Never say never: Serena surprises with decision to play Indian Wells again

Serena Williams

One of the most popular articles from my early blogging days was the one entitled "Serena Williams – Indian Wells never again" and it was published in April 2007 when Serena decided not to return to Indian Wells despite the WTA introducing rigorous sanctions and fines to those who skip tournaments they are obliged to play (although later it turned out that the Williamses are more powerful than the WTA which, somehow still vaguely to me, bent the rules for them). Anyways, today's breaking news is that after 13 years Serena Williams has changed her mind and will make a return at Indian Wells 2015. Nothing is being said about Venus, though.

BACKGROUND

In 2001 at Indian Wells, Venus Williams pulled out of the semifinal with her sister and when Serena stepped on the court for her title match against Kim Clijsters, she was loudly booed through most of the match and that dreadful experience kept her and her sister away from the tournament for almost a decade and a half. The failed all-Williams encounter made many ticket holders angry and the Williams family also reported being racially offended. That is the main plot, but the incident as a whole is still surrounded by a lot of controversy composed of rumors and confusing comments about racism and even match fixing.

CHANGE OF MIND

So many years after persistently refusing to play the event where she won her first pro match and her first big WTA title back in 1999, Serena has finally decided to make a return, feeling a changed atmosphere and circumstances in the tennis of today. Here's one of the quotes from her exclusive statement for TIME:

Thirteen years and a lifetime in tennis later, things feel different. A few months ago, when Russian official Shamil Tarpischev made racist and sexist remarks about Venus and me, the WTA and USTA immediately condemned him. It reminded me how far the sport has come, and how far I’ve come too.

Previously, again and again Serena reiterated that she would never come back to Indian Wells, and here's what she's saying about that now:

I have thought about going back to Indian Wells many times over my career. 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.

And now she's more confident and relaxed than ever:

I’m fortunate to be at a point in my career where I have nothing to prove. I’m still as driven as ever, but the ride is a little easier. I play for the love of the game. And 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.

Even in my 2007 article I said that the Williamses should practice forgiveness and return to the tournament. I avoid making comments about what someone should have done, as I'm not in their shoes, but from my point of view, the 2001 Indian Wells was an incident that cannot define the whole tournament as hostile or all the people that go there as racists. What's your take, I'd really like to know? (photo: Jimmie48)

35 thoughts on “Never say never: Serena surprises with decision to play Indian Wells again

  1. Jim

    Good for Serena! I hear she and Venus will play some Fed Cup this year as well. And OK sports fans, Was it a bad play call by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Should they just have handed the ball to "The Beast", Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line? It would have been "game, set, match!"

  2. jacob appleton

    Is it just me, or does anybody think this is Serena's last year of tennis? This AND her speech make me believe it. SAD

  3. sru

    @ jacob it looks like that but i think just like roger, she'll retire either after rio olympics or next year's us open

  4. Jade

    Good for Serena , she better win the title or it will be a foolish decision . And I don't think Serena will retired this year. Billy Jean played until she was 39 and many other Greats played well into their late thirties .

  5. Tosin

    I understand her.
    I'm going to feel that great about going to Caltech someday as like a trustee and commencement speaker or prof. I'd be like, wow, the climate changed. Venus and Serena have always been bigger than all but the world needed time to accept it, …didn't break them, made them stronger. I love it.

  6. CRM

    I think Serena will retire end of 2016 – she's playing this year to 'get it over with' (understandably all the press will be on her just playing there rather than any results) and it will give her at least one more go if she fails to win it this year.
    It will without doubt be the biggest Cinderella story in sport ever if she was to win Indian Wells this year.

  7. sabey

    Another reason she should go back is that the tournament ownership and organization has changed. The worst part of the whole thing for me were the actions of the tournament organizers. They never made a single attempt to control the crowd during the final. Also Venus Williams said she was withdrawing from the semifinal in the morning and they refused to make the announcement until hours before -making her look bad. As the ownership, management and staff have all since been replaced it's time to give the new team a chance.
    I will also never forgive Elena Dementieva for her snide, nasty comments alleging match fixing by the Williams family. She got to retire without a single singles grand slam title so I guess she got her dues.

  8. Jim

    Methinks Serena's biological clock is ticking..she wants to have a baby. That's why I think Li Na really retired..just look how quickly she got pregnant! Jacob, I agree with you as Serena really wants to play in the Rio Olympics. Then she will be at a good age to reproduce the next tennis {or maybe golf;)} champion. The question then is, who will be the daddy?

  9. Karen

    I don't know if it is a language issue or a cultural issue, but each time I read articles on this blog, which is one of my favourites because it focuses on women's tennis, I am left speechless by the opinions of the authors. How can someone who has never experienced what Serena or Venus experienced sit in their armchair and state that they should practice forgiveness. Do you know how hard it must have been for her as a 19 year old to stand out there on that court for almost 3 hours and be booed mercilessly? Have you ever experienced anything like that in your lifetime? That kind of incident would leave most people scarred for life and I can't imagine that it must have been easy for Serena or Venus to ever think of playing somewhere, where they were treated like so much trash, and especially on what they consider their home turf.

    I am happy that Serena at 33 years old has decided to return to Indian Wells. The WTA did not bend over backwards to accommodate Venus or Serena. They were fined every single year for not turning up and they paid their fine every single year. They did not cite injuries or anything of that nature as to why they did not play. They did not do promotional events in order to escape the fines. They stood by their word and principles for 14 years.

    People need to realise that the decision that Serena has made to return to Indian Wells is one of the bravest decisions that an athlete has ever made. For me it is similar to Jackie Robinson breaking the colour barrier in baseball and Venus standing in a room full of Arabs and defending Shahar Peer, an Israeli Jew.

    When tennis history is being written for Serena, I am hoping that her contribution to the sport of tennis, her principles and values are written in context and that they are never glossed over. She is what society should desire of their role models. People who are bruised but not broken. People who have flaws but how rise from the ashes to reclaim their spots in history.

    Well done Serena.

  10. Zech

    Karen,

    I completely echo and share your opinion.

    Marija,

    Do you understand the history and cultural context of race and racism in the US and how it pertains to minorities? Have you ever experienced it firsthand? If not, you are in no position to suggest what Venus or Serena should or should not feel or should or should not have done. NONE. Not in your 2007 article, and not now. I am actually disgusted by your tone in both articles, Marija.

    I'm glad Serena is big enough personally to go back. But personally, I would have never gone back. I would have have moved on, maybe made a personal appearance to address fans but never would I go back and play in a tournament in which so little was resolved or done (not even a public apology in 14 years!) to make me feel welcome and validated.

    Just yesterday I experienced a racial insult hurled my way at work yesterday and the man responsible for it completely offer shock and dismay that I found his joke about Native Americans being "dirty alcoholics and government outlaws" offensive to me, and then proceeded to tell me that I shouldn't be offended and because he was joking. Not once did my boss intercede and not once did anyone who witnessed it speak up for me, which left me to stand for myself, alone in a crowd. Afterwards, there was some "sorry you went through that", but that just doesn't cut it. I was upset about a man making an idiotic and offensive joke and I got over it. But if an ENTIRE STADIUM was yelling and me and booing and calling me "nigger", I would never go back and play. Much less if the media continually used the tone so many journalist have used since that incident, calling into question my experience and basically discrediting the racial component that most definitely was at play that day, regardless of the preexisting controversies. If anything, those preexisting controversies allowed the media and Indian Wells to hide and not be called out for the racial abuse. That level of disrespect and prejudice has zero place in sport.

    Good for Serena, but shame on you Marija and all other journalists who feel like Serena and Venus "should have gone back" a long time ago. Shame on you.

  11. Zech

    For clarification, Marjia, I am disgusted by the lack of empathy by so many NON-MINORITY people who do not know the pain of racial prejudice and/or in the US context. It is no mistake that most journalists who share your condescending tone, are non-American or non-minority and are thus uneducated on such topics and have written a myriad of like-minded articles over the years since Indian Wells 2001. If you are educated on such matters, it would seem you lack of empathy and understanding, which goes to the heart of ignorance and education or lack thereof regarding such incidents.

  12. Marija Post author

    Jacob, I don't have that feeling at all. She's said many times how she still has the drive and feels great on the court.

    Jade, why would it be fooling if she doesn't win the title? I wouldn't impose that much pressure on her, although she functions best under pressure…

    Sabey, yeah, Elena made accusations of match-fixing and then later she said she was just joking. Really strage the whole story.

    Jim, well Li obviously wanted that and she had already been married for a long time. I don't remember Serena expressing such desires, although I'm sure she would like to start a family in the near future, why not.

    Karen, Zech, I did write "I avoid making comments about what someone should have done, as I'm not in their shoes, but from my point of view…", therefore, I never judged Serena and Venus for not forgiving. I feel that my tone in both articles is impartial and definitely not attacking or anything. You are right that I have never lived through that experience and only people with the same background can truly understand others being in the same situation.

  13. Karen

    Marija, you have missed the point entirely. I am posting a piece that Lindsay Gibbs over at the Changeover wrote about Serena's return to Indian Wells. There is no need to having lived the experience. All you needed to do was read carefully what you wrote and realise that it was judgmental of Serena's decision and that you basically felt as if this should have been done a long time ago.

    Lindsay's piece http://tinyurl.com/kp7ajy4

  14. Emman Damian

    I hope she'll have a good experience in Indian Wells this time. Maybe she wants an IW-Miami double this year. It's one of the rare feats she hasn't done yet in her glamourous career. It's never too late for S and V to forgive them.

  15. Marija Post author

    Karen, thanks for the share. I've read the piece and I appreciate Linday's take on it. I've read many points of view, from various authors, and apologize if I sounded judgmental or with lack of empathy. After all, only Serena and Venus know what's best for them. And having said that, do we know now if Venus will play as well?

  16. Zech

    Marija,

    Again I completely echo Karen's recent post.

    You apparently missed the point entirely again. You do not need to have been in their place or shoes to understand or show true empathy. To make a metaphor, say you're in an abusive relationship and your partner beat you to a pulp, so bad that you have never fully recovered from it; he/she never apologized and then a bunch of people wrote a gazillion articles in the past 14 years discrediting your experience with being beaten and victimized and called your experiences "alleged" at best. Imagine if you were teenager when that happened and it haunted you well into your adult years. That is insulting and disgusting that someone who did not experience that abuse to call your experience or any part thereof "alleged" and/or baseless accusations. It is likewise insulting and disgusting to hear someone validate those thoughts and trivialize your experience with abuse and attempt to victim shame you.

    Marija, whether or not you feel like you were offensive, the very nature of feeling like Venus and Serena "need to forgive" and take ownership of "their role" that ugly incident and move on, the fact of the matter remains that were and continue to be offensive and insensitive. You apparently have such a lack of knowledge and understanding that you defend your offensive comments and articles. Make no mistake Marija, you are a perpetrator of victim shaming by sharing these kinds of thoughts, no matter your intent.

    I love the women's tennis blog, and will continue to follow the blog, but seeing how racist so many comments about Venus and Serena being monkeys, men, black, ugly, etc etc… are made and continue to be made on here and every other online forum and for you, the owner of the blog, to in some senses validate these comments by participating in victim shaming is insulting and disgusting.

    I hope you truly attempt to grasp what this must mean to Serena and the tennis community, and I hope even more that you do not brush this off once Serena plays as "no big deal" and "it's about time". I hope FOR ONCE, the tennis community can learn some contrition and empathy.

    Though I doubt she will ever receive the respect and reception she has gotten over the years outside of the US (example: the Aussie Open crowd), I hope Serena gets the biggest welcome she's ever received in the US, her own people.

  17. Karen

    Marija, no, it does not look as if Venus will be playing Indian Wells. One thing that I did pick up from reading all the articles in the media on this is how much of a struggle it has been for Serena to venture far from her family on this particular issue. Do you get the feeling that she is now charting her own path in the way how she has been dealing with her career over the past few years? From taking on Patrick as her coach, to basically living outside of the US for at least 50% of the year, to now adding new members to her team, I find it very interesting. Of note is that there were no family members in her player's box during this year's AO. Her father had stopped coming to Australia but it was noticeable that Esther was not in Australia either. Did not see her in Venus' player box either. More telling is the fact that Serena is now building her own house in order to move out of the house she once shared with Venus. This could all be speculation on my part, but I just found it a bit telling as to the way how both Sisters differ in the things that they do. Thoughts?

  18. Zech

    And Marija, may I reiterate, if you have never experience the horrors of racism and prejudice, you have no place whatsoever making suggestions on how to handle the situation, and you clearly have done so multiple times whether or not you thought you were being offensive. That would be like giving your opinion on how blind people should live their lives without ever having been blind yourself. Disgusting.

  19. sabey

    Karen, thank you for linking Lindsay's piece. That is the first time I have ready anything about this incident that gets it right. We need more people Like Lindsay Gibbs and less like Peter Bodo writing about tennis. Bodo appears to openly despise women's tennis _ I have no idea why he gets to have any say on the matter.
    One of the reason's I support this site is that it's a place where we all come to talk exclusively about women's tennis and where we don't view it as second class.

  20. Jim

    Zech, to say " seeing how racist so many comments about Venus and Serena being monkeys, men, black, ugly, etc etc… are made and continue to be made on here and every other online forum", is only partially true. It is only done on, as you say, other online forums such as CBS Sports, Tennis Forum, Yahoo Sports, ESPN and other American outlets. I have too seen the horrible references to monkeys, "Serena really being a man" etc." but I have never seen any of that crap on this blog! Do your research! If so, I think they would be blocked or screened from allowing their vile beliefs to be seen. Anyway, go Serena! Win the Tournament!

  21. Marija Post author

    Zech, point taken. I'm glad we're having a heated discussion here. Everyone who reads this article will now get a more complete picture as many people have expressed their views.

    Karen, Venus and Serena have very different personalities and although I haven't observed the recent Serena's path in the way that you have, it could be that she has decided to make herself more separate and independent. But regarding Indian Wells, it is strange that Venus is not making any comments about Serena's decision and she's not even hinting what her current state of mind is on that topic.

    Jim, Zech is actually right. I generally don't delete comments on my blog — I delete just the ones that are spam, written in a language very foreign to me so that I have no idea what was written, and those that are pornographic or whatever, but that rarely happens. I didn't even delete comments that were insulting me (even though the insults came totally out of the blue, but sometimes some people without a life stumble across my blog and decide to vent themselves). Anyways, certain posts about Serena and Venus caused a lot of friction here and we had all sorts of comments. However, the fact that I'm not deleting comments only shows you how this blog gathers a nice crowd, since 99.5% of comments in these 8 years have been civilized and spot on. You have to admit it's way above average for online world!

  22. Jim

    Methinks Serena wants to be on her own and I truly believe that she does have thoughts on starting a family. There have been veiled references to this. I think Patrick Mouratoglou will be the father and he will propose to her at the Rio Olympics. Serena will retire after winning the US Open in 2016…on top of her profession.

    BTW is Patrick still married?

  23. Karen

    Marija, I saw comments today attributed to Venus which states that she supports Serena but that she will not be playing at Indian Wells.

  24. JohnnyB

    Wow!!! So white people can't understand what blacks go through and went through in America!! These statements floor me. Such racism!! I think Serena should have stood up and went back long ago. I'm very excited that she is going back this year. She is doing the right thing for her, her family, her race and her country. Never allow ignorance to win. Always stand up!!

  25. Zech

    Marija, thank you for your continuing to discuss this topic civilly, and I really do appreciate your blog. It a great read 19 out of 20 times 🙂

    JohnnyB, I think you misunderstand the actual definition of racism as one group of people being in a position to put an entire group of other people through systematic oppression and doing so. Minorities in America, be they black, native, asian, latino or otherwise, are not in any position to put "white" Americans through the same level of systematic oppression. They can be racially prejudice and ignorant, but cannot be "racist" in the same manner or grand scale manner as "white" Americans. You can thank my graduate level studies over public policy and topics in diversity and ethnicity for that working definition in current studies in public policy and in sociology. 🙂

    Also, I never said that white Americans can't understand what minorities go through. I simply said that if you have never experienced the horrors of racial prejudice and racism, you are not educated enough to make judgment calls for someone who has experienced it. People of all skin colors can face racial prejudice, and can empathize, and many people do. But if you cannot grasp what such incidents feel like and how it can scar you for life, you have no business making suggestions on how others should handle things. Serena also didn't let ignorance win. Surely you watched the match and saw her win the title in the face of all that ignorance. She didn't ever have to go back to have beaten ignorance.

    But good for Serena, and I am happy that she is gracious and benevolent enough to extend her good will back after so much hatred was never resolved or publicly apologized for.

  26. Marija Post author

    Jim, you seem to have a clearer picture of Serena's near future than I have of my own life hahaha (am I just kidding :)?). I don't know about Patrick, it's all still vague. Serena is keeping things very private.

    Karen, thanks for the info. I like it when readers contribute to the story and make an article more informative. I can't know it all 🙂

    JohnnyB, I was waiting for you to comment on this! 🙂

    Zech, thank you! 🙂

  27. JohnnyB

    Zech, think you for proving my points. To paraphrase, you don't believe there is racism against whites and one must experience racism to make a judgment about it. You are obviously an educated person. One very important part of an education is being able to see issues from all sides and to understand how another person feels and thinks. Perhaps, experience is also necessary to understand this issue.
    Unfortunately, I have seen first hand racism in sports in the 50's and 60's. Wilt Chamberlin could not sleep or eat in white-only establishments. I saw him score 100 points in one game. Jackie Robinson's story everyone knows. Arthue Ashe was the only black 2nd LT in my officer's training company. It was pure hatred toward him when we would venture off base. It was even worse for my black high school friends.
    Thank goodness, Serena has never had to experience the 50's and 60's prejudices in her lifetime. Oh, I know we still do not live in a perfect world, but it is so much better.
    Indian Wells – there are several different stories on what really happened that day. The fans did not get to see the match between Venus and Serena. Serena was booed by many upset fans because they did not get to see the advertised match. Then the story-line deviates. Eyewitnesses with different stories. Happens all the time in police reports. The N word was used. Unfortunately, it has been used at other venues including recently at Miami. It is a shame. But Serena is doing the right thing – hers and my educated, experienced judgment – going back and standing up!!

  28. Zech

    JohnnyB,

    This is a topic that could go on for hours and one done much better via actual conversation and not forum chats, so I'll just agree to disagree and thank you for taking the time to read my comments and have thoughtful responses. However, I will just say that yes there were multiple storylines and public opinions going on during this controversy, which some had nothing to do with race, and no Serena and Venus have not faced what previous athletes experienced, and yes they have been racially taunted in stadiums all over the world not just at IW, but the fact of the matter remains that what they went through at IW was heavily influenced by the color of their skin, not simply other controversies. They were made to feel unwanted and probably unsafe in their home state. The hatred they received paled in comparison to what previous minority athletes faced, but if progress has been made in racial relations since the 1960s, the incident at IW should never have been allowed to happen. And it would haunt me for a very long time. Serena is every bit validated and "doing the right thing" by going back to play at IW, as she was in boycotting and taking a stand for 13 years, and maybe even moreso during her boycott because she held firm to her beliefs that she should not have to withstand the treatment she received at IW, while nearly all the media, with their uneducated and insensitive, privileged selves (most of whom have never experienced a fraction of racial abuse), spent 13 years writing articles condemning her.

  29. TennisGee

    Everyone who has followed this story over the years has had opinions on WHAT happened and WHY it happened—the crowd's behavior was racist, it wasn't racist; the crowd's behavior was in response to their outrage about perceived match fixing, it wasn't about match fixing; the crowd's behavior was just their expression of displeasure of not seeing the match they wanted to see. Many have said, as has the author of this article, that Serena and Venus should have gotten over this incident, their pique, years ago. And, it is this last point that, to my mind, speaks loudest. It shows the media's great failure in how they covered this story throughout the years—their inability and unwillingness to place Indian Wells 2001 in it's proper and fullest context (and keep it there!).
    I have longed believed that the focus of this story should have been on HUMAN DIGNITY, on how that crowd that day, and the tournament organizers through their failure to control the crowd, abused human dignity without accountability. The subsequent failure of a proper public apology by the tournament officials only furthered the sense of wrong. What, then, is the meaning of such an affront?
    To the writer of this article, Mirija, whether you have agreed or not over the years that the crowd's behavior was racist, you seem to have ignored the depth of the viciousness directed at Serena, Venus and their father. Indian Wells 2001 was an unadulterated attempt to humiliate and demean them, three human beings. The crowd's behavior was vile hatred. Whether the basis of the hatred and attempted humiliation targeted at the Williams' was racism, in a nation with a racist history, we cannot say that race was irrelevant to what happened, which seems to be the position that many in the media have taken.
    On the matter of race as motive: it must be considered that the demeaning boos rained down on Serena were too loud and lasted far too long for their expression to be about the relatively lesser matters and perceptions given to explain them. To interpret that protracted booing as anything other than a letting loose of closeted racist venom is serves as a convenience to willing denial. The way I have analogized whether racism was present or absent at Indian Wells 2001 (or anywhere really), is to consider the explanation often given of pornography—we can't necessarily define what it is, but we all know it when see it. If that standard is good enough to support a US Supreme Court decision on the definition of pornography, then I think it should be good enough for three African Americans in support a felt experience of racism. People who have lived the reality of racism know it when they feel it. (And yes, in truth, sometimes feel it when perhaps it isn't present; but such is the legacy of any deep hurt).
    Most people understand the pain of humiliation; understand what it does to the human psyche, how it can destroy personal pride, damage the sense of being whole. We understand it even if we cannot give words to that understanding. But for some inexplicable reason, the media has given little voice to the human dignity aspect of the Indian Wells story. In fact, the media, has acted largely in the contrary; opting for glibness. I have repeatedly asked myself how is it that the media could be so dismissive of the dignity of these two young women, their father, and by extension, the community of people to whom they belong? What could explain their journalistic malpractice, their insidious failing? No answer satisfied except the obvious—the privilege of color, which is not necessarily racism, but it must be noted that privilege is always the outcome of racism.
    If as individuals we fail to protect and defend ourselves, the soul, when spiritually assaulted, we become broken. Damaged, wounded and broken people, regardless of race, lose connection with something vital within them, and that something vital within others. When society as a whole, and the media as the voice of society, fails to protect human dignity, then the conviction of the individual to stand up for themselves is that much more necessary; their stance must be even stronger, vigilant, particularly when that failure is historical in nature. For fourteen years, Serena and Venus rightly stood up for themselves in defense of their dignity, and by extension that of all human beings, because no one else (or too few) publicly did. There have been many of us, without voice, who have stood in silent agreement with, and in support of, their righteous stand because we intuitively or empirically understood that the Williams family had to take the stand they did. Self-respect and human dignity demanded it.
    Mirija, when you write thoughtless, ill-considered statements about when Venus and Serena should have forgiven a group of people (white people) who attacked and attempted to destroy their humanity, you implicitly condone, or at least accept what happened at Indian Wells 2001. Furthermore, you become complicit in the denial, the lie, that this country continues to live. At Indian Wells, hatred, racially based or not, was allowed to freely sling its soul-murdering arrows; to accomplish that, the N-word, nor any other racial epithet, did not have to be uttered. How could, can, the media ignore this truth?!
    Finally, thanks to Zech. Your comments have been right on target. They spoke truth to power. It seems the author benefited from your insightful, compassionate thoughts on this matter. Better late than never. As for me, your words have been balm for a still-healing wound, the sting of which has been felt for a lifetime, long before there was an Indian Wells 2001.

  30. TennisGee

    JohnnyB, what a thoughtful response. Not even God himself could have come up with a more textured and subtle comment; nor expressed as much compassion and depth of character (sarcasm intended!).

    Your unnecessary rudeness and easy expressions of contempt are further evidence that decency and basic respect for others is a loss standard of conduct. The irony of your attitude is that it clearly displays within you the same kind of bullying mentality as that crowd at Indian Wells. Too few of them held themselves accountable to the demands and expectations of decency. So, it seems, do you.

    I have no over-arching need to be right on the meaning of Indian Wells 2001, or any topic for that matter; but I do thank you for confirming much of my opinion of what this story should have been about all along (human dignity). I also sincerely thank you (and that crowd) for reminding me of the kind of human being I absolutely do not want to be.

  31. JohnnyB

    More cow manure. You are very delusional, TennisGee. Your IW story is a big lie and you most likely realize it. There is no dignity in spreading your lies and your attacks on people for stating their opinions. If you have wounds lasting a lifetime perhaps you should do what Serena is doing and stand up and face them!

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