The Indomitable Williams Sisters

Tennis racquet and ball

Being an avid tennis fan, I watched with horror and great pain the 2001 tennis matches at Indian Wells, California where the Williams sisters and their father were treated as unwelcome aliens. Trying to grasp the fact that an adult audience could heckle, boo, and downright cheer Serena’s double faults and errors in the championship was a time in sporting history I was hoping to forget ever happening. For theses hisses and boos to continue during the trophy awarding ceremony was most embarrassing to where one had to conclude there was deeper meaning to this outrage against the sisters. One could understand the boos and disappointments when it was learned minutes before their semi-final match that Venus could not play due to injury, but for this behavior to continue two days later at the championship final was nothing less than un-American by the majority of people in the stands. It must be pointed out that there were cheers for Serena during the championship and a standing ovation when she overcame the crowd and Kim Clijsters to win the match in three sets.  It didn’t help matters when television sports commentators Mary Joe Fernandez and Pam Shriver boldly announced the rumors of boos and protest and so be aware. They actually tried justifying the crowd’s behavior and only added fuel to the fire through their commentary.

Fast forward to 2015 and it seems that Serena has set the ultimate example of forgiveness for us all. Forgive and forget. Well, the first part may seem easier than the second, but in reality, they are both pretty difficult actions to undertake. For Serena Williams, it appears that she is willing to forgive those who mistreated her at Indian Wells, California in March of 2001. At the young age of 19, she was just 4 years into winning her first professional match (coincidentally also at Indian Wells), and the exquisite career she had dreamed of as a child was turning into a reality. She recalls being an “outsider” who as a black tennis player looked different, sounded different, dressed differently, and even served differently than her competitors on the court.

After having beaten Steffi Graff in the 1999 Indian Wells final for her first big tournament victory, Serena was excited to return in the hopes of earning another title. Nevertheless, her visit to this place that was previously one of joy turned into a truly marring experience. As she was set to play her sister Venus in the semi-finals of the tournament, Serena was booed and taunted as she walked onto the court because Venus had withdrawn from the match due to tendinitis. The spectators and various commentators were under the impression that the match had been fixed and decided to deride Serena in a way that no person should be subject to. There were racist comments and generally negative phrases screamed at this world-class athlete who was there to honor the game by playing her hardest, not to receive maltreatment. According to Serena, “The undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.”

Serena had promised herself several times over the past 13 years that she would never return to Indian Wells again, constantly reminded by the feeling of crying in her locker room and struggling to understand the still-present inequality that was demonstrated. Over the years many people have urged her to return to Indian Wells, while others have sided with the choice to never go back. But her mother raised her to “love and forgive freely”. Her courage is something to admire, as forgiving those fans at Indian Wells is not something every athlete of an individual sport would be able to muster. She is out there on her own, not surrounded by a group of teammates who can support her. Serena knows that her mental state will be challenged both on the court and via the stands while she competes on the highest physical level, and yet she is eager to grow with the fans that once tormented her by facing this challenge.

I had the unique privilege of serving as the escort to both Serena and Venus during a White House correspondence dinner several years ago, and they thoroughly impressed me with their intelligence, kindness, and honesty throughout the entire evening. Yes, one is easily amazed by the illustrious careers they have formulated: Venus with 7 grand slam women’s singles titles and Serena with 19; 13 grand slam women’s doubles titles for both sisters, as well as 4 Olympic gold medals each. However, it is critical that we move beyond talks of their athletic prowess and honor their invaluable contribution to sports and society as a whole. These two women have proven to be a true inspiration to people all over the world, and as they near the end of their respective careers, it is time that we celebrate them for their greatness.

We can all learn something from Serena here, and that is sometimes we can overcome by forgiving. It may never be easy and it may frequently seem trivial, but the ability to forgive is truly praiseworthy. There is a always the potential for healing, but there are few with the courage to bring about and contribute to said healing. The world we live in is wrought with pain, tragedy, and hate. But combating these things with compassion and a willingness to absolve (when the situation is appropriate) breeds a sense of hope that we as people can move on to improve and help one another. That is the true meaning of life, and it is very exciting that sports can serve as a means of showing what life is all about.

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