(INDIAN WELLS, Calif.) — Tennis player Naomi Osaka was nearly brought to tears over the weekend after a spectator heckled her from the stands at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California.
Osaka, who is a four-time major champion and was formerly ranked No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association, was playing against Russian tennis player Veronika Kudermetova, when a woman in the stands shouted, “Naomi, you suck,” during the first set.
After the match, Osaka asked the chair umpire if she could borrow her mic to address the crowd to say something that was “on her heart.”
“To be honest, I’ve gotten heckled before, it didn’t really bother me,” she said. “But [being] heckled here, I watched a video of Venus and Serena [Williams] getting heckled here, and if you’ve never watched it, you should watch it. I don’t know why, but it went into my head, and it got replayed a lot. I’m trying not to cry.”
The incident Osaka referred to was when the Williams sisters were heckled by spectators at the Indian Wells Masters in 2001. Venus Williams withdrew with a knee injury from her scheduled semi-final against Serena Williams shortly before it was to begin. Amid speculation of match fixing, the crowd heckled Venus Williams and her father, Richard Williams, when they took their seats to watch Serena Williams in the final against Belgian tennis player Kim Clijsters.
The crowd continued to heckle Serena Williams when she came out to play the final and continued to boo her periodically throughout the entire match. When Serena Williams won the match, she was subsequently booed during the awards ceremony.
Following the tennis tournament and racist comments that Richard Williams alleged were directed at him during the incident, the Williams sisters boycotted the Indian Wells tournament for 14 years, even though it has been a mandatory stop on the WTA tour since 2009. Serena Williams ended the boycott in 2015 and played.
Osaka, who ended her address to the crowd by congratulating her opponent, opened up about her struggle with depression in 2021 after withdrawing from the French Open last year.
The tennis player, who said she wouldn’t be doing any press events during the tournament due to a lack of care for athletes’ mental health, created some controversy for her decision to abstain from press obligations, which resulted in a fine issued to her by French Open officials.
She ultimately withdrew and posted a statement on Twitter about her struggle with depression.
“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018, and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” she wrote. “Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”
“I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” she added.
Many at the time commended Osaka for openly sharing her experience, including tennis legend Billie Jean King and even Serena Williams, who Osaka defeated in 2018 to win her first Grand Slam title.
“I feel for Naomi,” Serena Williams said about the situation after a first round win at the 2021 French Open. “I feel like I wish I could give her a hug, because I know what it’s like.”
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