It's easy to forget that this tournament was once a happy place for Serena Williams and the scene of many milestones early in her remarkable career.
In 1997, at 15, she earned her first professional tennis triumph at what's now known as the BNP Paribas Open, teaming with older sister Venus to reach the quarterfinals in doubles after she had lost in the singles qualifying round. She recorded her first significant singles victory here in 1999, when she defeated Steffi Graf in three sets in the final. A few months later Serena won her first U.S. Open title, the initial link in a splendid chain of 21 Grand Slam singles titles.
Those achievements at Indian Wells were overshadowed by an ugly incident that occurred in 2001 after Venus withdrew from a semifinal match against Serena and cited a knee injury, though there was speculation that their father, Richard, was trying to manipulate which sister would win. The crowd booed, cheated of a much-anticipated event, and Serena was jeered during her final match against Kim Clijsters. Richard Williams claimed he was subjected to racial slurs during the final, and the sisters began a self-imposed exile from the tournament.
It wasn't until Serena read about the life of statesman Nelson Mandela and the forgiveness he showed to those who had jailed him that she applied that principle to her life and returned here last year, to great applause. "I think for anyone to go through that and then to really forgive, I knew that I wanted to try to do something as well," she said at a news conference Thursday.
Venus needed more time to make her peace. Finally, she too will return, seeded No. 10 when she faces qualifier Kurumi Nara of Japan in a second-round match Friday afternoon. A few hours later, top-seeded Serena will face qualifier Laura Siegemund of Germany.
Having Venus at this tournament brings the sisters back to their shared beginnings, when this was a place they could feel comfortable and happy.
"It means a lot. We're really excited to be here and I'm excited for her to hopefully have the experience I had last year. And it's the only reason I was able to come back," Serena said. "It's really cool. This is kind of where everything started for us. Like I always said, this was such a big event for us early in our careers. I remember we both played qualifying here in '97, '98. A long time ago. It's been a place that for us really has meant a lot and we had that one memory and we both had to get rid of that."
They spoke at length last year about one or both of them returning to Indian Wells. "I would never have come if she was like, 'I don't think you should come and I don't think it's a good idea,'" Serena said. "I remember saying it was hard for her because she was dealing with a lot physically with her illnesses and she had played a lot already and it wasn't good timing."
This year, the timing was better. Venus told the Players' Tribune the hurt she had felt so vividly since 2001 was soothed when she saw Serena greeted with applause in her return to the place where they had vowed never to set foot in again.
"It was in that moment, seeing Serena welcomed with open arms last year at Indian Wells, that I think I fully and truly realized what being the big sister means," Venus wrote. "It means that, for all of the things I did first, and all of the times when I paved the way for Serena, the thing I can be most proud of is this time, when Serena paved the way for me."
This will be the second tournament of the year for Serena, who lost to Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open final. Her game, she said, is "OK," though what's OK to her is a level most other players can't come close to touching. "I'm always a little bit nervous coming into any tournament," she said. "It's all right. Hopefully."
And being back where so much of her career began is right too, and almost like resuming a familiar routine.
"I'm definitely a little bit more relaxed," she said. "Does it feel like a normal tournament? Definitely a lot more than last year. We're making strides."
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