Serena Williams Overcomes Fear to Combat Racism

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Serena Williams may no longer be known mainly as Venus’s little sister. However, according to many in the tennis community instead of her epitaph reading, “also played”, it is more likely to read, “greatest player to ever pick up a racket.” So far, Serena has amassed 20 grand Slam wins, 56 other tournament wins in single play, plus an additional 22 doubles championships. Three of those victories resulted in an Olympic gold. However, all her triumphs have not occurred without having a strong mindset that enabled fear and racism to be overcome; such as allegations of biased judging and competitors who feel the need mock her curves.

As unstoppable as Serena has seemed over the last decade or so, one tournament still haunts her – Indian Wells (officially named the BNP Paribas Open). She won her first professional match on that court in 1997. However, the far stronger memory is of what happened during the finals in 2001 when she faced 17-year-old Kim Clijsters.

The crowd, behaving in a way practically unprecedented according to tennis analysts, booed the 19-year-old Williams for several minutes. The booing intensified when her sister and father left their seats in order to speak to her court side. Some people even remember hearing the N – word uttered. In his autobiography, published last year, Frank Williams wrote:

My daughters were treated without an ounce of dignity or respect. They were treated like criminals.

Apparently, some in the crowd felt Venus was faking the tendonitis injury which forced her to withdraw from the tournament minutes before she was supposed to play her sister in the tournament‘s second semifinal. Due to her older sister’s sudden withdraw, Williams advanced to the finals automatically. Some fans believe their father and coach since childhood, Richard, had decided to award a final berth to his younger daughter, because she had played better than her sister that day.


This viewpoint was given credence by the comments of fellow tennis player Elena Dementieva. After she lost her own quarterfinal to Venus that year at Indian Wells, Dementieva reported that she heard their father declare that he would be the one who decided which of his daughters played in the final match. All three Williams deny that any such conversation took place.

In the end, Williams won the match anyway, but the championship did not come without its lasting wounds. Neither sister has played at Indian Wells since 2001. However, in 2015, the younger one decided that she would finally accept the ongoing invitations of tournament officials to return to Indian Wells.

She also decided to use the opportunity to raise money for the Economic Justice Initiative.  The nonprofit provides free legal representation to individuals who allegedly suffered unfair treatment within the justice system. Although Serena feared she would again be booed, she offered her fans a chance to meet her, with only a $10 entry fee, and combat racism at the same time.

As anticipated by tournament staff, Serena’s return after her 13 year boycott was not to be the decisive, athletic victory many had come to expect from her. She won her quarterfinal match in straight sets, following a standing ovation from the crowd. However, in an injury plagued season, acute knee pain forced her to withdraw from the semifinals, just as her sister had in 2001.

Serena Williams may never forget what happened in 2001, but in 2015 she reclaimed a place that meant so much to her as a tennis player. She overcame fear, combated racism, and says she cannot wait to return to Indian Wells courts in 2016.

By Martina Robinson


The Nation: Serena Williams, Indian Wells and Rewriting the Future
CNN: Serena Williams back at Indian Wells after it ‘disgraced America’ [Video]
Time: Serena Williams: I’m Going Back to Indian Wells
New York Times: Serena Williams Strikes the Right Note in a Time of Turmoil
Equal Justice Initiative official website: Join Serena Williams’s Campaign with EJI [Video]
NPR: Serena Williams Makes Emotional Return To Indian Wells

Main Photo Courtesy of Yann Caradec’s Flickr Page-  Creative Commons License
Other Photo Courtesy noviceromano’s Flickr Page- Creative Commons License