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Venus Williams Returns to Indian Wells: An Exercise in Hope and Forgiveness

It’s March and that means it’s Women’s History Month – 31 days to celebrate and reflect on all the accomplishments women have achieved, but to also look to the future with a vision of equality for all – men and women, black and white, gay and straight. One particular history-maker, Venus Williams, recently penned a personal essay for The Players’ Tribune in which, through a reflection on the infamous “Indian Wells” incident 15 years ago, she examines her role as a tennis pioneer, a trailblazer and big sister to Serena and an icon to a generation of hopeful African-American girls.

The background: Although it happened more than 15 years ago, the Indian Wells incident remains a constant theme in the narrative of both Serena and Venus Williams’ prolific careers. During the 2001 tournament in California, Venus was forced to pull out of her semifinal match against her sister due to a knee injury. Some speculated that it was nothing more than a stunt orchestrated by their father, Richard Williams, to prevent the sisters from playing each other. Serena went on to beat Kim Clijsters in the finals and was booed throughout the match and during the trophy ceremony. As Venus and Richard walked to their seats to watch Serena play, they were also booed – and more. Thus began a more than 10-year boycott of the tournament by Venus and Serena and Indian Wells began to symbolize the racism that Venus and Serena have faced throughout their careers—whether it’s how they celebrate, how their bodies look, or the simple fact that they are better than almost anyone else who has ever played the game.

In the essay, Venus announces that she will return to play at Indian Wells this year; one year after Serena did the same. She says of Serena’s return in 2015, “And it was in that moment, seeing Serena welcomed with open arms last year at Indian Wells, that I think I fully and truly realized what being the big sister means. It means that, for all of the things I did first, and all of the times when I paved the way for Serena, the thing I can be most proud of is this time.”

Deeply personal and profoundly reflective, Venus’ essay resonates strongly across the spectrum – from the serious tennis fan to the simple believer in forgiveness. We applaud Venus for taking such an infamous and wounding incident and flipping the script, using Indian Wells to fuel a positive dialogue around the themes of family, hope and kindness. We are also especially proud to have Venus as a role model for the three in five African-American and Hispanic girls who aren’t playing sports. We are hopeful that, in some small way, many of those girls now feel like they belong just a little more because of Venus’ inability to accept the status quo.

In the bigger picture, Venus’ return to Indian Wells and this article underscores of our belief in sports for all and our four-decade long commitment to this very truth. The Women’s Sports Foundation believes that regardless of sex, means, race, religion, ability or sexual orientation one should be able to reap all the benefits we know sports provide and are proud to count Venus as a fellow believer in this ideal.