Richard Williams and Oracene Price may have envisioned their daughters as Grand Slam champions, but tennis has never been just tennis for Serena and Venus Williams. They emerged as black tennis prodigies in a sport ill-equipped to deal with their rise to stardom. From the beginning, their impact on society would always outweigh anything they accomplished on the tennis court.
Their blackness has shadowed them at every turn throughout their illustrious careers. When Richard Williams spurned the tennis establishment and rolled them out to the tennis world on his terms, the colour of their skin became a focal point, accentuated by the beads that they wore so boldly in their hair. The insidious nature of racism muddied the waters of their youth; instead of carefree, talented teens, they were often seen as brash and disrespectful upstarts. Richard and Oracene may have tried to prepare them for what would follow, but as mere teenagers, Venus and Serena had the unenviable task of adjusting to the shadow of their blackness while attempting to scale the tennis mountain.
By now, we are all familiar with what happened at Indian Wells in 2001; the incident left the Williams sisters vowing never to return to the tournament. In the 14 years since, interested parties had been left to speculate whether either sister would ever return, and what their thought processes were about the debacle. One of the most rewarding aspects of Serena's return this year has been the access she has granted us into how she and her family felt about and dealt with what transpired.
There is no longer any need to speculate. Read Serena's words. In her letter for TIME, Serena lays bare her thoughts and feelings about Indian Wells (she also wrote about it in a chapter in On The Line). We learned that the events took a toll on the entire family, not just Venus and Serena. The boos and insinuations cut deep, caused Serena great self-doubt, and "haunted" her for a long time. In the letter, she also indicated her awareness of her own place in history and the role race has always played in her tennis. The mental and emotional fallout for Serena was greater than we ever imagined.
Serena's decision to return to Indian Wells should put to rest any conjecture as to what happened. We now have her own words, in great detail, about what she experienced against Kim Clijsters that day. We must now defer to her if we are serious about understanding what it feels like to have a home crowd root so whole-heartedly for your opponent, to watch your family booed from the stands amidst racial slurs, all the while trying to win a big-time tennis tournament. We should use her words as a template of what it is like to be black, a woman, and a tennis champion.
Serena is not just a tennis player, and has now shown us she is ready to champion her blackness and embrace the political. Serena wants to ensure we never forget what happened to her family in 2001. As part of her return to Indian Wells, she teamed with the Equal Justice Initiative to raise funds for persons who have been denied fair treatment by the U.S. justice system.
Of all the thousands of charities Serena could have chosen, she chose this one. Her partnership with EJI shows that Serena is not willing to sanitize what happened in 2001; she is aligning her experience with those represented by EJI. Serena will play Indian Wells, but she does not want us to forget why she stayed away for 14 years. She was the victim of an ugly incident coloured by race, and while tournament organizers and the media would prefer to herald her return as a triumphant, feel-good moment, it is more than that for Serena. She is unwilling to tie a neatly wrapped bow on it and leave it at that. The emotional scarring she and her family endured will not allow it.
Serena made her return to Indian Wells last Friday night. Her tears and those of her sister Isha underscored the emotional release of the moment just as much as it granted a glimpse into the hurt the family endured over the last 14 years. Venus' continued absence from the tournament is a reminder that the Williams family, trailblazers for African Americans in sport and American society, maintain a complicated relationship with all of us. Venus' decision not to play this year, or ever again, is just as valid as her sister's.
Serena's return to Indian Wells gives her the control to steer her narrative going forward. But, make no mistake, she is not re-writing her history or what happened in the '01 final. By "making nice," Serena is at once conquering her scarred personal history and giving herself a chance to move forward. We should never forget what happened to the Williams family in 2001, and I suspect that is precisely what Serena is hoping for.