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Serena Williams had a powerful response to racism she faced at Indian Wells 20 years ago: Success
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Serena Williams had a powerful response to racism she faced at Indian Wells 20 years ago: Success

'I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people—mostly older, mostly white—standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob.'

Cover Image Source: Serena Williams at the Indian wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/ALLSPORT
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As Serena Williams prepares to walk away from the tennis court to focus on "other things that are important" to her, we find ourselves reflecting on the many moments that defined the 23-time grand slam winner's illustrious career. While the list of titles, honors and trophies she has won over the course of 27 years is what often takes the spotlight when talking about Williams' history with the sport, it is undeniable that her impact on women's sports as a whole has been far greater. From consistently advocating to close the pay gap and achieve parity both within tennis and further afield to fighting against racism and body shaming, Williams transformed the game in more ways than one.

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One defining moment that comes to mind from the early days of Williams' career is from the 2001 Indian Wells tournament in California where she, her sister and their father became the targets of racist abuse, epithets and overwhelming boos from the unfriendly audience. According to Insider, Venus and Serena Williams were set to face each other in the semifinal of the tournament that year when 20 minutes ahead of its scheduled start time, the elder Williams pulled out of the match due to a tendonitis injury.

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Venus' last-minute withdrawal left tennis enthusiasts shocked and disappointed, with some fans and players—including Elena Dementieva—accusing the sisters' father, Richard Williams, of match-fixing and predetermining which of his daughters would win their head-to-head matchups. When Serena stepped onto the court to play Kim Clijsters in the finals of the tournament a few days later, she was met by overwhelming boos from the crowd and cheers every time she faltered. "I stepped onto the court a couple minutes before [my opponent], and right away people started booing," Serena recalled in her 2009 autobiography, "On the Line." "They were loud, mean, aggressive... pissed!"

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"What got me most of all was that it wasn't just a scattered bunch of boos," she continued. "It wasn't coming from just one section. It was like the whole crowd got together and decided to boo all at once. The ugliness was just raining down on me, hard. I didn't know what to do." Williams shared in the book that she was initially taken aback by the audience's response at the time, especially since she believed that "tennis fans are typically a well-mannered bunch." She was also confused by the crowd's response, she recalled, as she couldn't figure out what she'd done to become the subject of their ire. It was only later that she made the connection to her sister's injury from the round prior.

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"I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people—mostly older, mostly white—standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob," Williams wrote. "I don't mean to use such inflammatory language to describe the scene, but that's really how it seemed from where I was down on the court. Like these people were gonna come looking for me after the match. I wanted to cry, but I didn't want to give these people the satisfaction." It didn't take long for her to realize that race played a role in the abuse, the star athlete shared in her autobiography. The racial slurs hurled at her and her family left her feeling physically unsafe, she recalled.

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"Just before the start of play, my dad and Venus started walking down the aisle to the players' box by the side of the court, and everybody turned and started to point and boo at them," Williams wrote. "It was mostly just a chorus of boos, but I could still hear shouts of [n-word] here and there. I even heard one angry voice telling us to go back to Compton. It was unbelievable." Although the overwhelming stress and emotional turmoil caused by the hostility that day had a lasting impact on her, Williams' response to the hate at that moment was a glimpse of what the rest of her career would look like. 

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Williams—who was just 19 years old at the time—showed tremendous mental fortitude to win the final 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 and take home the tournament's trophy. After the match, she and her sister quietly boycotted the event for 14 years. During this period, Williams managed to etch her name in tennis folklore as one of the greatest players ever to have walked the Earth and send a message to all those who took issue with a powerful Black woman on the tennis court: She's here to win. 

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