A woman in the crowd at the BNP Paribas Open yelled, “Naomi, you suck!” at Naomi Osaka following the first game of her match Saturday evening. The comment brought the four-time Grand Slam champion to tears on center court at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Fans around the woman yelled to have the woman removed, Tennis Channel commentators said, but the umpire said that the woman could not be identified and the match resumed.
At a break in play, following the second game, the Japanese tennis star asked the umpire for a microphone to address the crowd.
“Can I borrow your microphone?” Osaka asked the chair umpire.
“What do you want to say?” the umpire responded.
“I just want to say something,” Osaka replied. “I’m not going to curse. I don’t curse. It’s just weighing on my heart.”
The umpire spoke to his supervisor, who ultimately declined the request, telling Osaka that a player taking the microphone mid-match is unprecedented. Most of the conversation was inaudible but video replay of the conversation clearly picks up the supervisor saying, “If it happens again, we’re going to find him.”
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The comment shook Osaka, who quickly fell behind two breaks and lost the first set 6-0 to Veronika Kudermetova of Russia. Osaka, who was born in Japan but raised in the United States, fought back in the second set before falling to Kudermetova, 6-0, 6-4.
After the match, Osaka asked to speak to the crowd, which typically does not happen when a player loses a match.
“To be be honest, I’ve been heckled before,” Osaka said, choking up. “It didn’t really bother me. But heckled here, like, I’ve watched a video of Venus and Serena (Williams) get 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 got replayed a lot.”
Osaka, 24, was referencing an ugly, albeit brief, part of the history at the Indian Wells tournament, when fans booed Serena Williams as she won the tournament in 2001. The two sisters were set to play each other in the semifinals that year, but Venus withdrew with an injury just before the match, which upset some fans who did not believe the injury was legitimate.
Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, said it was the “darkest moment of her career,” and she did not return to play at this event until 2015. Venus Williams returned in 2016.
Saturday’s incident overshadowed another strong performance by Kudermatova, 24, who has reached two tournament finals already this year. She’ll play again Monday against Marie Bouzková of the Czech Republic.
“I played really well today,” Kudermatova said. “I hope I will continue to play like that.”
Osaka has been transparent about her struggles with mental health, and has taken time off from the World Tour to manage it. She’s been among the leading voices in opening the conversation about the mental health challenges facing professional athletes and society, in general.
She rose to fame quickly by winning the 2018 BNP Paribas Open, then following it with Grand Slam titles at the US Open in 2018 and 2020 and Australian Open in 2019 and 2021. In 2021, Osaka earned $37 million, which was a single-year record for a female athlete, according to Forbes.
Indian Wells was only Osaka’s third tournament since winning the US Open in September.
Andrew John covers sports for The Desert Sun and the USA Today Network. Email him at email@example.com and find him on Twitter at @Andrew_L_John.