LOS ANGELES — After 14 years away, Serena Williams is ready to forgive Indian Wells.
The world's No. 1 women's tennis player said Wednesday that she will play in the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, next month, ending a personal boycott that began when she was booed at the 2001 event.
Williams had repeatedly vowed never to return to the large two-week tournament in the Palm Springs area. She announced her change of heart in a column for Time.com.
“I play for the love of the game,” Williams wrote. “And it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015.”
The 19-time Grand Slam champion wrote broadly about the “undercurrent of racism” that her family has felt in tennis during her career, but rarely more acutely than during the 2001 semifinal and final at Indian Wells.
“In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid,” Williams wrote, adding that the experience has “haunted me for a long time.”
Williams was scheduled to play in the semifinal against her older sister. When Venus pulled out of the match 20 minutes before the start with tendinitis, Serena was shocked by the resultant booing and offended by subsequent accusations that the sisters' matches were fixed by their father, Richard.
Serena, then 19 years old, faced even more boos while winning the final against Kim Clijsters. Her father later said he heard racial slurs in the crowd, “sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South,” Williams wrote.
“It has been difficult for me to forget spending hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001, driving back to Los Angeles feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever — not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality,” Williams wrote. “Emotionally, it seemed easier to stay away.”
Raymond Moore, the CEO of the tournament and the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, said organizers were “thrilled” by Williams' decision to accept a wild card for the event.
“We know our fans will welcome her for the magnificent champion that she is, and we really look forward to watching her compete again,” Moore said.
The BNP Paribas Open, which rivals the U.S. Open as North America's most impressive tennis event, will be held March 11-22 in the Coachella Valley two hours east of Los Angeles.
Virtually every top men's and women's player in the world enters the tournament on the lavishly refurbished grounds of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, where Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison has created a beautiful shrine to the sport.
Last year, Serena was the only women's player ranked in the top 24 who skipped the event, which has more than $5.1 million in prize money for the women this year.
Stacey Allaster, the WTA chairman and CEO, echoed the tournament's excitement.
“This is fantastic news for fans,” Allaster said. “She is coming back with a great approach by connecting with fans in support of an incredible cause, the Equal Justice Initiative, to positively impact the lives of others. Serena has been missed at the tournament and I know she will be warmly received by the fans at Indian Wells.”
Williams' decision creates a homecoming for a California product. The Williams sisters grew up partly in Southern California, first learning the sport under their parents' tutelage in Compton.
Williams won her first pro match at the Indian Wells tournament, playing doubles with Venus in 1997. Her victory over Steffi Graf in the 1999 singles final was “my first big tournament win,” she wrote.
After repeatedly vowing not to return, Williams has said she began to change her mind in recent years, influenced partly by a film about Nelson Mandela and his dedication to reconciliation.
Williams nearly returned to the tournament last year, putting her name on the entry list in late January. She withdrew from the event 16 days later, citing a back injury from the Australian Open.
The 33-year-old Williams had no injury problems in Melbourne this year while steamrolling to her 19th Grand Slam title and sixth Australian Open trophy, closing in on Graf's record 22 Grand Slam titles in the Open era.
“Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story, and I am a part of the tournament's story as well,” Williams wrote. “Together we have a chance to write a different ending.”