Gael Monfils gives the ‘Wakanda Forever’ salute in Indian Wells, where Venus and Serena Williams will play each other for the first time on Monday night.
The last time Venus and Serena Williams were supposed to play each other at Indian Wells was in 2001. Things didn’t go so well. Venus pulled out of their semifinal, the audience booed, and they kept booing throughout the 19-year-old, pink-Puma-wearing Serena’s gutsy, three-set win over Kim Clijsters in the final. Neither Serena nor Venus returned to Indian Wells for 14 years.
Now they’re set to face each other again, in a third-round match on Monday. While the Williamses look every bit as formidable as they did at the turn of the century, their sport, in large part because of them, looks quite a bit different. There was no clearer sign of that difference than what we saw this past weekend in the California desert.
Of the 150 entrants in the men’s and women’s draws at Indian Wells in 2001, the only black player other than the Williams sisters was their fellow American Alexandra Stevenson. In 2018, there were 13 players—eight women, five men—of African descent to start the tournament.
In keeping with tennis’ ever-growing global reach, it was a wide-ranging group. Included were Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime, whose father is from Togo; Frances Tiafoe of the United States and Naomi Osaka of Japan, both of whose fathers are Haitian; Gael Monfils of France, whose father is from Guadaloupe and mother is from Martinique; and American Sachia Vickery, whose parents are from Guyana. That list doesn’t include France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who had to withdraw due to injury. The Williams sisters have helped open the door to a new world of players in this century, and changed the face of tennis for good.
If that new face would have been hard to imagine at Indian Wells in 2001, so would the victory celebration that two of the players mentioned above performed this weekend. Vickery and Monfils commemorated wins by crossing their arms in a Wakanda Forever salute, taken from this season’s blockbuster movie, Black Panther, which is set in the mythical African nation of Wakanda. Vickery and Monfils joined soccer and rugby players who have also recently made the gesture during games; it is, according to Slate, “clearly becoming a cultural touchstone across the African diaspora.”
Touchstone or not, Vickery and Monfils obviously love Black Panther.
“I’m so obsessed with the movie,” says Vickery, whose mother flew a Guyanese flag during her upset win over Garbiñe Muguruza. “It’s taking over my life. I’ve seen it four times already. Literally, I’m obsessed…The girl who is Shuri, she’s from Guyana, and that’s where my mom is from. I was just like so crazy to see that, and the movie is just so awesome.”
“I think that movie is great,” Monfils said after beating John Isner in a three-set marathon this weekend. “It’s great for the community, for our community, it means quite a lot. It’s not just a sign. It’s everything. It’s everything going on and definitely it’s a shout-out saying that I’m supporting the Black Panther’s community.”
“It’s the world in general,” Monfils went on. “I’m not so much involved, but sometimes I like to pay attention. When you have movies who help, who give belief and show strength, it’s good.”
Monfils has talked about how close fans can get to the players at Indian Wells, where the bleachers for practice courts often draw a standing-room-only crowd. And those fans were largely in his corner against Isner on Stadium 2 on Saturday, despite the fact that the Frenchman was playing an American who has always been popular there. Monfils is one of those tennis superstars whose appeal crosses all boundaries. Yet he says that, as much as the game and its players have changed, some sports fans remain stubbornly the same. “Basically every match I receive some racist comment, and you can cross some racist person,” Monfils told Sport360 of his experiences traveling on tour.
But for this weekend at least, Monfils helped bring Wakanda Forever to the California desert. On Monday night, fans there will see the latest edition of the Williams Forever show, when Venus and Serena return to play the match that never was. In 2001, the two of them were driven out of Indian Wells for not playing that match. Seventeen years later, they’ve returned together, and a new tennis nation has come with them.