“Serena and her big sister Venus brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a white background.’… Serena and Venus win sometimes, they lose sometimes, they’ve been booed and cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all—graphite against a sharp white background.”—Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
Tennis icon Serena Williams and her older sister Venus have spent their careers not only surviving but thriving in a hostile space: a white background that often threatened to swallow them whole. As Serena’s individual legend flourished, so did her antagonists in the aristocratic, imperious world of professional tennis. Biased judges, grotesque mockeries and other indignities (“crip walk”?) pock her career. While accumulating scars and enduring the burden imposed by the “white background,” the girl known for years as “Venus’s little sister” has also— remarkably—made herself into perhaps the greatest player to ever pick up a racket. The numbers speak for themselves: nineteen Grand Slam wins, fifty-six singles titles, along with twenty-two doubles championships, and all done with wicked flair in dazzling technicolor.
Now Serena Williams, for all she has accomplished, is attempting to enter a club even more restricted than those that host certain events on the WTA tour. It is reserved for the few defined by history as being “more than just an athlete.” Ms. Williams has announced both in a video message and the pages of Time magazine that she will be returning to play at the Indian Wells Tournament after a fourteen-year absence. Serena and Venus have famously boycotted Indian Wells since 2001 when “racist slurs” and “false allegations” of match fixing were levied against the Williams family. As she recounted in Time, their father, Richard, had “dedicated his whole life to prepping us for this incredible journey, and there he had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South.”
Serena Williams’ has decided, after years of apologies and invitations from the new directors at Indian Wells, to “forgive freely,” “follow [her] heart” and return to place she describes as “nightmare,” a place where at the age of 19 she spent “hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001…feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever—not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality.”