Naomi Osaka's second-round encounter against Veronika Kudermetova was marred by controversy, as the four-time Grand Slam champion was reduced to tears by a heckler in the crowd.
The incident occured very early in the contest, right after the Japanese lost her first service game of the match. With everyone in the crowd silent in anticipation of Kudermetova's serve, a voice rang out from the arena proclaiming, "Naomi, you suck!"
Here's a video of the heckling incident uploaded to Twitter:
The message of hatred clearly rattled the Japanese as she fell 3-0 down in the first set without much resistance. During the subsequent changeover, a teary-eyed Osaka requested the chair umpire to give her the mic so she could address the heckler directly.
When the umpire asked the former World No. 1 what she wanted to say, the Japanese stated that the incident was "weighing on her heart." Despite Naomi Osaka's repeated assurances that she would not curse, the request was ultimately denied by the match official.
"I just want to say something,” Naomi Osaka said to the umpire. “I’m not going to curse. I don’t curse. It’s just weighing on my heart.”
Here's a video of the incident uploaded to Twitter:
Though the World No. 78 recovered in the second set and began to find her groove, it was not enough. The Russian wrapped up the match 6-0, 6-4 to secure passage to the third round, where she will take on Marie Bouzkova.
Surprisingly, that was not the end of the four-time Grand Slam champion's time on the court. Traditionally, only the winner takes part in an on-court interview. But unforeseen circumstances led to a change.
Naomi Osaka, braving her loss, stayed back until Kudermetova finished her own interview to get an opportunity to address the crowd. This time, the tournament organizersdid not decline the Japanese's request.
Despite her best attempts, the 24-year-old could not prevent herself from welling up as she thanked those in the crowd who had her back. The former World No. 1 revealed that she was not bothered by the heckling in particular but that the moment reminded her of when Serena Williams and Venus Williams were subjected to the same treatment in 2001.
"I just wanted to say thank you. I feel like I've cried enough on camera. To be be honest, I've gotten heckled before. It didn't really bother me. But heckled here, like, I've watched a video of Venus and Serena [Williams] getting heckled here, and if you've never watched it, you should watch it," Naomi Osaka said. "I don't know why, but it went into my head and it got replayed a lot. I'm trying not to cry, but I just wanted to say thank you."
For reference, the Williams sisters were slated to play each other in the semifinals at Indian Wells in 2001, but Venus withdrew before the match with an injury. The spectators took their anger out on Serena by repeatedly booing her during the final against Kim Clijsters.
While Serena Williams went on to claim the trophy for her second title in the desert, she could not excuse the behavior of her "home crowd." She and her sister boycotted the event for the next 15 years, returning only in 2016.
Before Naomi Osaka could leave, the emcee reminded her that she should not let one person drown out the messages of love from everyone else gathered in the arena. This made the World No. 78 flash a small but much-needed smile.
As the 24-year-old exited the stadium, she was treated to heartwarming applause from thousands of fans, including her vanquisher Kudermetova, who stood in solidarity with her remarkable display of courage.
The Indian Wells Open was Naomi Osaka's third tournament since her break from the game last year
The Indian Wells Open was only the third tournament Naomi Osaka has appeared in following her break from the game following last year's US Open. After losing to eventual runner-up Leylah Fernandez, the four-time Grand Slam champion shocked the world by announcing that she was taking a hiatus and that "winning did not make her happy" anymore.
Thankfully, the hiatus did not last too long, and Osaka returned to action earlier this year at the Melbourne Summer Set. The Japanese reached the semifinals, before withdrawing with an injury. She then played at the Australian Open but failed to defend her title, falling to Amanda Anisimova in the third round.
The former World No. 1 looked impressive in her victory over former US Open winner Sloane Stephens in the first round at Indian Wells earlier this week. The heckling, however, potentially robbed Naomi Osaka and her fans of a deep run in an important tournament.
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