WOMEN’S world No 1 Serena Williams has held out the possibility of lifting her 13-year boycott of the Indian Wells tournament after being inspired by a movie about Nelson Mandela, the American revealed at the Australian Open.
Williams, who eased into the fourth round with a victory over Daniela Hantuchova, and older sister Venus have never returned to the tournament in the California desert after being jeered by spectators in 2001.
The Williams sisters were due to play each other in the semi-finals but Venus pulled out minutes before the match, citing injury. Spectators vented their displeasure with the late withdrawal during the final, booing 19-year-old Serena in her match against Belgian Kim Clijsters and also jeering her sister and father Richard Williams when the pair arrived to watch the match.
Richard Williams alleged he had heard racist taunts from the crowd and the family have not returned since.
Serena was asked if Mandela’s message of reconciliation might have led her to re-consider her boycott. “It actually crossed my mind a couple days ago, or after I saw the movie,” the 32-year-old told reporters at Melbourne Park. “I thought about it... Right now I don’t know. I just have to focus on this tournament. But I think Mandela was a really amazing man. I felt really honoured to have a chance to meet him, get to know him a little bit, and get to know his story a little better.”
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a movie about the anti-apartheid hero, opened just days before his death at 95 last month.
Williams reached the fourth round in Melbourne with a dominant 6-3, 6-3 win over the 31st-seeded Slovak Hantuchova at Rod Laver Arena – her 61st at the Australian Open, surpassing Margaret Court’s mark of 60.
She next faces Serbian Ana Ivanovic, who beat local favourite Sam Stosur 6-7 (8-10), 6-4, 6-2.
For Stosur, who upset Williams to win her one and only grand slam title at the 2011 US Open, it was the same old story at Melbourne Park where she has never surpassed the fourth round and suffers annual bouts of stage-fright.
The muscular 29-year-old threw away a dominant early position and by the third set had stiffened up to the point where her legs almost refused to move.
Although the crowd were supporting Stosur, Ivanovic said: “I definitely didn’t feel lonely. My team has been loud enough and all the Serbians here... She’s a very tough opponent, she played very well, served well, but I hung in there. They were tough conditions, it was hotter when the roof got closed but I’m so happy and thrilled to be through.”
Looking forward to her tussle with Williams, Ivanovic added: “Serena is on top of the game for so long now. She’s someone we admire. It’s going to be very tough task, but I look forward to that challenge.”
The paucity of Australian success at Melbourne Park over the past four decades has not stopped tournament organisers from pushing local battlers on to centre court, invariably for a thumping loss.
Yesterday, at least 120th-ranked wildcard Casey Dellacqua lived up to her Rod Laver Arena billing by reaching the fourth round, sending packed terraces of fans home with a warm, fuzzy and somewhat rare feeling.
The 28-year-old Dellacqua turned back the clock to upset a heat-affected Chinese Zheng Jie 6-2, 6-4 in the afternoon.
Three hours into the evening session, she became the only Australian left in either of the men’s and women’s draws after Stosur’s exit.
Like the higher-profile Stosur, Dellacqua has struggled with huge expectations in the country that produced Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Lleyton Hewitt, since making the fourth round of the 2008 Australian Open.
That breakthrough was followed by serious shoulder injuries, surgeries and further setbacks over the next few years and the Perth-born doubles specialist has had to graft in the minor tours to earn ranking points for another shot at the big-time.
“It is tough. You’re worrying about money. You’re trying to survive each week,” Dellacqua said.
“There’s not a lot of money for players ranked from 150 to lesser. You’re paying for your hotel, nothing gets paid for, and you’re not making much money. But that’s what you do to get to these moments.”
Dellacqua next faces Canadian youngster Eugenie Bouchard.
Li Na staged the most dramatic escape of the day when she faced a match point against Czech Lucie Safarova, who failed to convert it by the smallest of margins when her backhand down the line was called out – a decision confirmed by Hawk-Eye.
“I think five centimetres saved my tournament,” said Li, who rallied to win the subsequent tiebreak and then seal a 1-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3 victory.
“If she had hit it in, the whole team would be on the way to the airport.”