The dramatic return of Serena Williams at Indian Wells has been the biggest news story in tennis in recent days. Before her 2001 final against Kim Clijsters, an ugly incident took place. Though Serena won that match, she lost her heart and the Williams family vowed to never return to Indian Wells ever again. In the intervening 14 years, neither Serena nor Venus has played at Indian Wells Masters. Somehow her return in 2015 has been engineered by intense, behind-the-scenes talks amongst Serena, WTA and Indian Wells Tennis Garden officials. On Friday, when took to the court to face Monica Niculescu in her first match of the last 14 years, the event went down in Indian Wells tennis history as the most anticipated second-round match. The stadium was packed with crowd and celebrities including Serena’s mother Oracene. Sitting behind one baseline were; Indian Wells owner and Oracle founder Larry Ellison, tennis legend John McEnroe and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. It proved to be a tough game for the emotional Serena Williams, who finally came through 7-5, 7-5. In another incident of the day, Mardy Fish of USA returned to an ATP event after nearly 19 months. Fish fought a battle with a debilitating heart condition and an acute anxiety disorder that kept him out of action for long. Fish played against fellow American Ryan Harrison and though he lost the match, he proved a point to himself. For Fish, it wasn’t just an ordinary comeback from injury but a narrative of reclaiming life in a valiant effort for personal triumph juxtaposed to countless similar cases, where others have been forced to surrender.
First rumors of Serena’s return were heard after she suffered a fourth-round loss to Ana Ivanovic in the 2014 Australian Open. She had met Larry Ellison and the two had reached an agreement. The CEO of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden Raymond Moore said that despite the events of 2001, Serena was allowed to decide for herself and deserves all credit to close an ugly chapter. Her decision to participate in 2015 Indian Wells was announced 4 days after her 19th Grand Slam victory against Sharapova at the Australian Open.
There are various versions of what really happened in 2001 but there is one reported fact concerning Elena Dementieva, whom Venus Williams had just beaten to meet sister Serena in the semifinal. When asked on her prediction of the match between the two sisters, Dementieva said it would depend on their father Richard. The remark flew around like flames of fire and although Dementieva said she was joking, the damage was done. Afterwards, when Venus withdrew due to injury, Serena entered the final without playing the semifinal. In the final, Serena beat Kim Clijsters in three sets but the entire Williams family including Serena was booed and mocked by the crowd. Some remarks were full of racist overtones and suggestions pointed at Richard as a manipulator. The family never returned to Indian Wells after that.
On Friday, when Serena played her comeback match against Romanian Monica Niculescu, the world no.1 was a bundle of nerves to begin with. But slowly and steadily, she fought back the tricky Niculescu to register a 7-5, 7-5 win and the entire arena erupted with a deafening applause. This match marked a grand welcome for one of the world’s greatest tennis players in the Open Era.
In another emotion-laden comeback, America’s Mardy Fish took on compatriot Ryan Harrison after nearly 1½ absence from tennis. Fish suffered from heart ailments that followed anxiety disorders. But the former top 10 player proved a point despite his 4-6, 6-4, 6-7 loss to Harrison. Fish said later that wins and losses were less relevant than getting to this moment, which was more important than the victory itself.
In some of the other matches on Thursday and Friday, Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov beat Frank Dancevic 6-2, 7-5; another Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky shocked American Sam Query 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 to set up the second-round clash with no.9 seed Tomas Berdych and three other Americans; Donald Young, Steve Johnson and Jack Sock moved up by beating Pablo Carreno Busta, Marcel Granollers and Yen-Hsun Lu respectively.
Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman edged out Jerzy Janowicz 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 to set up a second-round meeting with Roger Federer; Dutchman Igor Sijsling beat Filip Krajinovic to clash with Rafael Nadal next; Andrey Golubev defeated Germany’s Dustin Brown 6-7, 6-3, 7-6; Robin Haase beat Alex Bolt to meet Stan Wawrinka in the second round and Italian Simone Bolelli beat Thomaz Bellucci to set up a clash with 7th seed Milos Raonic. Australian teenager Nick Kyrgios debuted at Indian Wells with a 6-4, 7-5 victory over American Denis Kundla and will now take on world no.11 Grigor Dimitrov. Others, who advanced to the second round included Malek Jaziri, Victor Hanescu, Michael Berrer and Martin Klizan.