Monday, August 31, 2009

I just finished reading the chapter about Indian Wells in Serena Williams’ new book, On the line. I heard about the book from Wayne Coffey, a New York Daily News journalist who wrote an article about the Williams sisters on the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of Serena’s first Grand Slam singles title (i.e., she won at the 1999 U.S. Open). Coffey’s article appeared in the Sunday edition of the New York Daily News, on the eve of the 2009 U.S. Open.
In Serena’s chapter entitled “The fiery darts of Indian Wells,” she shares her perspective on what happened in the 2001 tourney after Venus defaulted before their semi-final match. For one thing, Serena says that Venus knew after her quarterfinal match against Elena Dementieva that she was hurting and might not be able to play in the semifinals. Following the established procedure for tournaments, Venus made an appointment with the trainer, and told her that she did not think she should play. The trainer was supposed to pass that information along to the WTA office, so an announcement could be made. As the time for the match drew closer, Venus wondered why an announcement had not yet been made. For whatever reason, either the trainer and/or tour officials must have waited until shortly before the match was supposed to have begun to convey the information about Venus defaulting. As it turned out, Serena bore the brunt of the angry crowd when she played in the Finals against Kim Clijsters two days later.

Serena wrote something that I thought was quite poignant, when she considered what could have been done, in retrospect, once the booing began during the final. This is what she wrote:

“I look back now and think something could have been done about this situation before it got out of hand. Some tournament official could have gotten on the loudspeaker and explained to the fans that Venus had been legitimately hurt, that I had nothing to do with her withdrawal, that every effort had been made to cancel that semifinal match in a more timely manner. Some effort could have been made to quiet the crowd. But no one did anything. The WTA people just sat there with their mouths open as all these people beat up on a little girl. The Indian Wells people just sat there with their mouths open, too. Everyone was in shock, I think—but that’s no excuse” (Williams, & Paisner, 2009, p. 81).
That was exactly how I felt at the time—I remember wondering why someone did not step in and make an announcement... why someone didn’t say that this behavior was totally inappropriate and uncalled for... I remember (when I was watching the match on television) that one of the commentators (Pam Shriver or Mary Joe Fernandez) said she had heard that something might happen during the final, since people were still really upset about Venus’ semifinal withdrawal. So, if that was the case, why didn’t tournament officials anticipate the possibility and take steps to be pro-active? That is something I never understood.

Here is a Youtube clip of the beginning of the finals between Serena and Kim Clijsters, showing what happened when Richard and Venus came down the steps to their seats and the fans continued to boo. Whenever I show this clip in class, students are horrified! Most indicate that they fully understand why Venus and Serena continue to boycott the Indian Wells Tournament. So, why do the WTA officials still not “get it?”

Serena explained that the reason she and Venus have continued to boycott Indian Wells, is because she believes “it’s instructive, because I think we need to call out bad behavior, especially when it cuts across racial lines and is directed at our children” (Williams & Paisner, 2009, p. 82). She says it is about holding people accountable for their actions—I agree with Serena 100%. I have felt this way since the moment I saw what happened during that finals match. And I am even more convinced of that now, especially after reading this chapter by Serena! Even though Indian Wells has become a mandatory tournament (i.e., there are consequences for a player who does not play), Serena and Venus are adamant about not playing. According to Serena:

“I don’t care if they fine me a million dollars. I will not play there again. They can also suspend you from the next tournament, but my feeling is that if I go back to Indian Wells I’ll send the wrong message to little black girls who for whatever reason have chosen to look up to me… if they fine me, they fine me. If they suspend me, they suspend me” (p. 82).

Serena says she does not know whether their boycott will make a difference in the end—i.e., whether her stand will make a difference in the "ongoing fight for inequality." But as she points out, “you don’t get past racial tension by forgetting about it. You don’t just ignore this kind of prejudice and hope it goes away” (p. 83). She concludes that you make such stands “because you wouldn’t be here if someone didn’t make them for you, long before you were even born” (p. 83).

I believe it does—and will—make a difference that Venus and Serena continue to take a stand against the “bad behavior” at Indian Wells. And I also believe it is important for others to stand with them!
I do.
Will you?