Serena Williams brushes off Indian Wells past, having learned to ‘accept you for who you are’

'You are always going to have fans and always going to have people who aren't as big of a fan' says Serena Williams on her return to the WTA Indian Wells tournament.

Serena Williams answers questions at a media session on Thursday ahead of the WTA Indian Wells tournament. Mark J Terrill / AP / March 13, 2015
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Serena Williams lifted the lid on her 2001 Indian Wells final Thursday, calling it one of the darkest days in her professional tennis career.

“I remember sitting down and praying,” Williams said Thursday. “I think I was losing in the first set and I told myself I don’t want to win this match.

“I just wanted to get through this moment. Not win the match, get through and get off the court pretty much.”

The world No 1 said she is trying to forget the events of 2001, when the 19-year-old Serena was booed during the final by tennis fans who accused her and her sister Venus of rigging a match.

Williams said Thursday at the Tennis Garden stadium that she had to let go of the past before she could allow herself to end her 14-year boycott of the Indian Wells tournament.

“Before, I wasn’t at a point where I was ready to come back to Indian Wells,” Williams said.

“I didn’t think I would come back to be honest. I felt like I did what I needed to do. I had finished my career in terms of being here.”

Serena defended the sisters’ sense of fair play, saying she has always tried to stick to the rules and is too good an athlete to need to take shortcuts to victory.

“I was a teenager,” Serena said of 2001. “I have had a tremendous amount of integrity from the day I stepped out on the court as a professional until today.

“Even in doubles if Venus or I touch the ball we say, ‘that’s not our point’.

“We clearly are incredible athletes and our whole career we have focussed on that.”

The reigning Australian Open champion and top seed is one of 32 seeded players who received a first-round bye at the joint ATP Masters and WTA tournament that runs for two weeks in the California desert. She will play her first match Friday night against Monica Niculescu.

Serena is competing for the first time since her self-imposed exile began after she won that emotional final over Kim Clijsters 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. She also claimed the Indian Wells title in 1999.

The 2001 drama began when Venus Williams pulled out of their highly anticipated semi-final at the last minute, complaining of a sore knee.

Because most of the fans had already taken their seats, many reacted in anger, loudly booing the announcement. Serena was then booed during the final against Clijsters. Venus, who attended the match with her father Richard, was also jeered by the crowd.

Even the peers of the Williams’ sisters had their suspicions back in the day. Upon learning that Serena and Venus would square off in the semis, Elena Dementieva said at the time it would be Richard who would determine the winner of the match.

Five-time grand slam winner Martina Hingis, who is competing in doubles in Indian Wells, used to say the outcome of their matches is a “family affair”.

Serena and Venus have met 20 times since Indian Wells in 2001 with Serena winning 13 matches. Venus won their most recent encounter last year in Montreal 6-7 (7/9), 6-2, 6-3. They have never had another walkover between them.

Serena feels some of the criticism she has faced was racially motivated.

“I look forward to stepping out on the court and letting the whole world know it doesn’t matter what you face. If it is something that wasn’t right, hurt you, hurt your family, you just come out and be strong.”

Friday will mark the first career meeting between Williams and Romania’s Niculescu.

Serena wondered Thursday what kind of reception she will receive from the crowd, but said that in the end, the most important thing was to accept herself.

“I think it is really important for you to accept you for who you are. You are always going to have fans and always going to have people who aren’t as big of a fan.

“If you go through your life wanting everyone to accept you, that can cause a whole other set of issues.”

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