*Serena Williams, ironically, didn’t have to commute far to face the well-documented ghosts that had haunted her for the last 13 years. She has a home in Beverly Hills, California, so with just a hop and a skip, she was there, in the California desert, where she was met with a level of disrespect all those years ago that has likely fueled her fire in winning 18 more Grand Slam (GS) titles since then.
Serena had already won the U.S. Open before the Indian Wells (IW) controversy, but who’s to say she wouldn’t have been “one and done” like some who started out with her or came before her and retired during her tenure with just one Slam. And with that U.S. Open win occurring on home soil setting the stage for expectations, there was likely a sense of home-country pride that was shattered when what should’ve been patriotic support (faced Belgian Kim Clijsters in the 2001 IW final) turned to utterly embarrassing rejection. A stretch, but it could’ve derailed her entire career if processed the wrong way.
But with the benefit of hindsight, the youngest Williams sister had in her belly a fire waiting to be ignited to greatness. Richard Williams saw it before she was even introduced to the professional tennis world, but it was on full display for the world to see when she beat the odds and was declared the 2001 IW winner – whether loved or hated.
“Serena reminds me of a pit bull dog and a young Mike Tyson, all in one,” Richard said of what he saw in his daughter.
It must’ve taken intestinal fortitude that not many possess just to continue on with the match under the weight of what likely felt like crippling betrayal, but to WIN in the face of it had to come from the very depths of her burgeoning greatness. When she raised her fists in defiant celebration that day, it was a glimpse of the makings of one of, if not THE best women’s tennis players of all time. There are other multiple slams winners on tour, but none, not even runner-ups, the steely Maria Sharapova (5) and her legend-in-her-own-right sister Venus Williams (7) has one that burns more white-hot.
Serena went on to fully manifest what her father knew and what the world got a peek at that fateful day … and she’s still going.
Once her return to IW was confirmed, she said in an interview that she “wasn’t returning as the young girl with fragile emotions.”
But she did acknowledge that the attention her decision had brought left her understandably a touch unnerved.
“I think there will be added nerves,” she said. “I would really not be telling the truth if I said there wasn’t.”
But never one to be beset by challenges, she showed up, just as she said she would – with her slightly different team and the gravity of those 18 more GS trophies in tow.
“I didn’t write the story this way. I did not plan to be dominant and playing well or No. 1, if you say, 14 years later. … I think it was just an extra bonus and an extra treat that it turned out that way,” she said.
It wasn’t the same IW as it was in 2001. The grounds have changed, the policies and staff have changed, but most importantly the spirit of the crowd has changed. The stadium was full with a record breaking 19,198 attendees, the media were salivating, and personalities that normally wouldn’t rear their heads until the tournament’s business end were there to embrace the forgiving star as she played her first match, including former Microsoft co-founder and CEO, Bill Gates, and fellow billionaire and former Oracle CEO, Larry Ellison.
“It was a bit overwhelming,” she said of the tear-inducing reception. “I didn’t know what to expect … it was such a warm feeling. It made me feel incredibly well.”
It didn’t really matter who she was playing, although the much lower ranked, yet crafty Romanian, Monica Niculescu, was able to capitalize on the nerves of the occasion, making the match competitive. That aside, it was the anticipation of her “Martin Luther King moment” return that made the mere 2nd round match feel much bigger.
“It definitely feels like one of the biggest moments and the proudest moments of my career,” she said.
When she emerged from the tunnel as her name was called, she was met with raucous cheers and welcome back chants from the crowd. The warm welcome drew a big smile that very quickly turned to tears. It was indicative of the brave leap the superstar took in stepping back onto Court 1 after all those years.
But she came and she conquered – both her ghosts and Niculescu, 7-5, 7-5.
“Today was a wonderful day for me, for women’s tennis, for tennis in general and for everyone,” she gushed.
For a celebrated athlete who has nearly done it all in the sport (only missing the calendar Slam), it was only fitting that her twilight years include an homage to – and I’m taking some liberties here – the spark that ignited what seems to be an everlasting fire in her belly unto becoming a WTA legend.
“Things don’t go wrong and break your heart so you can become bitter and give up. They happen to break you down and build you up so you can be all that you were intended to be.” – Charles “Tremendous” Jones