Serena Williams will end 14-year boycott and return to Indian Wells

Serena Williams to return to Indian Wells after a 14-year absence stemming from controversial crowd reaction

After a 14-year absence stemming from a controversial crowd reaction and a vow that she would never return, Serena Williams has decided she will play again at Indian Wells.

The world's No. 1 women's tennis player and recent winner of the Australian Open, her 19th major title, said that she is allowing bygones to be bygones. She has accepted a wild card from tournament officials for the annual BNP Paribas tournament in the Southern California desert, March 11-22.

"It is with love in my mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness," Williams said, "that I will proudly return to Indian Wells."

Her 14-year-absence was basically a boycott.

It stemmed from a women's final match in 2001, where she defeated Belgium's Kim Clijsters for her second Indian Wells title. Her first was in 1999, when she beat Steffi Graf in the final.

When she took the court for that 2001 final, a 19-year-old with an already-building legacy and following, she was greeted with a smattering of boos. Clearly upset, she lost the first set.

The controversy over that incident, and the causes of it, have been an ongoing story in tennis ever since.

One theory is that fans were angry she got to the final via the default of her sister, Venus Williams, who pulled out of the semifinal, saying she had tendinitis, just minutes before her match with Serena. The theory is that many of the same fans there for the final had expensive tickets for the Venus-Serena semifinal and were angry they paid for something they never got to see.

Another theory is that parts of the crowd believed rumors that Richard Williams, the sisters' father, had long orchestrated which sister would do well in which tournament, and, in this one, dictated Venus' default.

The third theory was uglier. It held that the Palm Springs-area crowd was racist and showing so with their boos.

That theory became an accusation a few days after the tournament ended, when Richard Williams pointed to it. He had been in the crowd when the boos were heard and told a reporter from USA Today, Doug Smith, that he thought the crowd's reaction was racially motivated.

In ensuing years, despite being hit by large fines from the women's tour — which has a series of mandatory tournaments of which Indian Wells is one — Serena and Venus have publicly held to their vow that they would not return.

Venus Williams, still prominent on the tour at age 34, a year older than her sister, is not entered at Indian Wells this year.

Serena Williams said in recent interviews, "It has been difficult to forget, spending those hours, crying in the Indian Wells locker room."

Ray Moore, tournament chief executive, said Wednesday, "We know our fans will welcome her for the magnificent champion she is."

Follow Bill Dwyre on Twitter @DwyreLATimes

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