Serena or Venus? Who ya rooting for when they meet at Indian Wells?
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Any time Venus and Serena Williams face each other in a tournament, something they’ve done 28 times over the past 20 years, and will do again Monday, their player boxes are thinner than usual. “When they play each other, I don’t go,” Isha Price, their older sister, told me last year. “I learned that trick from my mom. In a final, it’s different. I can handle it. But if it’s anything before a final, it’s really difficult to contain the emotion of that.”
Walking the grounds at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, it became clear that choosing sides in an all-Williams third-round matchup is a Sophie’s Choice for fans, as well.
“I like them both,” said Jane Kading, 61, who traveled from South Dakota to attend the BNP Paribas Open for the second time. “I think Serena will win, though. She’s a strong person. She’s amazing physically and mentally.”
“I’m going for Venus,” said Kading’s friend, Patti Koupal, 62. “I like the underdog story. And she’s such a classy player. But whoever wins, it’s a win-win.”
Sisters Samantha and Ysabelle Condevillamar are standing outside Stadium 6 eating ice cream. They just finished working their final match as ball kids and have to return to school on Monday, so they must settle for watching the Williams-Williams match on TV.
“People used to call us the Williams sisters when we played doubles,” Samantha, 13, said. “But now we’re singles players. I’m Serena.”
“We like them both, but Serena’s our favorite,” Ysabelle, 15, said. “She worked so hard after having a baby and getting married. She’s so strong physically and mentally and she’s a good role model.”
A few weeks ago, Brandi Faulk, 46, texted six friends in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to ask if they wanted to hop a flight to Palm Springs and attend a tennis tournament. Sunday afternoon, she was sipping champagne at Indian Wells with five of those friends.
“We just bought out the Serena booth of pins,” Faulk’s friend, Sherri, said as she walked up holding a stockpile of the gold “S” pins the younger Williams sister is selling on site. Behind her, the two women working the booth were closing up shop for the day. “I told you we bought them all,” Sherri said.
“I want Venus to win because the last time they played, at the  Australian Open, Serena won,” said another friend, Leah Jenkins, the diplomat of the group. “It’s Venus’ turn. I want a great match. I want it to go three sets, and I want Venus to win.”
“Serena’s coming back from maternity leave, so I think she will have a hard time beating Venus,” Faulk said. “I’m a Venus fan. I like her spirit. I like her attitude. I like her drive. I like that she is older and still playing like she is. I like watching them both, but I’m rooting for Venus.”
With that, a discussion breaks out between the friends. They are split on whom to cheer for, but agree to a woman that watching Serena return from maternity leave has made them even bigger fans of the Grand Slam champ.
“She’s shown you can be hard core and be a mom,” Jenkins said. “When you become a mom, you are able to express a loving side of yourself you never knew. Listening to her talk to the crowd after her last win, she sounded different. A baby changes everything. Maybe the ‘S’ pin stands for ‘Softer Serena.'”
As Jenkins talks, a couple walks by with their son and daughter and the women recognize them from their flight earlier in the day. “That’s little Serena!” Faulk says, and the couple stops to chat. When dad is asked who he’s rooting for in Monday’s matchup, he smiles and points to his own gold “S” pin.
Venus Williams defeats Sorana Cirstea 6-3, 6-4 to advance in the 2018 ATP & WTA BNP Paribas Open.
“Serena is relentless on the court,” Derrick Mickles, 45, said. “Men or women, in any sport, she is the greatest athlete ever. Serena is also a beautiful name and I’ve always liked her sweet personality and that made me want to name my daughter after her.” Little Serena hears that last comment and smiles. She woke up at 4 a.m. and is still jetlagged, but she shakes her head up and down when dad asks if she’s excited for tomorrow.
“I think it’s going to be really fun,” Serena, 7, said. “I’m excited.”
“It’s going to be really special to watch them play live,” Derrick said. “We’ve never seen them play in person.”
Monday night, Venus and Serena will meet in the third round, the earliest they’ve played a head-to-head match since their first meeting in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open. This isn’t a final, it isn’t a Grand Slam and it will be Serena’s third match since returning from a nearly 14-month maternity leave.
But make no mistake: The match is meaningful. After boycotting the tournament for 14 years, Serena returned in 2015 after deciding it was time to forgive and consulting her family about the decision. Venus returned a year later, bolstered by the warm reception her sister received when she walked onto center court for the first time.
Since their return, fans have gone out of their way to show their adoration and appreciation for having two of the greatest players in the sport back at Indian Wells.
“I’m rooting for both of them,” said Janet Tucker, 70, of Ladera Heights, California. Tucker has been attending this tournament for 20 years. She was in the stands in 2001 when the sisters were scheduled to play in the semifinal and remembers hearing the announcement that Venus was pulling out with tendinitis in her knee. She was at the final two days later, when Serena beat Kim Clijsters, and she remembers hearing the boos.
“Fans are fans,” Tucker said. “I understand that Venus and Serena took it personally, but the fans had waited all day and the match didn’t happen. They wanted that match and they didn’t get it and they were angry. But I understand how Venus and Serena felt and why they didn’t return for so long. I’m just so happy they decided to come back. Monday’s match is going to be monumental.”
Tucker said she has been in the stands for every match the women have played since returning to Indian Wells. Sunday afternoon, she was in the merchandise tent browsing Venus’ Eleven clothing line and wearing a gold “S” pin on her jacket. “My daughter had a baby a couple weeks after Serena, and she is amazed by how fast Serena returned to tennis,” Tucker said. “She called me and told me I had to buy a pin.”
Tucker begins talking about her own family, about the changes she has seen in Serena’s game since she returned and what it will mean for her to watch the sisters play Monday night. “The crowds will be going crazy,” she said. “There will not be an empty seat in the stadium.”