In 2001, at the age of 19, Serena Williams took the court at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California under a rain of boos and alleged racist slurs from some crowd members. Spectators were upset Williams’ sister, Venus, pulled out of the tournament 20 minutes before her scheduled match, while others accused Williams’ father Richard of fixing matches between the sisters. As such, Serena Williams boycotted playing in the tournament since her 2001 match. Friday marked her return under much different circumstances.
“I feel like I’ve already won this tournament,” Williams told ESPN after defeating Monica Niculescu 7-5, 7-5 Friday night. A chorus of cheers, applause, and a standing ovation upon entering the court greeted her. “I don’t feel like I have to actually hold the trophy at the end of this. I feel like I’m already holding up a trophy. I have never felt that way before. Just being here is a huge win. Not only for me, but for so many people. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
After the booing, slurs, and cheating allegations of 2001, Williams vowed never to return to Indian Wells. She said she was profoundly impacted by the late Nelson Madela, and relished the opportunity to be a role model. On February 4, she wrote an op-ed for Time magazine announcing her decision to finally return to Indian Wells.
“I was raised by my mom to love and forgive freely,” Williams wrote. “‘When you stand praying, forgive whatever you have against anyone, so that your Father who is in the heavens may also forgive you’ (Mark 11:25). I have faith that fans at Indian Wells have grown with the game and know me better than they did in 2001.”