COMMENTARY | Twelve years later and Indian Wells remains tainted by a racist incident aimed at Venus and Serena Williams.
On Monday, March 4, the International Tennis Hall of Fame announced its latest inductees. Among them was Charlie Pasarell, the architect of the Indian Wells tournament, now known as the BNP Paribas Open.
Although a top player at UCLA, Pasarell's most notable achievement was building Indian Wells into the "Fifth Grand Slam." Monday evening his contributions to the game were acknowledged at the BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden. The exhibition featured No. 1-ranked Serena Williams against No. 2 Victoria Azarenka.
How ironic that Pasarell would share the stage with Williams, whose boycott of his beloved Indian Wells event continues to be as big a story as the tournament itself.
Influential and instrumental in building one of the most prestigious events in tennis, Pasarell could have avoided this stain on his otherwise pristine reputation had he handled the incident better. But instead of rebuking a wrong, Pasarell chose to minimize overt racism.
So once again, as the top players in the world take to the court this week, Indian Wells is deprived of the best female player in the game and arguably the greatest of all time.
It was 2001 when the Williams sisters were scheduled to meet in the semifinals. Hours before the match Venus withdrew due to tendonitis. Of course, fans were disappointed. Who wouldn't be?
But the next day when Serena faced Kim Clijsters in the final, the crowd displayed disdain, not mere disappointment. More than half of those attending booed Serena as she took the court. The boos grew louder when Venus and her father, Richard Williams, entered the stadium to take their seats.
Richard Williams said some people yelled racial slurs. When asked about the accusations, Venus said, "I heard what he heard."
One explanation for the bad behavior was that fans thought Richard Williams fixed matches between the two sisters and that Venus withdrew because he didn't want them to play each other. Even if fans believed this unsubstantiated rumor, nothing explains the vitriol aimed at Serena.
The crowd behaved deplorably, boisterously cheering Serena's double-faults and unforced errors. When she won, boos drowned out applause. Serena said she was crying inside the entire match.
Remember, we are talking tennis, a sport steeped in etiquette and protocol; a sport where even coughing during play can draw rolled eyes. Even commentator Mary Joe Fernandez said she had never witnessed anything like it. A "tense" situation was how Fernandez characterized it.
After the tournament, Pasarell said Serena had been treated unfairly. But he stopped short of calling the crowd's reaction racist.
Opting for the role of country-club board member, instead of tournament director, Pasarell sought to defuse Richard Williams' accusations. "If Richard says someone yelled something, maybe they did, but I know that's not Indian Wells people," Pasarell said.
What he needed to do was make an immediate public apology. Had he done so, perhaps the Williams sisters would have returned. After all, the tournament is played in the state they grew up in. Serena won her first title there.
A few years later, when the Williams sisters were dominating tennis and still avoiding his tournament, Pasarell and Indian Wells officials claimed to have made repeated attempts to "make it right."
What he failed to understand is that when a 19-year-old woman is publicly reduced to tears, booed insistently, and her family is the target of racial slurs, nothing short of an immediate public apology will ever suffice.
Indian Wells has survived and thrives as a major event. But, rightfully so, Pasarell will forever have the hallmark of his career associated with one of the ugliest moments in tennis history.
He has only himself to blame.
A former reporter for Sports Illustrated, Merlisa competes in United States Tennis Association league play. She wrote the foreword for Arthur Ashe, Jr.'s "A Hard Road to Glory: Track & Field".
Follow her on Twitter @merlisa.