the close-knit family. The crowd felt deceived and let down. They let everyone know the extent of their displeasure.
To view the subsequent crowd reaction click here.
Was the crowd wrong? Yes. Players retire due to injury all the time. To accuse Venus of this action was unjust. At the time, the Williams sisters were a rarity in the world of professional tennis. They were both top-notch exciting tennis players capable of beating anyone else on tour.
But their matches against each other often lacked the fire of their matches against other professionals. Venus seemed far too tender, and she rarely defeated Serena in the big finals, except at Wimbledon. In those days there were often subtle comments made in certain media quarters, hinting that the outcome of their matches was pre-ordained.
It was, of course, all nonsense with no foundation. It is not even logical that the sisters would engage in such subterfuge because there was no compelling reason to do so. Sisters compete. From the day they are born until the day they die, sisters vie for attention and the top spot. It is human nature. Most siblings are life-long competitors.
But the sisters, egged on by their father, decided to punish the fans at Indian Wells and the tennis world for booing them. Calling the taunts against them as racially based, the sisters vowed never again to return to the California desert to compete in the Masters Series Tournament at Indian Wells.
And they never have.
Since 2001, the sisters have not stepped foot on the grounds at Indian Wells saying they were subjected to racial slurs. That, of course, may be true. The reason, however, for the crowds displeasure—the reason for the boos—was not based on race. The assembled fans were upset by the last-minute withdrawal from a much-anticipated match between the two sisters.
There are idiots everywhere in the world. Some of them may have been at Indian Wells and may very well have said some unkind, stupid things to the sisters based on their race...just as they probably do to Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant in the heat of the moment during an NBA contest.
No professional athlete is insulated from prejudice when his or her very presence on the floor or on the field may signal defeat for some fan’s beloved team or individual sport star. Think Tiger Woods.
There are no laws against being a loud-mouthed boor, unfortunately.
But the sisters have veered too far in the other direction to justify their on-going reaction to being booed. To continue to boycott this major tournament for the actions of a handful of rowdy fans almost a decade ago seems excessive and self-indulgent.
A year or two, maybe. But this has gone on far too long—to the point of backlashing against the Williams sisters. It seems petulant and childish at this point—like they are sticking out their tongues at the WTA and the tennis promoters at Indian Wells, saying they can do whatever they want, and the tennis hierarchy is powerless to stop them.
Really. It is the truth. The WTA is impotent against the star power of the Williams sisters.
In an effort to rein them in, the WTA initiated a rule for mandatory attendance at certain tournaments including this event, then backed off, saying essentially, “Well, if you do not participate at Indian Wells, then you must do some 'promotional activities' in the area of the forsaken tournament.”
Please! What kind of punishment is that? It is not even a good slap on the wrist.
Why pass rules that you will not enforce? The sad truth is that the WTA does enforce its rules, except some tennis superstars get special treatment. That is by far worse than no rules at all.
It is time for the Williams sisters to rise above the fray, and do the right thing by coming back to their roots at Indian Wells. Back in the beginning when the world was just learning about the teenage tennis stars-in-the-making, Indian Wells granted them wild cards into the event and helped the Williams sisters jump start their professional careers.
Indian Wells continues to extend a welcoming hand to the sisters in the hope they will return to play there. It would show great maturity on their part if the William sisters would return, extending the fans in California a chance to make up for their rude and boorish behavior back in 2001.
It is the right thing to do. But let’s face it, how many would have the faith and courage to do the “right thing” in this day and age of skepticism and self-aggrandizement?