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11 Mar 2014

An Angry Crowd: Remembering Venus Williams, Serena Williams and the Indian Wells Tennis Tournament's Biggest Controversy

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Brane Jevric poses with Serena Williams at the 2001 tournament. Brane Jevric poses with Serena Williams at the 2001 tournament.

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.

15 comments

  • Comment Link Mister Right Wednesday, 18 March 2015 19:53 posted by Mister Right

    To Igor,
    if the crowd booed them, they had to be booing because of skin color, not because they decided not to play right? After all, it was a bunch of racist whites, and I couldn't help notice you embellished on; that the father saying someone said something racist to him, to people said racist things to all 3 of them, what else can you make up? It reminds me of all the people who didn't vote for 0bama, it has to be because of skin color, not because they disagree with his ideology, let me remind you all that he is half black, half white, or is it half white, half black, I better not put the wrong color first, so I write it both ways, because it might offend a lib! Over 90 percent of blacks didn't vote for Romney, now that's racist!!! It has to be, dems made those rules.

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  • Comment Link Joanne Crudup Saturday, 28 February 2015 17:31 posted by Joanne Crudup

    I love Serena and Venus they have open my eyes to tennis. My brother Lemuel watched Arthur Ashe play tennis. When I saw this great man who was proud of being black. Who did not have say look at me. I am black and proud. He carry his self with such grace and honor I know that Christ Jesus was in him. Serena and Venus carry their selves with grace and honor, I love them Serena win or loss she is encourages other tennis players. I know that Jesus Christ is in her and Venus. They do as GOD says do this for the least of them. I will pray that GOD and his son Jesus Christ protect tem. with must love Joanne CRUDUP

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  • Comment Link Donald Thursday, 25 September 2014 10:20 posted by Donald

    Mr. Jevric.
    I am interested in knowing why you have brought up this hateful day in tennis. Are you working for Indian Wells (BNP) to try and entice Serena back to the event? Are you trying to justify to sponsors why two of the greatest refuse to play at this event?

    How does one mysteriously stop hitting a ball anyway? I think it is mysterious that you were the only person to see this, and everyone else were (conveniently) entering to take their seats.

    It is shameful that you did not mention that Venus earlier spoke to officials about pulling out. Your claim of objectivity is indeed mysterious.

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  • Comment Link JonJoe1959 Sunday, 16 March 2014 13:34 posted by JonJoe1959

    Simply put, Brane Jevric is a "Liar" he knows that Venus Williams informed Indian Wells Offical the day before the Simifinals. It's like this. To Hell With Indian Wells And All That It Represents.

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  • Comment Link Dan Sunday, 16 March 2014 12:28 posted by Dan

    So they cheated right, is there any sanction for player to be that way and prove it's real injury or not? That's remind me to london olympic's scandal with cheat match in badminton, that happen a lot in badminton tournament with chinese players and no sanction for them, that's prove tennis is way better than badminton.

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  • Comment Link Royal Sunday, 16 March 2014 01:18 posted by Royal

    it sad such wrongs still occur in 2014 i hope they do not comprimise their principles and go back, eat sand.

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  • Comment Link JR Saturday, 15 March 2014 10:19 posted by JR

    The tennis establishment ( read - privileged white men and ladies who lunch after a stop of tennis at the country club ) are threatened by two powerful, confident, independent, multi talented women. Who were taught to play a genteel sport by unconventional methods.
    I think the tennis world and, the world at large should be thankful for the success of these two remarkable women .
    Sure they are not faultless, but that makes them all the more compelling and how true they are to themselves is something to be admired not reviled .
    Regardless of what happened over a decade ago and the shameful treatment of these then, very young women.
    The legacy of the sisters will live on longer than any reporter, tennis tournament in the desert or any angry, hostile crowd.
    They owe no explanations to anyone but themselves. The tennis establishment has always been taken aback by the fact that these two great athletes have done it their own way, despite the odds and hoards against them and have accomplished so many great feats .
    They do not need to be thankful and grateful for the tennis world for letting them in, the rest of the world needs to be thankful they are are still around conquering despite convention .

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  • Comment Link Dee91 Friday, 14 March 2014 02:06 posted by Dee91

    BORING!! What you gain from making up stories about how the events took place I will never know or want to know! Venus had advised tournament directors the day before, Venus was injured, Venus & Richard were booed, Serena Was booed, 90% of the crowd that was present at that final were disgusting.. Write about the things that truly happened rather than make up some bullcr*p story about Venus looking at you and 'Mysteriously' stops hitting the ball... Like PLEASE.

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  • Comment Link Kit Thursday, 13 March 2014 16:50 posted by Kit

    May she NEVER return. Even if what you say is true and they intentionally disappointed the fans -- it is still an absolute DISGRACE the reaction the whole family received.

    In the same vein, Victoria Azarenka was accused of taking injury in her match against Sloane Stephens but i didn't see her getting raked over the coals week after week.

    It's you media people who are actually at the heart of all of this mess. how dare you not take the word of the Williams family. Let God be their judge and not you demigods!

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  • Comment Link Marcia Whitley Thursday, 13 March 2014 11:37 posted by Marcia Whitley

    If "for the record" you adore them so much, why are you still writing about it. I don't believe they planned anything. The Williams sister have done so much for tennis and I don't think they are given the credit they are due. So many African American young women are getting into the sport because of them. Hey, maybe that's the problem.

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  • Comment Link Igor Samsenev Thursday, 13 March 2014 06:34 posted by Igor Samsenev

    Apologies!! In my previous post, I meant to say "they were treated nasty by the predominantly White crowd"

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  • Comment Link Igor Samsenev Thursday, 13 March 2014 06:28 posted by Igor Samsenev

    Serena and Venus are arguably the greatest athletes and champions of all time, yet they were nasty by their compatriot crowd, we don't do that in Russia. Injuries happen, no one is a sharman to determine whether a player is faking injury or not.

    these two great champions were wronged, racial epithets were used against them & their father, little did the crowd know that those young girls would do America proud for decades. Four Olympic Gold medals, the most for any players in tennis history. I think it's time for the tournament director to write an apology letter to them and gather honest signed petition from true fans of the game inviting them back before they retire which I believe is 2016 after the Olympics.

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  • Comment Link Jimmy Boegle Wednesday, 12 March 2014 16:28 posted by Jimmy Boegle

    A reminder to everyone: Any comments that violate the Independent's comment policy will be deleted. Among other things, the comment policy forbids fake email addresses and name-calling. Review it here: http://www.cvindependent.com/index.php/en-US/about/7-comments-policy

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  • Comment Link Joesph Wednesday, 12 March 2014 09:12 posted by Joesph

    I can't help but think that this article is wholly bias. "Venus mysteriously stopped hitting the ball". How can you mysteriously stop hitting a ball? Please tell me, I would like to know!

    I don't care what anyone says, the majority of the hate on that day in Indian Well's was largely based on their own prejudiced beliefs. It was disgusting and I haven't dated to look at the tape since. The day we all saw America for what it really is.

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  • Comment Link maximus Tuesday, 11 March 2014 19:28 posted by maximus

    You have neglected to mention the "rumour" that Venus had actually advised the tournament of her withdrawal the day BEFORE the semis. How about objectivity in reporting?

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