The words had a piercing clarity in the silence dictated by the custom of tennis. They struck like a dagger to the heart of Naomi Osaka, who was on the mend after Veronika Kudermetova broke her serve in the opening game of their second-round match at the BNP Paribas Open on Saturday night.
“Naomi, you suck!” came the shout from above the court in Stadium 1 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Osaka, who has been admirably open about battling depression and took a lengthy mental health break last year, became tearful and agitated. Although other spectators cheered and chanted her name, she was shut out in the first set and outscored 6-4 in the second by Kudermetova, who is on the rise but has not approached the level that four-time Grand Slam champion Osaka can achieve. in singles. reach top form.
It’s important to understand why Osaka was so deeply upset over something that was far from the worst epithet ever thrown at an athlete or the most offensive sentiment uttered in a game in recent memory.
Just this season, a woman sitting courtside in Indianapolis told Lakers star LeBron James that she hoped her son Bronny would die in a car accident. At James’s urging, the woman and her companion were expelled. Lakers teammate Carmelo Anthony called for the ejection of two fans at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia after he said they called him a “kid.” Austin Rivers of the Denver Nuggets, angered by insults directed at his family during a game in Oklahoma City, had two fans ejected from their courtside seats.
Sadly, there is a growing list of incidents involving viewers who believe the price of admission gives them the right to go beyond routine booing to hurl personal insults. Have the long months of COVID isolation made us forget how to behave in public and play in the sandbox with other people?
Osaka, who is of black Japanese descent, said Saturday’s mockery had led her to think about the racial abuse heaped on superstar sisters Serena and Venus Williams and their father, Richard, here in 2001 after Venus walked out late from a scheduled semifinal against Serena. Richard Williams was accused of manipulating the results of his daughters’ matches, which he denied.
The sisters said they were traumatized and stayed away from an event that prides itself on being a small step below all four Grand Slam events in popularity and stature. Serena Williams didn’t return until 2015. Venus returned in 2016. She won’t be competing here this year either.
“To be honest, I’ve been interrupted before. It didn’t really bother me, but it was like I was interrupted HERE,” Osaka said during a post-match interview on the court. “I’ve seen a video of Venus and Serena being interrupted here, and if you’ve never seen it, you should watch it. And I don’t know why, but he got into my head and I played him a lot.
“I’m trying not to cry. I just want to say thank you and congratulations [to Kudermetova]. Just thanks.”
Twice during the match, Osaka asked chair umpire Paula Vieira Souza about ejecting the spectator. The referee said that would happen with a second occurrence. The organizers of the tournament and the Women’s Tennis Association. did not respond to requests for comment Sunday.
Retired tennis great Martina Navratilova called it “heartbreaking” that someone insulted Osaka and also that Osaka was so deeply affected. Navratilova also said that Osaka would have to “toughen up in some way” in the future and said that black players Althea Gibson, Chanda Rubin and Zina Garrison had had tougher experiences in the sport than Osaka has. It’s hard to tell people how to feel when we’re all shaped by different cultural factors and have different emotional trigger points.
“This is something she has to deal with because it will most likely happen again,” Navratilova said in her role as a Tennis Channel commentator. “If you can’t then don’t play until you can handle it because this is heartbreaking for everyone. Take care of yourself first.”
Former men’s tour player Paul Annacone, now a coach and commentator, urged Osaka to prioritize their well-being. “Make sure it’s under control and in an area that she can handle,” he said on a Tennis Channel panel discussion.
“We’ve all been to sporting events as well, and we all know that at sporting events you hear things and people yell things that they probably shouldn’t. … It is very sad. I hope that Naomi and her team can talk about it. I want her to be happy. I want her to play. We want to see her play. We want to see her healthy and feeling really good about things. Don’t let that get to you.”
The outbursts of crowds in tennis and golf stand out, demanding silence before and during the game. In NFL games, one troublemaker’s voice is lost among 60,000 others. The same is true on a smaller scale in baseball and hockey games, where conversations, music, and in-game promotions make noise a constant and regular background. The NBA invites player-fan interaction because fans are closer to players than in any other sport. That leads to the sports equivalent of Road Rage, where fans take their hostility out on the nearest target.
Before the tournament began, Osaka said that she felt like she was at peace with herself. Unfortunately, that peace was too fragile to last, broken by a few words that did nothing to make the world a better place and everything to inflict unnecessary harm.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.