The Desert Adventures of Venus Williams

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Bill Simons

THE DESERT ADVENTURES OF VENUS WILLIAMS: In a flash, bad guys become good guys. Yesterday’s villains somehow morph into today’s heroes. In tennis, change is a constant.

We recall that once when John McEnroe was having one of his unending tirades, fans were livid. But then Mac unleashed a breathless, twisting overhead winner and the throng promptly roared in delight.

Jimmy Connors was long the US Open’s villain-du-jour. Crowds loved to hate him – until they didn’t in 1991, when he went on a magical run. Czech communists claimed 1975 defector Martina Navratilova was a selfish, money-hungry traitor. Eleven years later, she returned to Prague as the people’s hero. In 2021, Daniil Medvedev enraged US Open fans at Louis Armstrong Stadium. Days later, on Ashe Stadium, he was hailed as a gallant, battling underdog.

And then there are the Williams sisters. Jon Wertheim commented, “Serena’s ‘arrogance’ has been recast as ‘confidence.’ Her ‘brute force’ has been upgraded to ‘sleek power.’…The consummate outsider has become the sport’s figurehead.”

All this brings us to Venus’s various adventures in Indian Wells. Few have had a more sweet-sour relationship with a tournament. At first, Venus, who was reared just 125 miles from Indian Wells in Compton, emerged in the desert in 1997 as a spindly, wide-eyed prodigy who was about to revolutionize the game. Her daddy was bigger than life. The 16-year-old’s entourage (including 14-year old Serena) had her back. Venus beat French Open champ Iva Majoli to score her first-ever win over a Top Ten player before she fell to Lindsay Davenport in the quarterfinals. The buzz was loud, and a new fan base came to the tourney in its resort setting. 

The next year, young Venus made a run to the semis, where she lost to 16-year-old Martina Hingis, who soon would become the youngest WTA No. 1 ever.

Then, in 2001, in perhaps the most tumultuous weekend in tennis history, came a devastating perfect storm. A gossipy National Enquirer story claimed that Venus’s dad Richard was fixing the results of the matches between Venus and Serena.

And, as fate would have it, the sisters were slated to face off in the semis. But the knee tendonitis that had been bothering Venus for weeks reportedly flared, and she defaulted. Fans were furious. There were many hot takes. Clearly, claimed many, the fix was in.

The next day, during Serena’s final against Kim Clijsters, the crowd took out their fury on 19-year-old Serena, and on Venus, who was sitting with her dad near the court. Some claimed that the crowd’s jeers were inconsequential or thoroughly justifiable. That it didn’t matter whether the players were white, black or green. That race had nothing to do with it. That fans who’d paid big money for a marquee semi and had been stiffed without much of an explanation were color blind. Others countered, “Come on! They were howling at a 19-year-old kid [Serena] for over two hours whenever she made a mistake, and that continued even into the awards ceremony. It was brutal.”

“Funny,” some claimed, “I never saw a crowd do that to Chrissie Evert. And you’re telling me race didn’t have anything to do with it?”

The painful incident has now receded far into the rear-view mirror. Still, increasingly hazy opinions vary. What is clear is that, despite losing vaults of money and massive ranking points, Serena boycotted the tourney for 14 years, and Venus, who reportedly was even more upset about it all, stayed away for 15 years. What a void – the sisters’ stance was the most impactful boycott in tennis history.

But time heals. And when Venus finally returned to Indian Wells in 2016 it was as if she were a prodigal daughter – she was bathed in adoring cheers. And in 2018 she made a stirring run to the semis. In her last Indian Wells appearance in 2019, she lost to Angie Kerber in the quarters.

Now, after playing only one match since Wimbledon last year, V, who’s ranked a very un-Venus-like No. 487, is returning once more. Incredibly, the 43-year-old, who lost badly in the first round of the US Open, is set for her 30th year on the circuit. In recent years, her mantra – “This old cat still has a lot of tricks up her sleeve” – has been clear – and a tad defiant.

Venus has never made it to an Indian Wells final, and Serena’s only won once. Still, Venus’s backers are thrilled that she’s back at Indian Wells, where she’ll play a qualifier in the first round. And, needless to say, her legions of fans are hoping she can use Indian Wells as a springboard for a last hurrah, while others wonder whether this will be the last time we’ll see the icon on court in the desert.

HALEP AWARDED APPEAL: Former world No. 1 Simona Halep will return to the courts, as the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced the two-time Slam winner’s doping ban from four years to nine months, meaning she can resume for the first time since 2022 after she failed a doping test at the US Open. Halep, 32, tested positive for the banned substance Roxadustat, an anti-anemia drug that also stimulates the body to produce more of the natural hormone EPO, which helps increase endurance.

RAFA, VENUS AND ANDY IN THE TWILIGHT: We presume Novak Djokovic, 36, is not about to retire. But three legends, Venus Williams, 43, Rafa Nadal 37, and Andy Murray, 36, are all deep into the twilight of their careers and on the cusp of retirement. Will this be the last Indian Wells for them? All three have moderately easy opening rounds, but they could face considerable foes in the second round.

Venus first faces a qualifier, but she might then play Veronika Kudermetova. Rafa faces the hard-hitting Canadian Milos Raonic, who reached the Wimbledon finals. The Spaniard has an 8-2 winning record against the Canadian, and if he prevails he’ll face the considerable Holger Rune, the No. 7 seed. Andy Murray first takes on a qualifier, and if he wins he’ll play No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev.

BOULTER BRISTLES OVER PAY GAP: Katie Boulter won the WTA 500 San Diego Open Sunday against Marta Kostyuk, but said the WTA needs to continue to “bridge the gap” in prize money, because her boyfriend received $270,000 more for winning the same level men’s event in Mexico. Alex De Minaur took home $412,555 after his win over Casper Ruud. Katie, the British No. 1, came back from a set down to defeat Marta Kostyuk and win $142,000, and is now career-high No. 27 in the world.

RUBLEV’S MODEST REDEMPTION: Andrey Rublev has been awarded his ranking points and prize money from the Dubai Championships following his appeal over the punishment he received for his default in the semifinals for yelling at a lines judge. Rublev will still have to pay a $36,400 fine, the ATP ruled on Monday.

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