INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Naomi Osaka, fighting through tears on court after being heckled by a spectator, was knocked out of the BNP Paribas Open in the second round on Saturday 6-0, 6-4 by the No. 21 seed, Veronika Kudermetova.
Osaka, the Japanese superstar who has struggled with her mental health and with ambivalence toward professional tennis, spoke to the crowd directly at her request after the defeat.
Fighting for composure, Osaka explained that the heckler, who shouted, “Naomi, you suck!” after the opening game, had made her flash back to footage she had seen of Venus and Serena Williams being booed and jeered at Indian Wells during the event in 2001.
“To be honest, I’ve gotten heckled before, and it didn’t really bother me,” Osaka said. “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,” she continued, apparently referring to Saturday’s match.
Osaka then thanked the crowd and left the court, carrying her tennis bag.
After the 2001 episodes, the Williams sisters did not return to the tournament in Indian Wells for more than a decade, with Serena coming back in 2015 and Venus in 2016. Serena, now 40, and Venus, now 41, are still active players but not participating in the event this year.
In 2001, during the Williams sisters’ early years as professionals, there was speculation on tour that their father and co-coach, Richard Williams, was prearranging the results of their matches against each other.
The Russian player Elena Dementieva spoke about her doubts publicly at that year’s tournament after losing to Venus Williams in the quarterfinals. When Venus withdrew from the semifinal against Serena only minutes before it was to begin, citing tendinitis in her right knee, the crowd in Indian Wells responded skeptically by booing. Dementieva later insisted that she had been joking, and the sisters and Richard Williams have denied that any of their matches were prearranged.
Two days later, when Serena played Kim Clijsters in the final, Serena was booed throughout the match, and Richard Williams, who was watching from the stands with Venus, said he was subjected to several racial slurs.
Serena Williams won the match but has said that the experience was traumatic and “haunted” her and her family for many years.
The circumstances on Saturday seemed vastly different. Osaka certainly had ample support from the vast majority of the crowd. There were several thousand fans scattered throughout the stands in the 16,000-seat main stadium on a chilly evening, and after the heckler’s insult, there were loud cheers for Osaka’s few winners in the opening set and more support for her down the stretch as she raised her game.
Osaka was unseeded this year in Indian Wells, where she made her first major breakthrough by winning the tournament as an unseeded player in 2018.
This year, after defeating the former U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in three sets in the first round on Thursday, she faced another tough test in Kudermetova, a powerful Russian on the rise.
Kudermetova broke Osaka’s serve in the opening game, and the spectator’s shout came as Osaka prepared to return serve. She approached the chair umpire, Paula Vieira Souza, and appeared to inquire about having the spectator ejected, but Souza politely demurred.
Kudermetova held serve, and Osaka began to tear up as she prepared to serve the next game. After she was broken again, Osaka had another extended conversation with Souza and asked if she could use the microphone to address the crowd directly.
Souza declined, and the WTA Tour supervisor Clare Wood was called to the court and discussed the matter with Osaka as the player sat on her chair.
When play resumed, Osaka continued to struggle to find her range and lost the set at love. Wood spoke with Osaka again before the start of the second set, which was much more competitive from the start. But Kudermetova broke Osaka’s serve in the seventh game and went on to close out the victory.