I first met Serena Williams in 1997. She was playing doubles with her sister Venus, here at the Hyatt Grand Champions. The crowd loved them. In a sense, the Indian Wells tennis tournament helped make them: It was their first big tournament together, when they started to show the sports world the power of the Williams tennis family.
Later, I had lunch with their father and trainer, Richard Williams, and he told me that Venus and Serena would be playing in many Grand Slam finals—as rivals. Personally, I thought he was crazy, but as a journalist, I liked his quotes. I grew to like Richard Williams even more after I learned that he taught himself how to play tennis by watching video-tape lessons!
Flash forward to 2001, when the Williams sisters were set to play each other in the semifinals of what is today the BNP Paribas Open. Despite a live TV broadcast, fans filled the Tennis Garden. You could feel the excitement in the air.
I believe that I was the only reporter who watched as the Williams sisters, both looking fine, warmed up on a side court. (Everyone else was entering the stadium for their match.) Both sisters knew me from various press conferences—and the moment Venus spotted me, she mysteriously stopped hitting the ball. She then did two knee bends and then walked off the practice court.
Based on the way they were acting, I had a feeling that there would be no semifinal.
I went to the media room, looking for Bud Collins, the legendary tennis broadcaster. (We shared the same media spot at the top of the stadium.) He wasn’t around, so I walked over to the Los Angeles Times’ Lisa Dillman, and told her what had happened. At first, she doubted my suspicions; after all, the match was about to start.
Then we looked down and saw that the singles net was being exchanged for a doubles net.
As Dillman and I walked into the players’ lounge to speak to the Williams’ sisters, all hell broke loose in the main stadium: As the announcer announced that the semifinal match was cancelled, the crowd erupted! They booed loud and long, just like at wild soccer matches I used to cover in Europe. These people had paid good money to watch the Williams sisters’ match. Instead, they watched a doubles match that was moved into the slot from another court.
Back in the interview room, I opened with questions, asking the Williams sisters to confirm what I saw down on the practice court. They confirmed my account. (I still have press clips from back then, as I was quoted about it.)
The official explanation was that Venus Williams pulled out due to a knee injury. The unofficial explanation, believed by many in the media room, was that Richard Williams ordered Venus to drop out of the semifinal match, so that Serena could go into the finals. (At the time, Venus was way ahead of Serena in winnings, money and fame.) Some sources also said that it was too emotional for the sisters to play against each other back then, so a family decision was made to avoid a head-to-head match in Indian Wells.
Many others had a different opinion and believed that Venus Williams was indeed injured. For example, I asked Bud Collins, and he flatly refused to believe that any such deal was made. (For the record, I adore the Williams sisters and have written about them many times for European publications.)
When Serena later faced off against Kim Clijsters in the final, thousands of fans were still pissed about what happened at the semifinals. They booed Serena (and Venus, as she watched) from the start to the finish of the match, which Serena won. In my 18 years covering this tournament, I’ve never seen such a fiasco! After the match, Richard Williams claimed that a fan insulted him by using a racial slur. Ever since, Venus and Serena Williams have boycotted the Indian Wells tourney.
To this day, some media outlets claim that the whole affair was based on racial discrimination. I believe that most of the crowd anger came not from racism, but from Venus’ suspicious last-minute decision—mere minutes before the match’s scheduled start—to forfeit. The fans felt betrayed! These same fans had embraced the Williams sisters in the previous years; after all, they were the big American tennis hopes for years to come!
Well, 13 years have passed since the scandal. In the months leading up to this year’s BNP Paribas Open, Serena hinted that she might be coming back to the desert this year. Alas, it didn’t work out this season.
She’s still the biggest and richest female tennis star on the planet—and such a grand tourney needs the greatest champions, especially the greatest American tennis champions. Let’s all hope for Serena Williams’ return to Indian Wells in March 2015.