By Bill Simons
Once again, Billie Jean King got it right. Years ago, she claimed the Williams sisters provide “more drama, more bang for the buck, than anyone else in the sport.”
Simply put, these two can’t avoid controversy. Many in tennis sensed that some how, some way, Serena would not get through her prodigal-like return to the desert without an odd twist or hefty bombshell.
But there was no problem when the teary Serena returned to Indian Wells’ center court after a 14-year absence. Fans welcomed her with adoring applause, and a generous shower of love.
Phew, there were no boos or catcalls—such a feel-good moment. Serena thne adeptly avoided disaster during two of her four matches as she got off to sluggish starts against Monica Niculescu and Sloane Stephens before rallying to avoid what anticlimactic losses.
But, the most observed week in recent tennis history came to an abrupt, jarring halt just after the 2010 Indian Wells champion, Jelena Jankovic, reached the final. After all, controversy all but stalks Ms. Williams. What other athlete has gotten embroiled in such continued turmoil?
Before we even really knew her, Serena’s dad Richard insisted that she would not only be better than her older sister Venus, she would be the No. 1 player in the world. Then, as a 19 year old, the kid with the big grin on her face and the beads in her hair was berated by an unhappy Indian Wells crowd. Then against Justine Henin at the 2003 French Open into a nasty spat with Justine Henin, while a series of terrible calls during Serena’s 2004 US Open match against Jennifer Capriati soon led to the introduction of Hawk-Eye.
Five years later on the same court, Serena shouted at a US Open linesperson that she wished she could “take this —-ing ball and shove it down your —-ing throat,” and then in her next US Open, she messed up her surging comeback against Samantha Stosur when she yelled “C’mon” in the middle of a point. The list goes on. After she was dumped by an NFL her play surged and she had the best stretch of her career. But then her half-sister was murdered and in 2010, Serena wrecked her foot when she stepped on a glass in a Munich bar, and went on to overcome a related pulmonary embolism.
Not surprisingly, another bizarre chapter of the Serena saga would be written. Tonight Serena came out on court and announced she had withdrawn from her much-anticipated semi against the formidable Simona Halep, who had crushed her five months ago in Singapore. If last Friday was, as Stacey Allaster suggested, Serena’s “Martin Luther King moment,” tonight somehow brought to mind the day King himself decided amidst great controversy to tell demonstrators to retreat from Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge because conditions were not right.
We all know King had a dream. This was a nightmare. Just after a delirious Jankovic told the crowd, “I could jump up and down, I am so happy” the fans would not be so happy. Serena’s jolly fairy tale soon turned sour. Yes, the PA announcer Andrew Krazny was all but beaming when he referred to Serena as being triumphant and courageous. “Welcome home and welcome back to Indian Wells,” he said. The unsuspecting crowd cheered mightily.
Then, with little clarity, he told the crowd that he was going to embarrass Serena and told them that a few hours ago, when she was on her way to get an MRI on her knee, “You said to the driver, turn around and come back here …. so you could … talk to your fans … about what was going on. I envy that courage, and we love you Serena.”
Some booing rained down amid the cheers. Then Serena said, “Yeah, a couple of days ago in my practice I really injured my knee, and I fought through it and just kept playing. Today I was struggling to just even walk. It was really sad, because … four months ago I decided to start this journey and come back here at a place where I had so much success. And it has been a wonderful journey. And I have to say that I am so excited … I was able to come out here and build so many wonderful new memories. I can only promise to come back next year and play on this court … It will be my pleasure. Thank you so much.”
The announcer then gushed, “Serena, on behalf of everybody here at Indian Wells, we wish you a speedy recovery. We love you. This is always home, and know there is always an invitation for you.”
Fans again cheered. Kids cried out to the departing champion, “We love you so much!” Explanations were made, while the Tennis Channel quickly aired a biography of Sloane Stephens, and ESPN began replays of this afternoon’s no-nonsense men’s semis.
“Not a storybook ending at all—rats,” quipped Mary Carillo. But if the handling of the debacle 14 years ago was far too sour, and the handling of this year’s pullout was a too sugary sweet. It was all shaped into a package with an upbeat PR spin. But Serena’s withdrawal was just too eerie to be packaged in an “all is swell, hunky dory” ‘tude. Fourteen years ago, a Williams sister had pulled out of what had promised to be a dramatic semi against a formidable foe because of a knee injury. Now the other Williams sister had done the same thing. Go figure.
Certainly there was no evidence of foul play or deception. But considering the context and the coincidence, the handling of the situation could have been far more sober and less celebratory.
This was not a good moment for Williams, for tennis, or sports. No, this was not being told that Pete Rose had bet on on baseball, that Lance Armstrong won all those Tour de France races while being juiced up, or that Barry Bonds had set the home run record after reportedly taking gobs of steroids.
Serena didn’t cheat. Unless you are like the legendary Willis Reed, who played his final NBA game on one leg, an athlete cannot complete while injured. Many had wondered about Serena’s knee before and during the tournament. In her press conference, Williams said she felt a sharp pain while serving in practice a couple of days ago, that she had a great deal of inflammation, that she got a cortisone shot, and her recovery should only be a matter of two or three days.
Still, tonight there just didn’t seem to be a sense of true sorrow, a feeling of genuine remorse. Yes, as Serena said after her first match, she did not have to hold up the trophy here. She had won already just by showing up. But this withdrawal, no matter how sensible, left a shadow. Questions lingered. A magical moment, a story of redemption, that we all had just embraced, now seemed far less wondrous.
Then again, with Serena there’s always a twist.