An heckler brought Naomi Osaka to tears and rocked the Japanese tennis star during an emotional 6-0, 6-4 loss to Veronika Kudermetova on Saturday at the BNP Paribas Open.
A woman in the crowd inside Stadium 1 yelled, “Naomi, you suck!” in Osaka after Kudermetova broke early in the first set. The four-time Grand Slam champion, who has been transparent about her mental health struggles, broke down in tears and was visibly emotional on Center Court at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Fans surrounding the woman shouted for the heckler to be removed, but chair umpire Paula Vieira Souza said the woman could not be identified and the match resumed, with the crowd largely behind Osaka.
At a break in the game, after the second game, Osaka asked Souza for a microphone to address the crowd.
“Can I borrow your microphone?” Osaka asked the chair umpire.
“What do you mean?” Sousa replied.
“I just want to say something,” Osaka replied. “I’m not going to curse. I do not curse, it only weighs on my heart.”
Souza spoke with WTA Tour supervisor Claire Wood, who then spoke with Osaka for several minutes before declining the request. A player taking the microphone in the middle of the match would have been unprecedented.
Most of the conversation was inaudible, but video playback of the conversation clearly shows the supervisor saying of the interrupter, “If it happens again, we’ll find it.”
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The incident created a stir in the crowd and an almost immediate distraction for Osaka, who quickly fell behind by two breaks and lost the first set 6-0 to the Russian.
In the second set, Osaka seemed to shake off the first set loss. But Kudermetova patrolled the baseline with authority and appeared more focused and collected than Osaka during critical moments of the set.
After the match, Osaka asked to speak to the crowd, which normally doesn’t happen when a player loses a match.
“To be honest, I’ve been interrupted before,” Osaka told the crowd, her throat tight. “It didn’t really bother me. But they interrupted here? Like, I saw a video of Venus and Serena (Williams) being interrupted here, and if you’ve never seen it, you should watch it.
“And I don’t know why, but it crossed my mind and I replayed it a lot.”
Osaka, 24, was referring to an incident in 2001 that saw the Williams sisters not return to the tournament for more than a decade. The two sisters were set to meet in the semi-finals that year, but Venus withdrew with a knee injury just before the match, upsetting some fans when it was speculated that their father, Richard Williams, had predetermined the winner of their matches. The Williams sisters and her father have adamantly denied that their face-to-face confrontations were predetermined.
However, Serena Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, was roundly booed during the final against Kim Clijsters. Richard Williams said the racial slurs were directed at him. Serena Williams revealed years later that she cried in the locker room after beating Clijsters to win the tournament.
After she finally returned to Indian Wells in 2015, Serena Williams called the 2001 incident the “darkest moment” of her career. Venus Williams returned in 2016.
Saturday’s incident, however, was different. Most of the crowd was in favor of Osaka, although she was still shocked by what one person had shouted.
The episode overshadowed another strong performance from Kudermatova, 24, who has already reached two tournament finals this year. She will play again on Monday against Marie Bouzková of the Czech Republic.
“I played very well today,” Kudermatova said. “I hope to continue playing like this.”
Osaka’s transparency about her struggles with mental health has led her to become one of the leading voices in opening up the conversation around mental health awareness. Osaka, who is ranked 78th in the world and beat American Sloane Stephens on Thursday, took time off the court to check on her mental health. Indian Wells was Osaka’s third tournament since she won the US Open in September.
She quickly rose to fame by winning the 2018 BNP Paribas Open, then followed it up with Grand Slam titles at the US Open in 2018 and 2020 and the Australian Open in 2019 and 2021, a record for a female athlete, according to Forbes.
Andrew John covers sports for The Desert Sun and USA Today Network. Email him at [email protected] and find him on Twitter at @Andrew_L_John.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: BNP Paribas Open: Heckler brings Naomi Osaka to tears in Indian Wells match