All-American: Venus & Serena

Episode 4:Rumors

TV Journalist: Venus Williams press conference is underway after her straight set win in the semifinals. Let's listen in to that. 


Cecil Harris: In July 2008, Venus Williams won her match in the semifinals of Wimbledon. And almost immediately afterward, reporters wanted to talk about one thing her upcoming match against her sister, Serena. Venus was slated to play Serena in the Wimbledon final in two days after a cordial exchange about the matchup. A reporter asked the question that dramatically changed the tone of the press conference. 


TV Journalist: Some some have noted that, believe it or not, there's still a skepticism in some parts of the public in terms of one  Williams sister plays another. But I have it correctly just said that she felt the outcome of the final would be a result of a family decision. Could you talk to the public in terms of of what happens when Venus plays Serena and whether there's any any family decision, any discussion beforehand? 


Venus Williams: Well, the main thing is that I find the question pretty offensive because I'm extremely professional in everything that I do on and off the court. Can I contribute my best to my sport? And I also have a ton of respect for myself and my family. So any mention of that is extremely disrespectful for who I am and what I stand for and my family. So that's pretty much how I feel about the whole subject. 


Cecil Harris: In case it wasn't clear, the reporter here was really asking, Does the Williams family decide in advance whether Venus or Serena will win? This match fixing rumor was not new. It had been swirling around for years. But this ugly accusation was given new life thanks to Elena Dementieva. The Russian player Venus had just defeated. In her own post-match press conference, Dementieva had raised the idea of a Williams family decision, and now Venus was left responding to reporters about her opponent's comments. Now, it's totally possible that this comment was lost in translation, but even the suggestion that the Williams family was in some way cheating was too much. Venus had to shut things down. 


TV Journalist:  I really don't. We need to move on this subject because it's ridiculous. 


Cecil Harris: What should have been a celebratory moment for Venus turned into an uncomfortable and contentious one. This moment rekindled the memory of one of the most appalling incidents in tennis that the Williams family endured years earlier at a tournament in California. Today, we're going to revisit that tournament because it was an ugly moment for tennis. It was scarring for the Williams family. And it's emblematic of the shameful obstacles that Venus and Serena have faced over the years. I'm Cecil Harris. This is all-American. Venus and Serena. Episode four Rumors. 


TV Announcer: It's a tennis oasis in the California desert, complete with everything from world class players to perfect weather. 


Cecil Harris: Indian Wells is a tennis tournament held every march in the Southern California desert. It's not one of the four majors like Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, but it's still a prestigious event with big prize money. The grounds are state of the art and luxurious. Fans travel in from all over the world, willing to pay steep ticket prices. 


Pam Shriver: The Indian Wells crowd better or worse. It's actually a pretty tennis savvy crowd. They've been around a long time. A lot of them have played tennis. They're older. 


Cecil Harris: This is Pam Shriver. She's the tennis hall of Famer who you heard from in our last episode. By 2001, Pam was no longer playing professional tennis. She was a new broadcaster for ESPN. And the 2001 Indian Wells tournament would be one of her early career gigs. 20 year old Venus and 19 year old Serena were on the cusp of superstardom and slated to compete. Both sisters had won Grand Slam titles at this point. In fact, Venus had won two. A shift was underway, and the tennis world was wrapping its head around this new reality of two young black women beginning to dominate a predominantly white sport. 


Pam Shriver: Back in oh one, it probably in Indian Wells in Coachella Valley, probably weren't that many people that look like Venus and Serena and Richard Williams in the in the crowd. 


Cecil Harris: Venus played well at Indian Wells. She won her first four rounds and made it to the quarterfinals where she defeated Russia's Elena Dementieva. Remember, Dementieva is the same player who would stir the pot seven years later by alleging that the results at Wimbledon in 2008 would come down to a Williams family decision. And here at Indian Wells in 2001, Dementieva was nothing if not consistent when speaking to reporters. We don't have any tape from Dementieva post-match press conference, but we do have a transcript. A reporter asked Dementieva if she had any predictions about an upcoming match between the sisters. Dementieva replied that she thought Venus and Serena's father, Richard, quote, will decide who's going to win tomorrow. Just the year before, the National Enquirer published a salacious story about the sisters. Then, after Dementieva comment, the match fixing rumors went mainstream. So at Indian Wells, Dementieva wasn't necessarily starting these rumors of match fixing, but she was giving them more oxygen. When pressed about her comment. Dementieva confirmed she didn't have any evidence, just a feeling. Feelings like that were in the air as Serena and Venus were scheduled to play their match the next day in the Indian Wells semifinals. Here's Pam Shriver again. 


Pam Shriver: I remember that semifinal match really well. I was in the play by play position for ESPN, working alongside Mary Jo Fernandez. We're about to go live for this as high profile women's match as possible Venus against Serena. And I was literally getting the count to go live. And then all of a sudden, my producer goes, We're just getting breaking news. Venus is not going to play her knee. It's because of her knee. Scrap the entire open. We're just going to go with the news so we come on live. My adrenaline is like up here, way up, because all of a sudden it's not the open I thought we were going to have. 


Cecil Harris: Instead of the sisters facing off in the semifinal as planned, Venus had pulled out because of an injury. There would be no match against her sister. Serena would win by forfeit, and the fans weren't happy about it. 


Pam Shriver: The stadium was packed and they reacted in a poor way as far as a ton of booing. It was like obviously the crowd fed on. They started to boo and then everyone started to boo and it was terrible. 


Cecil Harris: We don't have footage from this moment where the crowd was booing, but we do have a clip of Pam's ESPN colleague, Mary Jo Fernandez, speculating as to why the crowd was reacting so poorly. 


TV Journalist: Everybody out there still very skeptical about whether or not it was fixed or not. 


Cecil Harris: Let me play that for you again. 


TV Journalist: Everybody out there still very skeptical about whether or not it was fixed or not. 


Cecil Harris: People were skeptical about whether this match was fixed. This was an ESPN reporter's best guess. Live on air as to why the fans were booing the news that Venus would not be playing. Of course, it's impossible to know what every spectator in the crowd was thinking that day. Some fans were surely just angry that the match they had paid money for was being canceled. And it certainly didn't help that the announcement came just minutes before play was supposed to start. Players drop out of tournaments all the time because of injury, but they usually give at least a half an hour's notice. Still, I believe the booing suggests more than simply disappointment from the crowd. To me, it shows that many people didn't believe that Venus was actually injured and could not safely play. It suggests that fans did not trust the Williams family. This overwhelmingly negative and frankly disrespectful reaction showed me and a lot of other people that there was something else going on with this crowd. I want to ask you about Indian Wells 21. When Venus pulled out of the match at the last minute, the tennis community at Indian Wells seemed to assume that Richard had manipulated that had told Venus to pull out. Did you cover that tournament? 


TV Journalist: No, I watched that. I was not there, but I. I watched it and I saw the crowd reaction. And, you know, it was beyond the pale. 


Cecil Harris: That's Janet Howard. She's a longtime sports journalist. She's seen plenty of tennis over the course of her career. But this moment was unprecedented. 


TV Journalist: You know, I've been at many tournaments where there's a cancelation or somebody withdraws or whatever and the crowd gets upset. You know, they do. They just get upset. But I think that I think the fact that it was so close to the start of the match and that there were already those things floating around, you know, this sort of weirdness about how do they handle playing each other? And out of the opera, they were this sort of discreet family unit that a lot of people didn't have insight into. 


Cecil Harris: Pam Shriver Again. 


Pam Shriver: I think in the locker room, there was a lot of feelings that Richard had a lot of power. But Richard, with his high profile presence, he was always going to be somebody that people were going to turn to and say, oh, he's got something to do with this. 


Cecil Harris: To be clear, the idea that Richard was the one controlling which of his daughters would win when they played each other. That's never, ever been proven to be true. And for the record, I don't believe it for a second. Richard would later say that the family did everything by the book at Indian Wells, but because the tournament officials very much wanted Venus to play, they kept stalling until they had to announce that she wouldn't. The same day Venus dropped out of the semifinals. The Indian Wells tournament director Charlie Passaro, issued a statement that was actually critical of her. It read, quote, I only wish she had gone out and given it a try. This hurts the game of tennis more than the individual tournament. End quote. I remember that announcement like it was yesterday, and I couldn't believe how unsympathetic this statement was. What if Venus had played and aggravated a knee injury in the process? Clearly, that was a risk that the tournament director had no qualms about. And there's another thing you should know about professional tennis. It's essentially a leaderless sport. There is no commissioner of tennis in sports like golf. If one player disparages another, there's a commissioner to say, I'm fining you. I'm suspending you for comments detrimental to the sport. But there's no one to do that in tennis. Instead, Venus was left to defend herself when it came to these outrageous allegations of match fixing. When she was asked about Elena Dementieva comment that Richard will decide who's going to win. Venus said the comments were not true at all. Quote, That's how rumors get started. This was the last time anyone would hear from Venus at Indian Wells in 2001. But there was still another day of tennis ahead, and the controversy was just beginning. 


TV Announcer: Welcome to viewers. What is an amazing sound here? A crescendo of boos for Serena Williams. 


Cecil Harris: Venus was out of the tournament, but Serena was still playing. And when Serena walked on to the court for her final match, the stadium erupted, as you just heard, in boos. And the booing got louder when Venus and Richard appeared in the stands. And there's Father. 


TV Announcer: Richard coming down. It's quite amazing. Joe, Jerry, alongside me, Simon. 


TV Announcer: Reid, Dan's, Venus and the crowd. An American crowd doing an American family. 


TV Announcer: And you have to say that it does smack of a little bit of racism. 


TV Journalist: Well, I'm just speechless. I've never heard this before, ever. And I've been on the circuit. Took it for quite a long time. 


Cecil Harris: The optics were clear. The largely white Indian Wells crowd was loudly booing a black family. The Williams family were outsiders. 


Janette Howard: That's when it got ugly. 


Cecil Harris: That's journalist Janette Howard again. She remembers feeling the tension that day while watching at home. 


Janette Howard: That's when Richard and Venus were walking to their seats, and that's when they claimed that. They told USA Today and other reporters that the people had shouted racial epithets at them, and that one guy actually said something about skinning Richard alive, something hideous. 


Cecil Harris: Richard would later write about this moment in his book, Black and White. He said that a man called him the N-word and yelled, If this was back in 65, I'd skin your black ass alive. The cameras captured that scene of Richard and Venus heading to their seats with the crowd booing and shouting at them. Richard was silent. He just proudly raised his fist and turned to look at the crowd. This only made the boos and jeers louder. So these were the chaotic conditions. 19 year old Serena walked into as she geared up to play the Indian Wells final match. Here's what Pam Shriver remembers from that day. 


Pam Shriver: What Venus and Richard experienced and what Serena experienced on the court playing Kim Clijsters throughout that final. That was really uncomfortable. Terrible. I remember broadcasting that match. I don't think I've ever broadcast a match or I've been that uncomfortable. 


Cecil Harris: What made the match so uncomfortable was the crowd reaction throughout. Even after it started, some booing continued. But just as notably, fans were cheering loudly when Serena lost points. Ten. Ten. It quickly became clear that the crowd was rooting for Serena to fail. And as a result, Serena was rattled from the start of the match. She was missing easy shots that she would normally make game games. 


TV Announcer: But it has been put out, no doubt about it. 


TV Announcer: But I don't like it. I don't like the atmosphere at all. I do think it smacks of a certain amount of racism by a certain proportion in the crowd. And that is distasteful. 


TV Journalist: It's very Uncomfortable. 


Cecil Harris: Serena eventually lost the first set, but she collected herself and served for the second set. She started gaining momentum back and that set point to win the second set. She served. 


TV Announcer: The game. Tough stuff. Well, play. Hardly serene, but. She's shown character. Despite the Boos, she's leveled up at a stage. 


Cecil Harris: After Serena won the set. The crowd reaction seemed mixed. There was some cheering, but also boos and jeers. From here, Serena took control of the match. The third and final set wasn't even close yet. After winning the last point, Serena raised her arms and screamed. There was cheering for a moment. But then. 


TV Announcer: Reaction a few days to live blog. Serena Williams. Look at him, six two in the third set at this match today. And you got to hand it to. 


Cecil Harris: It's a little hard to hear. Pam Shriver overall the booing, but she's explaining the crowd's reaction to Serena's victory. She calls it schizophrenic. There's some cheering, but also so much bullying. Everything about this moment goes against what tennis claims to be the sport of ladies and gentlemen. Typically, if the crowd favorite doesn't win, the crowd's reaction would be a tempered response. You would hear light claps, and that's about it. In the midst of all the crowd noise, Serena walked over to Richard and Venus, who were standing at courtside. 


TV Announcer: The pain of saying something to Serena. 


Pam Shriver: They're more than just a thing. Congratulations. 


Cecil Harris: Venus leaned over and whispered in Serena's ear. She seemed to be consoling her sister as the boos continued to rain down. But then, during the trophy presentation, Serena finally had the chance to address the crowd, the crowd who had been against her since the moment she walked out. 


TV Journalist: Yeah. Although I think everyone that supported me and if they didn't and I love you guys anyways. Thank you. 


Cecil Harris: Though she owed them nothing. Serena gave the crowd GRACE. She showed class, and in return, they booed her even louder when she held up the trophy. But even after that rejection, Serena kept her head up and was interviewed by Pam on ESPN. 


Pam Shriver: Serena's down courtside, Serena. What a great competitive effort. But when you walked out on the court, you heard the boos throughout. How how were you Able to deal with. That and what did you think about it all? Y. 


Serena Williams: Eah, that was that was the best thing for me. I think it was the mental match more than a physical matter and even play well. So I just was able to perform mentally and it was a little tough Because I one year before The reception wasn't so good. You know, if you're a champion, you should be able to get through. Oh, you. 


Pam Shriver: Showed you were a champion. What a great....


Cecil Harris: Competitor. Less than two weeks after Indian Wells Elena Dementieva faced reporters at a news conference in Miami, remember, Dementieva is the player who fueled match fixing rumors about the Williams family. She was asked to clarify what she meant when she said that Richard decides who wins. Dementieva replied, quote, I was kidding. The tournament at Indian Wells in 2001 was so scarring for the Williams family that when it came time for the same tournament the following year, the family announced that after how they were treated, they would not be returning. This was a big deal. Typically, players are fined for not participating in tournaments for non-injury reasons. But Venus and Serena were willing to be penalized. Tennis needed the sisters more than the sisters needed tennis. Indian Wells in 2001 was an absolute low point for tennis. The sport would have liked nothing more than to just move on from it and forget that it ever happened. But those outrageous rumors of match fixing at the center of it never went away. When match fixing rumors about the Williams family resurfaced in 2014, Janette Howard wrote a column for ESPN that called for a stop to these rumors once and for all. 


Janette Howard: The thing that I got exhausted with, I think, when I wrote that column they've been playing 17 years, was tennis, has had many match fixing scandals. They've they've established a board, the police, the sport, and they suspend people regularly, mostly on the satellite tour level. But there actually have been real match fixing and there's never been a shred of evidence against them. So it's just kind of just like, can we stop, you know, can we please stop? 


Cecil Harris: Why do you think that these allegations were made about the sisters and about the Williams family? 


Janette Howard: Well, I think that it was partly true what I said about the fact that Richard was this sort of unique creature that had had this sort of creation story and promise and predictions about these girls. And at first, people thought he was a little crazy. And then it's all coming true. It's all coming true. So there's that sort of thing. Then they're in a lily white sport. They're the groundbreakers in every sense of the word. They played a different game. And I think there are a lot of tropes that go with black athletes over the years as far as their, you know, power or sheer dominance and the reactions that the white establishment has had to you know, when you're particularly talking about something as white as tennis, it was sort of disrupting the whole order of things, you know. And so they either get these nefarious things attributed to them or these superhuman things attributed to them, like the blackness became even more of a personality trait, not just a visual. 


Cecil Harris: The line that struck me most in Janet's column was that the Williams sisters are, quote, still treated like exotic creatures that tennis followers don't know how to regard at times. The sisters came into the sport as outsiders and were treated like outsiders even when they were the best players. Tennis had the feelings toward Venus, and Serena reminded me of another story of a trailblazing black woman who was the best tennis player in the world. Yet she could not make any money in the sport. 


Cecil Harris: That's next time on All American. All-American is a production of Witness Docs from Stitcher. This episode was written and reported by Albert Chen and Jordan Bell. Our mix engineer is Casey Holford, who also composed our original music. Our senior producer is Jordan Bell. Our story editor is Joanna Palmer. Our executive producer is Camille Stanley. Extra production support from Nora Ritchey, 20 Govea and Manolo Morales. Fact checking by Kelvin Sea Bias. Legal support from Sidney Freeman and Thomas Burke at Davis Wright Tremaine. I'm your host, Cecil Harris.