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Healing is for real as Serena Williams returns to Indian Wells

Serena Williams, who had boycotted Indian Wells tournament since being booed in 2001, is cheered in return

If time heals all, then the clock began to tick effectively and appropriately Friday night for Serena Williams and Indian Wells.

If you want to get a bit overly dramatic, you can roll out the cliches. Williams has officially moved on. She has put this behind her and so has Indian Wells.

Interestingly, that might mean the city as well as the tournament, the BNP Paribas Open.

The town somehow seemed to share in whatever stigma actually came out of the 2001 tournament incident, where Williams was booed in the final while beating Kim Clijsters. The "whys" behind that booing have been debated for 14 years.

Were they racially motivated or competitively motivated? Where the fans striking out at the color of Williams' skin, or at the perception that her father, Richard, had somehow orchestrated Venus Williams' default in a semifinal so the sisters wouldn't have to play each other?

Or were there some fans at the final who felt stung by having lost out on seeing a Serena-Venus match and getting doubles, at a hefty ticket price, instead?

Those have been the questions. The controversy has never really gone away, especially in March in the desert, when Serena Williams chose to keep skipping the event.

Now, after Friday night, Williams herself sent the message to put all this in the rearview mirror. She did so by coming out and playing, fighting hard to win against a quirky and dangerous opponent.

The final score was Williams over Monica Niculescu of Romania, 7-5, 7-5.

It was a two-hour cleansing, with Niculescu slicing and chopping every forehand and many backhands and Williams wondering what she'd gotten herself into this time.

"I never played anybody like that before," said Williams, who had 48 unforced errors. "I was just struggling to get rhythm."

Let's put that in further perspective:

She may be the No. 1 tennis player in the world, with 19 major titles, and expected to breeze through the early going in tournaments. But when she walked onto the Indian Wells Tennis Garden court at 7 p.m., she wasn't just playing a first-round match. She was playing, by her own admission, with several hundred pounds of emotion on her back.

When she announced her return to Indian Wells, she did so in a first-person essay in Time magazine. In it, she described going to the locker room after enduring the boos and winning the tournament 14 years ago, and sitting there and crying.

She was 19 then.

She described her entrance back onto the court she had left in anguish and controversy 14 years ago as follows: "I don't know what I felt. I was excited, almost overwhelmed.

"I don't feel like I need to win this tournament. I feel like this might be the greatest win of my career."

That, of course, may be hyperbole of the moment.

More meaningful, perhaps, was what she said on the court to the sold-out, 16,100-seat stadium, and in interviews afterward.

"I want to create new memories," she said.

Most people are all in on that. Indian Wells. Tournament officials. Tennis in general.

Friday night should probably be termed a Band-Aid. In a year or two, the wound may be mostly healed, as healed as anything with a hint of racism can heal.

All the firsts are gone now. First point. First game won. First match won. First verbal gesture to the crowd.

"Thank you, thank you all," she said, as she departed the court after the victory.

Her next match will be more about tennis, and less about sociology. That gap will increase with every outing here.

The media deluge that descended on this match and this story, searching for angles from Ferguson, Mo., to a tennis fan rebirth, will take their cameras to the next sexy story. News these days is like the collective attention span of most of the people consuming it.

This story sold some papers and got some web hits and boosted some TV ratings. It even presented Nike a chance, in a full page ad on the back of The Times sports section Friday morning, to wax lyrically while parlaying innuendo into a great marketing opportunity.

What a great business opportunity. Get on the popular side of an issue and also sell some shoes.

In a few days, Serena Williams and her return to Indian Wells will be oh, so yesterday. Not completely forgotten, mind you. Nor should it be.

But when the leading lady in the drama says, both by her actions and words, that we should move on, then we should move on.

So here's the sports news.

Serena Williams, who has practiced recently in a heavy knee brace, and who hadn't played a competitive tennis match in five weeks, since she played for the U.S. in the Fed Cup, finally got past a tough opening opponent by converting on her fourth match point.

The crowd loved her, as all knew it would.

Her next match will be Sunday. They'll be lots written. About her tennis.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Twitter: @dwyrelatimes

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