About Indian Wells, the scene of the crime, the two sisters who have doubled as America’s top two tennis players for almost two decades, have reached a divide. Serena announcing that she is releasing herself from the vow of never playing the tournament again; to date elder sister Venus has made no such move.
What is not lost on me is that Venus Ebony Star Williams was the first African American woman to ever hold the title of World Number One. And like Althea Gibson, the first Black woman to win Wimbledon in 1957, she was out there in the ‘lily-white’ tennis world all alone. When Venus made her debut in professional women’s tennis in 1994, New York Times contributor Robin Finn called her “the most unorthodox tennis prodigy her sport has ever seen.” Trust me, considering the non-politically correct racial climate that was status quo then, it was definitely one of the mildest attacks Venus faced.
Years ago in an appearance with her sister Serena on Oprah, Venus responded when questioned about racial discrimination in the locker room, in terms of how the other players treated her. She paused and reflected before a brief mention of how they – the ‘little darlings’ as the tennis media dubbed female players of the “country-club” sport then – were leaving nasty/dirty underwear by her locker. I have no words!
Not surprising to me that after the sum total of her experience on tour leading up to Indian Wells; seven years after it happened, this is a comment from Venus:
The year is 2001, a leg injury has forced Venus Williams to pull out of a semifinal match against her sister. Indian Wells tournament officials make no announcement until only minutes before the match. During the final, younger sister Serena is in a face-off with Kim Clijsters. She is roundly booed on the court and after winning, during the victory ceremony as well.
All the while Venus and her father face a ‘lynch mob’ like atmosphere in which they are heckled, jeered and called racial epithets in the stands – where they determinedly stay, as they’re presence represents support of their daughter/sister.
Tensions is so thick that Pam Schriver whom I’m watching on ESPN, reports live that the ushers were told in advance to be on guard for trouble in the stands.
While being heckled by the crowd, Richard Williams is seen on his cellular phone. Minutes later, a security guard appears by the friends’ box a couple of games into the match. (From a New York Times column written by Selena Roberts) His only visible reaction to the 15,000 fans in this disdainful crowd is a raised fist, reminiscent of The 1968 Olympics Black Power salute was an act of protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos while the American National Athem played during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City.
Serena managed to win and voiced quite a prophetic message: ”I won a big battle today mentally, I think a champion can come through.” Though victorious, the entire horrifying experience brought the champion to tears and running to the arms of her protective father once the match concluded.
Today…America remains forever in denial that racism flourishes; when not disputing that the disgraceful incident occurred at all; tennis media pundits engage vociferously in validating the crowds’ behavior. [Prime example ESPN Tennis writer Peter Bodo’s Blog→http://espn.go.com/blog/peter-bodo/post/_/id/980/serenas-maturation-comes-shining-through]
The entire situation harkens back to the disturbing dark days of Jim Crow. Denial, though not surprising, is quite baffling from a country with a history of three centuries of enslaving Africans and who’s cherished Constitution granted those of African descent only 3/5th humanity.
Disbelievers need to remember Indian Wells tournament director Charlie Pasarell also is quoted in a USA Today article nine days after the Indian Wells final:
“I was cringing when all that stuff was going on. It was unfair for the crowd to do that.”
And disbelievers need too revisit the assessment of then WTA Chair and CEO Larry Scott. After he had watched a tape of the match, conducted interviews and held discussions with the Williams sisters and their family, below are his remarks:
“Having watched it myself, it was one of the harshest environments I’ve seen a player have to be in,” Scott said. “It was a unique situation and one that obviously runs deep for Serena and for Venus.
Serena’s recently announced that she is returning to competition at Indian Wells, after a 14 years of letting her absence do the talking; About ending her boycott now Serena says:
Serena writes exclusively in TIME about her decision in a well thought out piece. You can read it HERE→http://time.com/3694659/serena-williams-indian-wells/
Georgetown professor and author Dr. Michael Eric Dyson speaking with Dave Zirin of The Nation framed Serena’s decision as “…the majestic arc of forgiveness in black life that has helped to redeem America.” He added:
“As the most dominant athlete of her generation, Serena carries huge symbolic capital. This gesture of principled forgiveness once again proves that black athletes at their best have been thermostats who changed the temperature of society rather than thermometers that merely recorded the temperature.”
(Full article here→http://www.thenation.com/blog/197297/serena-williams-indian-wells-and-rewriting-future
I applaud Serena for marrying her return to the cause of Justice; partnering with the noble work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI): by operating a fundraising campaign in advance of the tournament. Details Here:→http://www.omaze.com/experiences/serena-williams:
More about the Cause for Justice Serena is supporting:
a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment. EJI provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.
Venus Williams to date…remains silent on Indian Wells.
Silence was not the case in 2008. Venus in the self-assured, clear and concise manner that she is known for, shared her thoughts on the vow never to play that tournament again.
It happened during an interview about the WTA Tour’s impending plan to institute a policy designating four tournaments, outside the Grand Slam events, as ‘mandatory’ for the tour’s top players; with non-compliance resulting in potential penalties such as no rankings points, fines and possible suspensions.
Venus Williams stated she appreciated that the tour was attempting to create a sustainable business model, attractive to sponsors, television and fans; and had more to say:
“Everybody has been on board with that, including Serena and I,” Venus said yesterday. “But we have had a problem at Indian Wells and we’ve chosen over the years not to play because of those issues, and emotionally we don’t want to be there. It would be too stressful for us emotionally, it wouldn’t be about the tennis — at all.”
Though the final sanction decision was up to the WTA Board, kudos to Larry Scott (adviser to the board) for choosing to engage in discussions with Venus and Serena about the matter in its entirety. Venus conveyed to him that the boycott is about Indian Wells and not about tennis.
“It’s not about not doing our best for the sport,” Venus Williams said. “We have a legitimate issue here, and it’s something we’ve all been dealing with over the years. But ultimately, Sis and I psychologically cannot play at Indian Wells.”
She added: “We try to be there for the fans who keep us in the game and allow us to do what we want to do,
but for us, it’s just not an option to play because of what we went through as a family.
As a long-term devoted fan of the William sisters and their ‘Agape Love’ family, I respect whatever position each individually holds regarding the place where tennis fans disgraced America – Indian Wells.
And equally ‘disgraceful’ is this truth – the tennis establishment ( WTA, USTA, ESPN Tennis and especially the current tournament officials of what was previously called Indian Wells) have yet to publicly apologize to the two wronged tennis champions, Venus and Serena, and their family!
Two Black women who changed the game, who represent the worldwide sport in grande fashion; and who are still playing well in their 30s – we should cherish them. Again I submit this message to the Tennis Establishment – an APOLOGY is not only warranted – it’s long overdue!