In 2001, a tennis phenom named Serena Williams was booed by a crowd that yelled racial slurs during a tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. But times and minds have changed, and 14 years later, Williams has returned to the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells—this time to the sounds of cheers and applause. This time as the No.1 female tennis player in the world. But, in the wake of her tearful return, Serena has had a tough time managing her emotions on the court, as well as her game. Slow starts have plagued the top-seeded player, and Friday’s match against Romania’s Simona Halep will be Serena’s toughest test yet.
With “a new understanding of the meaning of forgiveness,” Williams announced to the world that she’d be returning to Indian Wells, now more driven than ever. And what a time to return: at the pinnacle of her career with 19 grand slam singles titles—second only to Steffi Graf—and the most dominant female tennis player in the Open Era.
With her return, Williams addressed a question that may have lurked in the back of her mind for more than a decade: had her refusal to compete in Indian Wells sent the message that she had let the naysayers win? Although courageous, Serena’s return meant that she was essentially putting her Championship belt on the line. She may not be the defending champion (Flavia Pennetta was), but the top seed is always a heavy favorite to hoist the trophy. And now, with the world watching because of her history at Indian Wells, Williams is under more pressure than ever to take the title.
Serena faces these challenges without her usual support team. In early March, news broke that she and her longtime hitting partner, Sascha Bajin, had parted ways. Bajin’s departure was deduced through a Twitter exchange between Williams and Bajin. In it, Serena jokingly told Bajin and rival Victoria Azarenka not to have too much fun working together. In his response, Bajin thanked Williams for their years together, writing “what a ride it was.”
And what a ride Indian Wells is proving to be. So far, Serena hasn’t found her A-game, and often the person she fights most is herself. With her shots not consistently finding their marks and her first serve streaky, Williams has experienced a seesaw of service breaks and emotions. But just like she found the resolve to return to Indian Wells, this champion is likely to continue to find a way to win.
Kevin Don Porter is a contributor for CBS Local and AXS.com. He is also the author of two suspense novels, MISSING and OVER THE EDGE. You can visit his website at www.kevindonporter.com.