Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka was brought to tears on court after a heckler lobbed an insult at her during the Indian Wells tennis tournament in California: “Naomi, you suck!”
The three words hit the former world number one like a brick. Visibly rattled, the 24-year-old athlete went on to lose to Russia’s Veronika Kudermetova.
As far as heckles go, what the four-time Grand Slam singles champion received wasn’t particularly vicious, and Osaka herself said she had been booed before. But being heckled at Indian Wells on Saturday, she said, reminded the Haitian-Japanese player of how American tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams got jeered with racial slurs at the same venue some 20 years ago.
“I don’t know why, but it went into my head, and it got replayed a lot,” Osaka told a supportive crowd on court after the match, with tears streaming down her face.
Her display of vulnerability has once again renewed debate about what it means to be an elite athlete.
Osaka’s admission on Saturday has similarly won support from many observers, including Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou. But in a sign of the divisiveness over how elite athletes’ should behave, some of Osaka’s detractors have shown no sympathy for what she went through.
“Crying because someone yelled you suck as a professional athlete is pathetic,” one tweet said.
“Naomi Osaka cries because someone said she sucks and makes tens of millions more from tears,” tweeted Ewan McKenna, a freelance sports writer.
The Japanese player won her last Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in early 2021, but withdrew from Wimbledon and the French Open that followed, citing issues with her mental health.
Serena Williams, who faced jeering at the same Indian Wells venue, has described that incident as “freaky” and “cruel.”
The 40-year-old tennis player, who said she still experiences trauma from the 2001 incident, described how the racial incident had made her want to cry. Tennis crowds are usually well-behaved, she wrote in her biography, “But I look up and all I could see was a sea of rich people—mostly older, mostly white—standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob.” She also heard shouts of the N-word, she said.
The Williams sisters had boycotted the Indian Wells tournament for over a decade due to the racial abuse until 2015, when Serena returned, and 2016, when Venus competed.