The request was denied and after her 6-0, 6-4 loss, Osaka did take the mic to speak to fans. Wiping away tears, she said, “I feel like I’ve cried enough on camera.
“…I’ve gotten heckled before, and it didn’t really bother me, but, like, heckled here? I watched a video of Venus and Serena getting heckled here, and if you’ve never watched it, you should watch it.
“And I don’t know why, but it went into my head, and it got replayed a lot. I just wanted to say thank you and congratulations [to her opponent]. Thank you.”
Osaka did not speak with the media afterward.
A four-time Grand Slam singles winner, Osaka has spoken about dealing with the pressures athletes face since withdrawing from the French Open last May, citing her mental well-being, in an announcement that came amid a dispute about post-match news conferences. She also missed Wimbledon, but returned for the Tokyo Olympics, where, playing for Japan, she faced enormous pressure and lost in the third round. She stepped away from the sport for three months after losing to Leylah Fernandez in the third round of last year’s US Open, which she has won twice, and returned the Australian Open, losing in the third round to Amanda Anisimova.
Unseeded in Indian Wells, Osaka has dropped from No. 1 in the world to 78th. The fan was not identified or ejected, and the crowd had been supportive of the 24-year-old. But her comments showed that the Williams sisters’ experience in the California tournament in 2001 lingers.
Richard Williams, Venus and Serena’s father, was accused by tennis player Elena Dementieva of manipulating matches. Although she later claimed she was joking, there were a number of comments about Richard Williams’s influence over the sisters. The situation reached critical mass when Venus withdrew from a semifinal against Serena, citing an injury, minutes before the match was to begin. The crowd booed and reporters asked Venus about whether the women’s matches were fixed. Her answer wasn’t definitive and, when Serena stepped onto the court to play Kim Clijsters in the final, the crowd got nasty. The Williamses are Black. Osaka is biracial.
Richard Williams said at the time that he was called the N-word. “One guy said, ‘I wish it was ’75; we’d skin you alive.’ That’s when I stopped and walked toward that way,” Richard Williams said then. Then I realized that [the] best bet was to handle the situation non-violently. I had trouble holding back tears. I think Indian Wells disgraced America.”
Serena and Venus Williams did return to the tournament, with Serena playing in 2015 and Venus in 2016. Neither is in the tournament this year. In an essay in 2015, Serena explained that “a lifetime in tennis later, things feel different. A few months ago, when Russian official Shamil Tarpischev made racist and sexist remarks about Venus and me, the WTA and USTA immediately condemned him. It reminded me how far the sport has come, and how far I’ve come. too.
“I have thought about going back to Indian Wells many times over my career. I said a few times that I would never play there again. And believe me, I meant it. I admitted it scared me. What if I walked onto the court and the entire crowd booed me? The nightmare would start all over.”
She went on to write that the tournament had left an imprint on her.
“It has been difficult for me to forget spending hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001, driving back to Los Angeles feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever — not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality . Emotionally it seemed easier to stay away. There are some who say I should never go back. There are others who say I should’ve returned years ago. I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time. I’m just following my heart on this one.”