Serena Williams finally returned to the prominent BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, on Friday night for the first time in 14 years. It was a rough match, but the world’s best tennis player defeated No. 68 Monica Niculescu 7-5, 7-5.
Williams walked onto the court amid deafening cheers and a standing ovation. She took off her headphones and broke down while unpacking her bag.
Tensions were high before the match due to Williams’s return and both players showed it. It took awhile for Williams to calm down and combat Niculesco’s intense forehand slice. She came out victorious after two hours and three minutes, mainly due to her famous serve. She ended the night with 13 aces, two double faults, and broke Niculesco seven times.
But the match was about a lot more than the win. She is the best tennis player, which means such a match only makes big news if she loses. But the last time she was here, of course, Williams did not receive any love, which made the outpouring of emotion from the cheered and the cheerers all the more dramatic.
In 2001, Serena’s sister Venus defaulted to her due to tendonitis. She claims she told the tournament hours in advance, but the officials did not call the match until a few minutes before it was scheduled to start. People booed and jeered, which carried over to the finals where Serena played against Kim Clijsters. Officials did not tell the audience to quiet down when they cheered every time Serena committed a mistake. Her father Richard Williams claimed spectators spewed racist comments towards him. She boycotted the tournament, even though it became a mandatory stop on the WTA tour in 2009.
Since that awful incident, the community matured. As Sports Illustrated pointed out, tennis faced a stereotype as a sport for the privileged at all-white country clubs. But people of all nationalities and colors, in part because of the Williams sisters, are picking up the game. This caused much less tolerance of racism. Russian official Shamil Tarpischev called Serena and Venus the “Williams brothers.” Tennis officials immediately condemned him and banned him from the sport.
Welcome back, Serena! Indian Wells missed you.