INDIAN WELLS: Serena Williams returns to the WTA and ATP event at Indian Wells this week for the first time since 2001 while defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic is seeking his fourth title.
World number one Williams, who captured her 19th Grand Slam singles crown at this year’s Australian Open, announced last month in Time magazine she was ending her boycott of the tournament over racial insults from her 2001 run to the title.
Williams won the Indian Wells crown in 1999 at age 17 and again in 2001 when she rallied to beat Kim Clijsters in the final after a controversial semi-final walkover when her sister Venus, who is not returning, pulled out rather than play Serena.
Many spectators felt robbed of the chance to see the siblings play, thinking it a move mandated by their father Richard to enable Serena to save precious energy for the final, and hecklers expressed frustration and anger so strenuously that Williams struggled under the verbal venom.
“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 in Time.
“I said a few times that I would never play there again. And believe me, I meant it. I admit it scared me. What if I walked onto the court and the entire crowd booed me? The nightmare would start all over.”
Williams says she has grown to forgive those whose actions kept her away for so long.
“I’m just following my heart on this one,” Williams wrote. “Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story and I am a part of the tournament’s story as well. Together we have a chance to write a different ending.”
Only Czech number four Petra Kvitova, the reigning Wimbledon champion, and 17th-ranked Venus Williams are absent from the top 20 on the women’s side, where play begins on Wednesday.
Serena and Russia’s second-ranked Maria Sharapova, like all of the 32 top seeds, will have a first-round bye and start later in the week. Italy’s 16th-ranked Flavia Pennetta is the defending women’s champion.
On the men’s side, Djokovic hopes to claim back-to-back crowns in the California desert after claiming his fifth Australian Open title, and eighth major singles trophy, this year at Melbourne.
The 27-year-old Serbian star also won Indian Wells finals in 2011 and 2008 before conquering Swiss icon Roger Federer in last year’s final.
Also bidding for a fourth Indian Wells championship is Spain’s Rafael Nadal, who won in 2007, 2009 and 2013.
Federer seeks his fifth Indian Wells trophy after sweeping titles from 2004-2006 and taking the top prize in 2012.
Since 2003, the only Indian Wells champion not from among that star trio is 2010 winner Ivan Ljubicic, although 2009 runner-up Andy Murray of Britain hopes to change that.