Naomi Osaka lost in straight sets to 21st-seeded Veronika Kudermetova in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells on Saturday. However, the 24-year-old tennis star’s biggest opponent that day wasn’t the Russian on the other side of the net. Instead, it was one particular heckler whose shout of “Naomi, you suck!” after the ladies’ opening game which left Osaka rattled.
“To be honest, I’ve gotten heckled before, and it didn’t really bother me,” Osaka said to the audience after the match. “But, like, heckled here? I watched a video of Venus and Serena getting heckled here, and if you’ve never watched it, you should watch it.
“And I don’t know why,” Osaka continued through tears, “but it went into my head, and it got replayed a lot.”
Osaka, a 4x Grand Slam winner and former No. 1 tennis player in the world, came into the match ranked at No. 78. This was also her first appearance since being bounced in the first round of the 2022 Australian Open in late January.
Kudermetova won the opening game versus Osaka Saturday night, at which point someone screamed out the jeer at the 2020 US Open champ. Osaka was quickly frustrated, and she asked the umpire for the heckler to be removed. Later on, Osaka asked the ump for the microphone so she could reach out the audience. Neither request was granted.
“If it happens again, we’re going to find him,” the supervisor told the ump. The supervisor also had a long chat with Osaka while Kudermetova waited for play to resume. Osaka went on to lose 6-0, 6-4, after which she made her plea to the crowd. However, Osaka skipped her official postgame press conference.
“I didn’t hear what the lady say because I really so focus on my game, on my service game,” Kudermetova said of the situation. “I didn’t understand what she said, but after that moment, I saw that Naomi, she start to cry.”
The Williams incident that Osaka referenced took place at the same tournament in 2001. Russian player Elena Dementieva inferred that Richard Williams, father and coach to Venus and Serena, was handpicking his daughters’ opponents and fabricating their success.
Venus Williams cited tendinitis in her knee and pulled out of the semifinal round against her sister Serena. The crowd at Indian Wells then booed the younger Williams sister. Serena went on to face Kim Clijsters for the title and won her second title at Indian Wells in three sets. However, she was heckled throughout the game, and Richard Williams said he was subject to racial taunts from others in the stands.
Dementieva went on to say that she was only joking about the Williams sisters. But the experience left Venus and Serena so upset that they refused to play at the tournament again for 14 and 16 years, respectively. And the women interestingly declined showing up for this year’s go-around again.
“Talk about post-traumatic stress and mental anxiety,” Serena said in a November 2021 Red Table Talk with Will Smith. “I remember sitting in the bathroom thinking, ‘Wait, I’m not gonna go back. I just don’t think I should do this. What if they start booing again?’ It was really hard for me… “It was so hard. I’ll never forget driving back, and [my sister] Yetunde was there, and I remember just getting in the car and I was just bawling. I was at the gas station, there was no celebration, and I was just crying and crying and crying.”