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14 Mar 2015

Snapshot: Serena Williams' Return to the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells

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Serena Williams made a successful return to the BNP Paribas Open Friday night, winning her match 7-5, 7-5. Serena Williams made a successful return to the BNP Paribas Open Friday night, winning her match 7-5, 7-5. Kevin Fitzgerald

The last time current world No. 1-ranked Serena Williams, winner of 19 Grand Slam tennis titles, stepped onto the Stadium 1 court at the BNP Paribas Open was in 2001. She was 19 and about to play for the women’s singles championship.

“I was looking to take another title. I was ready,” Williams wrote last month in TIME when she announced her decision to return to the BNP Paribas Open after a 14-year self-imposed exile. “As I walked out onto the court, the crowd immediately started jeering and booing. In my last match, the semifinals, I was set to play my sister, but Venus had tendinitis and had to pull out. Apparently, that angered many fans.”

After 14 years of healing after that unfortunate, racially tinged incident in 2001, Williams walked back onto that court at 7 p.m., Friday, March 13, with determination and trepidation. Those in the traditionally late-arriving desert crowd rose as one and cheered wildly to welcome her back. Williams, clearly overwhelmed by emotion, seemed strangely reserved. There were no smiles, really, and she offered just one brief wave to the fans. In fact, we learned later, she was struggling not to cry.

“It was an emotional time,” Williams shared in her Tennis Channel post-match interview. “I didn’t expect to start tearing up. The crowd was just so amazing and so nice. I just didn’t know what to expect.”

She and most of the tennis pundits running around the Indian Wells Tennis Garden certainly didn’t expect the highly competitive match that followed, against No. 68-ranked Monica Niculescu of Romania. Relying on an unorthodox style of play, Niculescu pushed Williams into a sometimes awkward but always resourceful game, which ended in a 7-5, 7-5 victory by Williams.

Thus ended a week of heightened anxiety—and somewhat unnecessary mystery for everyone involved with the tournament, as the return of Serena Williams had everyone on edge. Serena was invisible to most as the week progressed. Her first onsite practice session was held behind locked doors on Stadium 1. While names like Sharapova, Federer, Djokovic, Murray and Nadal practiced publicly and interacted with fans—keeping with the routines that make this tournament renowned as one of the most laid-back in the world—no announcement of Williams’ presence was made to fans or members of the media, who were kept at bay by posted security guards. She surfaced briefly for a pre-match interview session, and then went back into hiding.

Meanwhile, the anticipation built. “The kids are so excited to finally get a chance to ball-kid for Serena,” said Rick Mozzillo, lead chair person of the tourney’s Ball Kids Committee. “The kids had to sign up for that shift a month ago, and we didn’t know that Serena would be playing that day at that time. So the lucky ones who get to work it kind of won a blind lottery.”

Meanwhile, the PR department laid out restrictions for coverage and access to the big match, the type of which are usually only instituted for the championship match—if at all.

“We were outsiders,” Williams wrote in the opener to her TIME about returning to Indian Wells. That’s how she characterized the status she shared with her sister Venus and the whole Williams family back in 2001.

Hopefully, the healing continues, and she and her family can enjoy what today makes the BNP Paribas Open one of the best stops on the pro tennis circuit each year.

Scroll down to see images from Serena Williams’ return to the BNP Paribas Open.

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