It’s the Ides of March, and I’m watching tennis. Semifinals of the first big American hard court tournament of the year, and Caroline Wozniacki is about to edge Angelique Kerber to make the final. It is a close match, but not a particularly good one. Kerber is noticeably hobbled by a back injury. Wozniacki got here because Viktoria Azarenka—one of the world’s two best players—forfeited their quarter due to an injury of her own. Both players are spraying and looping shots everywhere, seemingly content to wait for their opponent to lose. It is almost over now, which is probably the only thing preventing me from turning Tennis Channel off and catching up on Girls. I wish there was more offense on display. More fire. More Serena Williams.
The joint men’s and women’s tennis tournament in Indian Wells, California, is fast becoming one of the biggest in the world: some call it the ‘fifth slam,’ thereby drawing comparisons to Wimbledon and the US Open. Like those venerable events, Indian Wells—technically named after its sponsor, the PNB Paribas Open—boasts a winners list which is a who’s who of the sport’s greats during the past three decades: Graf, Clijsters, Federer, Hingis, and Nadal, for example. Serena won this event in 1999 and 2001. Despite establishing herself as the greatest women’s player of this (and perhaps any) era, she elected not to defend her title in 2002. Indeed, neither Serena nor her sister Venus have been back to Indian Wells in over a decade, and both have said that they never will. For a sport which thrives on star power; for an event which aspires to primacy, it is a gaping absence, an enormous hole, one which softens the draw and undermines the event’s (and possibly the sport’s) legitimacy. It began, rather improbably, with Venus’ withdrawal from a match, the result of tendinitis in her knee, twelve years ago today.
Some of the facts are in dispute, but here is a timeline of the officialized ones. TL;DR version: Venus was to play sister Serena in a semi when she dropped out; fans and players that had previously accused their father Richard of controlling the outcomes of their matches saw this as confirmation, disappointed spectators booed when the match didn’t happen and were sent home, then booed and booed some more during Serena’s victory over Kim Clijsters in the final. After the event, father and coach Richard Williams claimed that a number of racial slurs were aimed at himself, Venus, and Serena during the match, including the n—word and phrases like “‘I wish it was ‘75, we’d skin you alive.” While neither of the sisters offered examples of their own, both confirmed their father’s statements. Some years later Serena did write about what happened that day, recalling it in her memoir:
I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people—mostly older, mostly white—standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob. I don’t mean to use such inflammatory language to describe the scene, but that’s really how it seemed from where I was down on the court. Like these people were gonna come looking for me after the match. … There was no mistaking that all of this was meant for me. I heard the word nigger a couple times, and I knew.
Serena herself, for all of her accomplishments, is a somewhat divisive figure—fans tend to love her or hate her—and while some of the dislike is almost certainly motivated by race (and possibly by gender), some of her actions over the years are difficult to justify even for her most enthusiastic fans. Unsurprisingly, then, many were skeptical of the Williamses allegations then, and many are skeptical now. Assuming Serena’s (and her sister’s, and her father’s, and her mother’s) account is correct, then the tragedy isn’t just that what happened in the desert twelve years ago was among the most horrifying examples of racial animus in sport from recent memory—it also means that for far too many, its victim is the guilty party, believed to be the perpetrator of a hoax (now two hoaxes: the retirement conspiracy and of inserting race into the crowd’s response).
Because we weren’t all walking around with cell phone cameras in 2001, the actual bullies were never caught, their words never captured, except in their hearer’s memories.
No cameras, no evidence: no one to shame. When people are captured on film saying racist or sexist bullshit, they must face the consequences of said bullshit, possibly forever. Michael Richards will say those disgusting words again and again, for as long as there is a YouTube. Servers never forget.
If we cannot shame, we can still blame. The wrong people, probably, because we will always be predisposed to blame those we see as disposable.
I want to go back in time, to tell Serena about what Kevin-Prince Boateng will do in Italy a dozen years later. Kim, too: players need to stand together, like elder sis Venus did for Shahar Peer in Dubai. Like everyone else, I’m relegated to wishing things had happened differently. Not exactly a courageous stance.
The match I’m watching ends as desultorily as I feared, and the final is set. It will be the twelfth straight without the world’s best player. And counting.
Brian Psiropoulos is a dad and PhD candidate in English literature. He likes stuff, especially gothic Victorian novels, superhero comics, and video games. Also tennis. Read his scribblings on these and other things here.