Twenty-one years after the Williams sisters were booed and heckled at the A BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, CA, the ugliness returned, this time focused on four-time grand slam winner Naomi Osaka.
Osaka’s match against Veronika Kudermetova at Indian Wells was disrupted late Saturday night after the words of one heckler cut through the stadium.
“Naomi, you suck.”
While not out of place from heckles that most prominent athletes will inevitably hear in their careers, the words clearly had an effect on Osaka, who said the incident gave her traumatic memories of how the Williams sisters were booed at the tournament. That booing, a crowd effort, led the Williams sisters to boycott the tournament for 14 years.
The rest of the crowd quickly booed the heckler and match was briefly halted while Osaka asked the chair umpire if the fan could be ejected. Osaka was later seen in tears between games. During the break in play, Osaka asked the umpire if she could borrow her microphone to address the crowd. The request was denied.
Osaka, who has been more than transparent about her struggles with mental health as a professional tennis player, struggled for the rest of the match and lost the match to the No. 24 ranked Kuderetova 6-0, 6-4 win.
After the match, Osaka was allowed to speak to the crowd, something not often seen when a player loses. She explained that while she had been heckled before, the Indian Wells setting made her recall the experience of Venus and Serena Williams at the same tournament decades earlier:
“To be honest, I’ve gotten heckled before, it didn’t really bother me. It’s heckled here, I’ve watched a video of Venus and Serena getting heckled here, and if you’ve never watched it, you should watch it. I don’t know why, it went into my head and it got replayed a lot. I’m trying not to cry. I just wanted to say thank you and congratulations.”
The video Osaka mentions undoubtedly comes from the Williams sisters’ controversy in 2001. After losing to Venus in the quarterfinals, Russian player Elena Dementieva accused the sisters’ father Richard of fixing matches between his daughters. Soon after, Venus pulled out of the tournament shortly before she was supposed to play Serena in the semifinals, citing tendinitis.
The result was a final between Serena and Kim Clijsters in which the Williams family was raucously booed. Richard later claimed the family heard racial slurs from the predominatly White crowd.
The incident left an ugly mark on Indian Wells, widely thought to be the biggest non-Grand Slam tennis tournament in the world.
Serena said in her 2009 autobiography, On the Line: “What got me most of all was that it wasn’t just a scattered bunch of boos. It wasn’t coming from just one section.
“It was like the whole crowd got together and decided to boo all at once. The ugliness was just raining down on me, hard. I didn’t know what to do.
“Nothing like this had ever happened to me. What was most surprising about this uproar was the fact that tennis fans are typically a well-mannered bunch. They’re respectful. They sit still. And in Palm Springs, especially, they tended to be pretty well-heeled, too.
“But I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people—mostly older, mostly white—standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob.
“I don’t mean to use such inflammatory language to describe the scene, but that’s really how it seemed from where I was down on the court. Like these people were gonna come looking for me after the match.
“There was no mistaking that all of this was meant for me. I heard the word n***** a couple times, and I knew. I couldn’t believe it.
“That’s just not something you hear in polite society on that stadium court.
“Just before the start of play, my dad and Venus started walking down the aisle to the players’ box by the side of the court, and everybody turned and started to point and boo at them.
“It was mostly just a chorus of boos, but I could still hear shouts of ’N*****!’ here and there.
“I even heard one angry voice telling us to go back to Compton. It was unbelievable.
“We refused to return to Indian Wells. Even now, all these years later, we continue to boycott the event.”
Serena Williams decided to end her boycott in 2015, after 14 years of not attending the tournament in California. Venus returned a year later.
Even though they eventually made their peace, the story apparently stuck with Osaka, who grew up idolizing Serena.