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Serena Williams returns to Indian Wells 14 years after racist abuse

Story highlights
  • World No. 1 had vowed never to return to scene of her first professional victory
  • She and her family suffered racist abuse during 2001 final against Kim Clijsters
  • Australian Open champion says changing attitudes in the game helped decision
  • She will play with 'a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness'

(CNN) Serena Williams is ending her Indian Wells boycott in a spirit of "forgiveness" 14 years after suffering racist abuse at the Californian resort's showpiece tennis tournament.

World No.1 Williams, who won the Australian Open with victory over Maria Sharapova in Melbourne last month, announced her decision -- explained in an exclusive interview with TIME magazine -- on Twitter.

Back in 2001, age 19, she lifted her second Indian Wells trophy by beating Kim Clijsters -- but she and her family were racially abused by some members of the crowd after sister Venus withdrew from their semifinal with an injury.

That sparked accusations from some that their father, Richard, was "fixing" games between the two. He later said the abuse the family had suffered during the final "shamed America."

His daughter told TIME he "had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South."

She instantly vowed never to return to the scene of her first-ever professional victory, in a doubles match with Venus in 1997, but revealed that she now felt ready to go back and compete in the BNP Paribas Open, being played in March.

"I'm fortunate to be at a point in my career where I have nothing to prove," Williams explained. "I'm still as driven as ever, but I play for the love of the game.

"It is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015."

The 33-year-old said a feeling that attitudes in tennis had progressed had helped to make up her mind, citing the prompt action taken by the Women's Tennis Association and United States Tennis Association when she and Venus were victims of racist and sexist comments made by a Russian official last year.

"I have thought about going back to Indian Wells many times over my career," Williams said. "I said a few times that I would never play there again. And believe me, I meant it. I admit it scared me. What if I walked onto the court and the entire crowd booed me? The nightmare would start all over."

She said it had been "difficult for me to forget spending hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001, driving back to Los Angeles feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever -- not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality."

"Emotionally it seemed easier to stay away," she explained. "There are some who say I should never go back. There are others who say I should have returned years ago.

"I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time. I'm just following my heart on this one."

Her decision was welcomed by tournament CEO Raymond Moore, who confirmed that she had accepted a wild card for the event. "We really look forward to watching her compete again," he said.