Serena Williams and Indian Wells Reunite: 14 Years in the Making

Indian Wells, one of the premier-level tennis tournaments on the professional circuit, has always brought nightmares for Serena Williams. In 2001, at the age of 19, Williams took the court for the Championship match against Kim Clijsters. Upon entering the court, Williams and her family received an overwhelming amount of “boos” and jeers, especially from the white spectators in attendance. What caused this uproar, which is sometimes stated as the most malicious environment ever seen in the history of tennis? In the previous, semifinals round, Venus and Serena were scheduled to play each other. Just four minutes before the match, Venus withdrew, citing an injury. Very few people believed this claim, as suspicion lead to father and coach, Richard Williams, who was believed to fix his daughters’ matches. With angry fans, the hostility carried over to Serena’s next match, seen in the video below.

With anger and a heavy undertone of violence in the air, Serena remained strong and eventually won the match. Serena later stated,

I walked out onto the court, the crowd immediately started jeering and booing. Throughout my whole career, integrity has been everything to me. It is also everything and more to Venus. The false allegations that our matches were fixed hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply. The under­current of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.”

After that year’s tournament, both Serena and Venus avoided the tournament. As a premier event, both sisters received heavy fines, but in an effort to boycott, they remained steadfast. While Serena refused to play at Indian Wells for over a decade, but this year she made a change. This is where social media comes in.

In a personal essay for TIME, Williams announced her return. Within this online article that went viral in the tennis community, Williams revealed her reasoning for returning. At the end she said, Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story, and I am a part of the tournament’s story as well. Together we have a chance to write a different ending.” Personally, I do believe it was the right time for her to return to the tournament, but I also think there were other non-emotional factors that led to this decision. After this announcement, a barrage of professional videos (see below), images, and articles hit the web promoting her return.

Partnered with Omaze, a fundraising site for specific causes, Williams partnered with the Equal Justice Initiative to not only raise money, but to randomly select one contributor for an all-inclusive trip to Indian Wells to meet her through a VIP experience. After this initial, professionally-made video, multiple others were released to promote this package, including detailed fun facts, her favorite social media comments, and other promotions. Serena also went to twitter to interact with fans, mentioning in every post.

Omaze wasn’t the only company to jump on this Indian Wells ship with Serena; Nike and Pepsi decided to tag along as well. Using #serenareturns, both Williams and Nike, who is Serena’s most famous and lucrative partnership posted this advertisement on their Twitter (3K favorites) and Facebook (1K likes) accounts.


For Pepsi’s promotion, they used an artistic image of Williams is paired with a Pepsi logo and the caption “When you challenge yourself, everything looks different. Check me out in a different light.” While not inferring anything about Serena’s return to Indian Wells, the timing of this ad is aligned with Nike’s strategy – to launch these ads only days before the tournament begins.

What is there to learn from Williams’ announcement and social strategy in her return to the Indian Wells tournament? First, “Williams and Partners” knew how to release her announcement to create the biggest exposure. She could have simply written a Twitter post, but she decided to make it big – making her initial announcement through TIME. Secondly, she supported that announcement through a promotion –  including a cause, i.e. Omaze and the Equal Justice Initiative. This strategy not only informs the public about her return and charity work – but creates positive branding and excitement for her as a player.

Additionally, through Nike and Pepsi’s ads, Williams is able to make more money and get more support through a co-branding technique. Serena and these brands aren’t the only people to benefit – Indian Wells also gains supporters. Being one of the most famous female athletes in the world, many West Coast fans will be drawn to the tournament, creating more ticket sales and profit. While her announcement would have generated buzz already, the release of various partnerships and promotions via social media created an international news frenzy seen by all. In general, This reunion may have been beneficial for her spirit and heart, it might have been beneficial for her bank, image, and partners as well.



  1. I would be interested in learning more about the history at Indian Wells. Was the reason that she received so many boos when she was 19 because of her skin color or more due to the fact that she had dropped out of a previous match? Regardless, Serena obviously has a bright public relations team on her side that are coaching her to a championship PR campaign. By teaming up with Nike and Pepsi, two of the most influential advertisers in the world of sports she immediately compounding the size of the audience she can reach. While partnerships with organizations like the Omaze Equal Justice Initiative bring in a relatable dimension that connects her with an even broader audience. Has this penetrated its way into the main stream media yet?

  2. Very interesting post and study on this issue. Great use of the tie-ins to social media, as well! Part of me shakes my head at the fact that Nike and Pepsi find a way to monetize Serena’s return and what is inevitably an emotional moment for her. But, that is just the world we live in. Kudos to them for being able to generate what seemed to be such a successful campaign on social media.

  3. Great comprehensive look into all of the strategies that are behind Serena’s return. This is a great example of how using multiple channels enhances a campaign. I love how the initial announcement was made in TIME and then various forms of SM were used to keep the message going. It’s also nice to see that Serena is engaging with her fans instead of simply sending out pre-made tweets! As we’ve learned in class, making an account personable makes a huge difference in the way it is received.

  4. I loved this post because I as a big Serena/tennis fan, I had been following this story. I too thought it was interesting how Nike and Pepsi capitalized on the situation — definitely a clever marketing ploy by both. I was most impressed with Serena’s personalized tweets because like Rainey pointed out, this makes a huge difference.

  5. Interesting post. Pretty impressive that it was this coordinated. Sounds like some companies are getting a whole lot better on SM than they have been in years past.

  6. I love Serena so I really enjoyed this blog post! Serena has seemed to successfully capitalize her return to Indian Wells through social media. She is most importantly raising awareness to the Omaze Equal Justice Initiative, but through this contest and her return, her other associates (Nike and Pepsi) are also getting in on the hype. Serena has become an icon in athletics and Nike knows that she is extremely likable with a huge fan base, which is why they have a long partnership together. Serena’s video seemed very genuine and her personal tweets promoting the cause seem to further promote Omaze and her return to Indian Wells. This makes me root for her even more!

  7. So nice to see your reflection on this recent event! This is a wonderful story of victory in another form, and Serena knows how to use marketing to her benefit. By being proactive, Serena has really capitalized on this event. While she could have quietly come back to Indian Wells or just allowed her sponsors to promote print advertisements, Serena seems to understand the power of social media to rally support. Before walking on the court, Serena will be able to have the mental confidence that her fans are with her in spirit, if not physically, and that her positive message of fairness has been resonating long before any negative questioning of her presence at Indian Wells in 2015 can take place.

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