What happened at Indian Wells?
Editor's note: The controversy surrounding Venus and Serena Williams' decision not to play at Indian Wells has been composed of rumors, conjecture, and confusing comments about racism and match fixing. Joel Drucker, who covered the tournament for Tennis Week in 2001, recounts the events from eight years ago that caused two of tennis' biggest stars to skip this significant tournament.
Wednesday, March 14, 2001 -- Indian Wells, Calif.
From Dementieva's news conference:
Q: Any predictions on tomorrow's match between sisters?
Dementieva: I mean, I don't know what Richard thinks about it. I think he will decide who's going to win tomorrow.
Q: Do a lot of players in the locker room feel that way -- that Richard decides who wins the matches?
Dementieva: No, I don't think so. I didn't talk about it with the other players.
Q: But you have that feeling?
Q: That it's a family decision?
Dementieva: Yeah, because I remember when they played in Lipton. If you saw this match, it was so funny.
Statements issued by WTA Tour refuting Dementieva's comments: none
That same week, a story in the National Enquirer accuses the sisters of fixing the result of their 2000 Wimbledon semifinal.
Thursday, March 15
Four minutes before her match against Serena, Venus pulls out with tendinitis. Players usually notify officials that they will be unable to compete at least 30 minutes before a match so organizers can make contingency plans.
Later that evening, tournament director Charlie Pasarell -- who had heard news of Venus' withdrawal only on the PA system -- says, "I only wish she had at least gone out and given it a try. This hurts the game of tennis more than the individual tournament."
From Venus' news conference that night:
Q: You and Serena often don't play non-Slam tournaments together. Elena, yesterday, and a number of people before her, made the charge that your dad decides the matches. Some people putting these two things together are saying that this was something decided within your family. What would you say to people who would make that comment?
Venus: Everyone has their own opinion.
Q: Is that opinion a false one or otherwise?
Venus: No, it's not a true opinion at all. Everyone makes their own comments. That's how rumors get started. I guess rumors are more exciting than the truth.
From Serena's news conference that night:
Serena: We're competitors and we always go out to compete, and that's how it's always been. I think maybe if my dad would decide, then maybe Venus wouldn't be up 4-1, maybe it would be three-all by now.
I don't know if race has anything to do with this particular situation. But in general I think, yeah, there's still a little problem with racism in America.” -- Serena Williams
Friday, March 16
From a Los Angeles Times column by Bill Dwyre:
If these situations are truly just happenstance; if Venus' knee truly did get sore just in time for her match with Serena; if all this is just the product of a bunch of jealous competitors on the women's tour and a bunch of dopes with overactive curiosity glands, then why don't the Williamses set the record straight? When they are asked about the rumor and innuendo that constantly swirl around them, they respond with smirks and half-hearted denials.
They deny, but with less than the normal conviction, even anger, one would expect in the face of such serious issues. How about pounding on the table and saying it ain't so? How about some tears, some anger?
Instead, we get smirks and "I don't knows" and feeble, misguided attempts at humor. When Venus was asked about the line of people at the ticket windows, asking for their money back, she giggled and said, "I don't have any money to give them."
Since Venus is only 20 and Serena 19, it would seem appropriate for an adult to step up, especially one named Richard. But when he was reached by phone Thursday night and asked about Venus' injury, he answered, "I'm not God," and hung up.
Approached by a Reuters reporter to discuss Venus' withdrawal, Richard Williams says, "From now on, I don't speak English, I don't speak English."
WTA Tour CEO Bart McGuire declines a request to conduct a conference call with media. Instead, he issues a statement: "The tour is aware of the assertions being circulated regarding Venus and Serena Williams' head-to-head matches. We have seen no evidence to support those assertions, and both players have denied them."
As Venus and Richard take their seats during Serena's warm-up, the crowd of 15,940 boos loudly -- exceptionally loudly for a tennis tournament. The boos continue for much of the match.
No comments about racist remarks are made to tournament officials.
An off-duty Los Angeles Times copy editor sitting near Richard Williams hears no racist comments.
From Serena's news conference after her win over Kim Clijsters in the final:
Q: Even if the crowd booed you today, do you wish to come back next year?
Serena: I have a championship to defend next year. You'll probably see me here.
Q: Do you think race has anything to do with this?
Serena: Race? I think, you know, black people have been out of slavery now for just over a hundred years, and people are still kind of struggling a little bit. It hasn't been that long. I don't know if race has anything to do with this particular situation. But in general I think, yeah, there's still a little problem with racism in America.
Sunday, March 18
From a New York Times column written by Selena Roberts:
About five minutes before the match, a sun-kissed crowd known for its relaxed spirit spotted Richard and Venus Williams beginning a long walk down the 50 steps to their courtside perch.
Immediately, a crescendo of boos began ushering the father and daughter to their seats. Soon, the stadium was filled with the eerie howl found in haunted houses. Halfway to his destination, a defiant Richard Williams turned and shook his fist at his 15,000 critics.
All the while, revealing no sign of a limp, no wrap on her controversial right knee, Venus Williams kept her head down as she slipped into her row.
Few wanted to forgive Venus Williams for pulling out of her semifinal against her sister four minutes before the match on Thursday night. Her penchant for vanishing from tournaments had ruined her credibility. Few wanted to believe that her exit was not part of a fix conjured up by their father. His string of wild tales over the years has left his denials hollow.
After being heckled by the crowd, Richard Williams was seen on his cellular phone. Minutes later, a security guard showed up by the friends' box a couple of games into the match.
There was no incident, though. The abuse landed in verbal blows. Richard Williams' prematch fist shake was his only reaction. When a reporter approached him afterward, he motioned for security.
From Venus' news conference at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla.:
Q: Venus, given that you like to take the fall, you'd rather absorb the hurt than see Serena absorb the hurt, how hard was it for you to sit in the stands and hear her being booed or you or dad being booed?
Venus: I didn't feel bad about being booed because if people feel like that, if they aren't my fan, I can't change their mind.
Q: Did you think the response to last week via the crowd and press was unfair, or do you understand how that response was?
Venus: Well, I think the crowd may have felt slighted in a way that they didn't have the opportunity to see the match, and I understand that they, you know, paid money, possibly the semifinals -- I don't understand the ticketing. Maybe it costs more than a first-round match, the ticket. I can understand that. As far as the press, I don't always understand you all, but I do know that you want a big story. I do understand that you're interested in selling papers. It's all a business. Everything is tennis for me, it's my career and it's entertainment, but it's also a business. But all of it, I think, was a lot -- not very necessary.
Monday, March 26
Nine days after the Indian Wells final, a USA Today article appears containing these comments from Richard Williams: "When Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me 'n-----.' One said, 'I wish it was '75, we'd skin you alive.' I think Indian Wells disgraced America."
Indian Wells tournament director Charlie Pasarell also is quoted in the article: "I was cringing when all that stuff was going on. It was unfair for the crowd to do that."
From Venus' news conference that day:
Q: On that article that was in the paper, do you have any comment on it about what they claim, racism and all that junk?
Venus: I, um, did not see that article. Nor do I read the papers, especially during tournament time. But I don't think racism is junk at all.
Q: Your dad talked about racial taunts that he heard, I guess, before the final involving Serena. What were you aware of?
Venus: As far as what?
Q: What did you hear? Did you hear the same kind of thing?
Venus: I heard whatever he heard.
Q: Which was what?
Venus: I think you already know.
Q: Have you considered if you're going to go back to Indian Wells?
Venus: It's a year away. Hopefully, I'll be healthy enough to just be playing.
Q: So you would go back there?
Venus: Only if they want me.
Q: Did you think the booing was racially motivated?
Venus: What do you think?
Q: I wasn't there.
Venus: I can't say. I mean, the questions are redundant. It's already 10 days ago. Whatever happened, happened. I can't change it. There's nothing I can do about it.
From Serena's news conference that day:
Q: Regarding the comments that there is racism. Is this something you think people need to address?
Serena: Yeah, I understand that he did make comments. But you know what, like I said in my other interviews, I don't really read the papers and that's it. I just -- I woke up late today and I was running late on practice, I haven't -- I just actually saw something in the USA Today, just briefly. But then I had to run here.
Q: Did he not talk to you about the racial comments he made?
Serena: My dad never told me that. I'm glad he didn't because I -- maybe I would have been a little more emotional about it. So fathers and parents know what's best to do for their child. They try to safeguard them and keep them in a bubble, so to say, so if something hits it, it just bounces off and I won't be able to feel it.
Q: Have you heard any similar comments yourself while playing tennis on the court?
Serena: Let's see. Let me think about it. I don't know. I don't know. I can't remember. I don't know.
From Elena Dementieva's news conference in Key Biscayne:
Q: When you made the comment about Richard Williams' deciding who is going to win, what did you mean by that?
Dementieva: I was kidding.
Q: You were kidding?
Q: Did you think it would become such an important joke?
Dementieva: No, I didn't think.
Excerpts from a Nov. 5, 2008, New York Times article by Christopher Clarey:
"I'm not going to be playing at Indian Wells," Serena Williams said in an interview last month. "I've had some extremely life-altering things that happened to me there. So I told Larry Scott there are things that happened there that he understands shouldn't happen, especially me being African-American."
Serena: "I won't be able to say something positive about Indian Wells. If they really want me to promote it, then honestly, I don't know what to say."
Sony Ericsson WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott: "We're not going to put them in a position that is going to be awkward. It would be neutral, something to promote the Southern California Tennis Association or the juniors or something for a tournament sponsor."
Charlie Pasarell, the tournament chairman at Indian Wells, said his event would accept the tour's judgment: "We will abide by whatever the WTA ruling is, and that's fine. We have tried to reach out to the Williams family in the past. It's the same thing. We'd love them to come here. What happened way back then was unfortunate, and we hope someday they do come back."
Venus and Serena have not played at Indian Wells since 2001. Nor will they be playing this year at Indian Wells.
Officials at Indian Wells have not received reports of racist comments from any of the other 15,938 spectators in attendance on March 17, 2001.
Under the terms of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's new "road map" structure, Indian Wells is one of four Premier Mandatory tournaments that eligible players are required to enter. Should a player not play one of these events, she risks suspension -- unless she opts to engage in promotional activities in support of the tournament she has skipped. These activities can take place within a 125-mile radius of the event.
Distance from Indian Wells to Los Angeles where Serena maintains a residence: 128 miles.
No announcements have yet been made about promotional activities surrounding Indian Wells.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.
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