A BNP Paribas Open match between Naomi Osaka and Veronika Kudermetova at Indian Wells was disrupted late Saturday night after the words of one heckler cut through the stadium.
“Naomi, you suck.”
While not out of place from heckles that most prominent athletes will inevitably hear in their careers, the words clearly had an effect on Osaka. The rest of the crowd quickly booed the heckler and match was briefly halted while the four-time Grand Slam champion asked the chair umpire if the fan could be ejected.
Osaka was later seen in tears between games. During the break in play, Osaka asked the umpire if she could borrow her microphone to address the crowd. The request was denied.
Osaka, who has been more than transparent about her struggles with mental health as a professional tennis player, struggled for the rest of the match.
The 24-year-old Kudermetova, ranked No. 24 by the WTA, hung a donut on the former world No. 1 in the first set, and eventually notched a 6-0, 6-4 win, continuing a stretch of some of the best tennis of her career. She will advance to face Marie Bouzkova in the round of 32.
Naomi Osaka explains how heckler reminded her of Venus and Serena
After the match, Osaka was allowed to speak to the crowd, something not often seen when a player loses. She explained that while she had been heckled before, the Indian Wells setting made her recall the experience of Venus and Serena Williams at the same tournament decades earlier:
“To be honest, I’ve gotten heckled before, it didn’t really bother me. It’s heckled here, I’ve watched a video of Venus and Serena getting heckled here, and if you’ve never watched it, you should watch it. I don’t know why, it went into my head and it got replayed a lot. I’m trying not to cry. I just wanted to say thank you and congratulations.”
The video Osaka mentions undoubtedly comes from the Williams sisters’ controversy in 2001. After losing to Venus in the quarterfinals, Russian player Elena Dementieva accused the sisters’ father Richard of fixing matches between his daughters. Soon after, Venus pulled out of the tournament shortly before she was supposed to play Serena in the semifinals, citing tendinitis.
The result was a final between Serena and Kim Clijsters in which the Williams family was raucously booed. Richard later claimed the family heard racial slurs from the predominantly white crowd.
The incident left an ugly mark on Indian Wells, widely thought to be the biggest non-Grand Slam tennis tournament in the world. Serena would later say it was the darkest moment of her career, per the Palm Springs Desert Sun.
The Williams sisters would not play there until Serena entered the field in 2015, with Venus joining a year after. Even though they eventually made their peace, the story apparently stuck with Osaka, who grew up idolizing Serena.
By Jack Baer