Naomi Osaka loves tennis, but tennis doesn’t seem to love her back.
Osaka is in the news again, and again, it’s not for something she’s accomplished on the court, but for something that’s happened to her at her workplace. Over the weekend, Osaka lost 6-0, 6-4 in the second round to Veronika Kudermetova at the BNP Paribas Open. The world’s former No. 1 player didn’t have a good day. She got rattled after a woman screamed “Naomi, you suck,” during the first game of the match.
That’s not supposed to happen. Not because it’s Osaka, but because the “decorum” of a game like tennis doesn’t allow fan behavior in that manner. This isn’t football or basketball. Tennis is supposed to be sophisticated and elegant. Jeering from the stands is unacceptable. Yet, it was allowed to happen. Osaka requested that the fan be removed and even wanted to address the crowd, but she wasn’t allowed to do so until after the match.
“To be honest, I’ve gotten heckled before, it didn’t really bother me,” Osaka said with tears in her eyes. “But [being] heckled here, I watched a video of Venus and Serena [Williams] getting 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 it got replayed a lot. I’m trying not to cry.”
The visual of a young Black and Asian woman being treated this way, in the same place where Venus and Serena Williams were once belittled, can’t be ignored. It’s a very loud example of how the sport of tennis has never been fond of Black stars, especially when they’re women.
“I walked out onto the court, the crowd immediately started jeering and booing,” Serena Williams wrote for Time Magazine in 2015 about what happened to her at Indian Wells in 2001. “In my last match, the semifinals, I was set to play my sister, but Venus had tendinitis and had to pull out. Apparently that angered many fans. Throughout my whole career, integrity has been everything to me. It is also everything and more to Venus. The false allegations that our matches were fixed hurt, cut, and ripped into us deeply. The undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing, and unfair. In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.”
Williams wound up winning the tournament — again — that year, but it led to the Williams family boycotting the event for 14 years until finally returning in 2015. Last fall, Williams spoke about how her experience at Indian Wells still bothers her.
“Talk about post-traumatic stress and mental anxiety,” she said. “I remember sitting in the bathroom thinking, ‘Wait, I’m not gonna go back. I just don’t think I should do this. What if they start booing again?’ It was really hard for me.”
The “mental anxiety” part is key here, as it proves just how much things can bother a person, especially someone like Williams who is revered for her “mental toughness.” Osaka, on the other hand, is of a different generation and has been open about her mental health while being the face of the sport and all that comes along with it. So if Indian Wells damaged Williams, you can only guess what Osaka went through on Saturday, triggered by the flashback of what happened to Venus and Serena when she was only three years old. But it’s not like Indian Wells is the only place that taunts brilliant Black women that dominate tennis. It’s just a cog in the system.
In January, we were reminded of when Novak Djokovic took an unnecessary shot at Osaka last spring because she wanted to pay a fine rather than do press conferences after matches. He called her out for not following the rules, only to try to circumvent them himself months later in efforts to play in a tournament without being vaccinated. And when Osaka returned to the court last August to play at Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, one of the first questions she was met with included a negative implication about her mental health.
“You are not crazy about dealing with us, especially in this format, yet you have a lot of outside interests that are served by having a media platform,” asked Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer. “When you say I’m ‘not crazy about dealing with you guys,’ Osaka responded, “what does that refer to?” Starting a question with “You are not crazy…” should be the last thing out of a person’s mouth when addressing someone who has become one of the faces of mental health in the sports world and beyond.
A month later, those who govern tennis, participate in it, cover it, and buy tickets just to boo from the stands got their way when Osaka stepped away from the game.
“Basically I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match. I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while,” she said.
And let’s not forget that Osaka was introduced to the world when she defeated Williams in the finals of the controversial 2018 U.S. Open, where some in the crowd actually booed the winner.
“I just want to tell you guys, she played well and this is her first Grand Slam,” Williams said that day with tears in her eyes. “Let’s make this the best moment we can.”
There’s no other sport on Earth that actively demeans their stars as tennis does. Ironically enough, between the dominance of the Williams sisters and Osaka’s transcendence, tennis is the only global sport that’s been ruled by Black women for the last three decades and counting. The irony is even more infuriating when you realize what happened to Osaka was just days after International Women’s Day, which takes place during Women’s History Month, and she was heckled by… a woman.
But, the real kicker is that a day after the sport of tennis once again proved that it doesn’t love Osaka, her idols were once again the target of unnecessary provocation at the Critics Choice Awards by another woman.
“Venus and Serena, you’re such marvels. However, you don’t play against the guys, like I have to,” said Jane Campion during her acceptance speech on Sunday night after winning for best director, as it was another example of how white feminists far too often dismiss the duality of racism and misogyny that Black women endure.
I was wrong. It’s not that tennis doesn’t love Naomi Osaka. It’s that society hates the greatness of Black women.