The BNP Paribas Open, better known to fans as Indian Wells, is arguably the biggest tournament in tennis besides the Majors. It has been referred to as the unofficial fifth Grand Slam of the season and is one of the few events where all of the top ranked players are required to play if healthy. Earlier this season, Serena Williams accepted a wildcard to play at the tournament for the first time in 13 years.
Flash-back to 2001: Serena Williams had only won a single Grand Slam at the US Open and was often competing in finals against her force of a sister, Venus. That year there was a great controversy at Indian Wells. Through the course of the tournament both Serena and Venus had made it to the semifinals where they were to face each other. Ten minutes before the highly anticipated match-up, with a full stadium, Venus Williams would pull out of the match claiming injury and by default Serena moved on to the final.
At the time there was talk that William’s father and coach, Richard Williams, was in charge of who won matches between the sisters. With Venus’s abrupt exit, the public opinion was that Richard had set it up so that Serena would move on and have a great chance to win the title. At the final match, the jeers for Williams were loud, reportedly booing for points that she won and cheering for every fault. Her father and sister who were in the stands watching were also booed with reports that racial slurs were being hurled at them throughout the match. In the end, Serena Williams triumphed over Kim Clijsters however due to the treatment of her family by the crowd she has boycotted the tournament since.
It should be noted that there is much talk on both sides about the extent of what happened. Several reports say that although jeered, no racial slurs were hurled at Richard Williams. Venus Williams has claimed that she let officials know hours beforehand that she would not compete. There was also the controversy that the umpire allowed the crowd to be especially rowdy and did not control the noise level as well as should have been for such an important match, a factor that had a clear effect on the game for Williams.
In the years since then, Serena Williams has become the undisputed queen of the tennis world. She is one of the premiere athletes signed to the Nike brand. She has won an astounding 19 Grand Slams, 18 since the last time she played at Indian Wells. She is the number one ranked player in the world who earlier this year dispatched second ranked rival Maria Sharapova for another Major at the Australian Open. There is talk that in terms of sports today, no female athlete is both more noticed and dominant as Serena Williams. In terms of each tennis season, Williams is always the biggest name off of the list for Indian Wells. While great tennis is played in the desert each year, there is always great debate on whether the champion would have been the same with Williams in the draw. This fact is made more prevalent due to the fact that the Sony Open is played in Miami the week following Indian Wells and Williams has won it several times. In some cases beating the champion of Indian Wells in the process. Serena has had an impact on the tournament without even playing.
All of this makes her return all the more intriguing. The big question going in will be how the crowd receives Serena and vice-versa. A lot has changed in 11 years, including the people. It will be a new crowd in the stands and will likely give Williams the ovation she deserves. That said, Serena’s historic outbursts are an element of her career and how she receives the crowd that she once wrote she would never play for again will be just as important. Tennis, like golf, is a sport that is partly defined by the class and calm of its audience. For those who have never been to a match, the crowd is required to be silent while the point is played and only applaud/cheer after the point has been won. A stadium like the one Serena last played for at Indian Wells is nearly unheard of in the sport and the tennis world will be watching to see if Williams displays a champions grace when the microphone is placed in front of her.
Of course, other factors will be in effect. Should a call not go Williams way and she reacts brashly, or if there is a controversial medical time-out or the like, will the crowd begin to jeer her with the fervor that they know she has long expected of them? Will composure hold on both sides or will one of them break due to the attention that is imagined or otherwise?
The queen returns to the desert this Friday and she will be bringing a storm of attention and tennis prowess with her. Despite all the talk that we will likely hear, the ball is once again in her court.