Four-time major champion and former world No. 1 Naomi Osaka was brought to tears during her second-round loss to Veronika Kudermetova at the BNP Paribas Open on Saturday after a fan heckled her from the stands during the first set.
After the match in Indian Wells, California, Osaka requested to address the crowd, something rarely done by the losing player. She explained exactly why she was so upset by what happened.
"To be honest, I've gotten heckled before, it didn't really bother me," Osaka said as her voice broke. "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."
After being broken in the first game of the match against Kudermetova, a woman in the stands shouted, "Naomi, you suck." Osaka, visibly upset, stopped play and asked the chair umpire if the fan could be kicked out. In between games shortly after, Osaka asked if she could use the umpire's microphone to address the crowd. Both requests were denied.
A supervisor came on court for a prolonged discussion with Osaka. The supervisor told the umpire, "If it happens again, we're going to find him." Kudermetova waited behind the baseline for the match to resume.
"I didn't hear what lady say because I really so focus on my game, on my serve game, I didn't understand what she say,'' Kudermetova said. "But after that moment, I saw that Naomi, she start to cry."
Osaka was ultimately unable to find her rhythm and lost 6-0, 6-4, then afterward was able to address the crowd.
During the 2001 tournament at Indian Wells, Venus Williams and her father, Richard, were booed loudly as they took their seats to watch Serena play in the final. Some believed Richard manipulated matches between his daughters following Venus' withdrawal due to an injury ahead of their semifinal match at the event. The crowd then directed its ire on Serena throughout her match, and the jeers continued even after Serena defeated Kim Clijsters for the title.
Both sisters then boycotted the tournament, with Serena not returning until 2015 and Venus until 2016.
In an interview in November, Serena revealed the episode still haunts her.
"Even when I went back 14 years later, it was very traumatizing," Serena said in an interview with actor Will Smith in November. "Talk about post-traumatic stress and mental anxiety. 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."
Richard Williams later said the incident was racially motivated and that the family was the target of several slurs throughout the match. Osaka is a biracial player of Black and Japanese heritage.
Osaka has struggled since winning her last major title at the Australian Open in 2021, withdrawing from the French Open ahead of her second-round match, opting out of Wimbledon and then announcing she would be taking an indefinite break from the sport after a third-round exit at the US Open in September. She returned to competition at the start of the season but lost in the third round of the Australian Open to Amanda Anisimova. Her ranking plummeted to No. 85.
The BNP Paribas Open was her first tournament since Melbourne, and she originally needed a wild card for entry before moving into the main draw. She is next slated to play at the Miami Open later this month as a wild card.
Kudermetova, the No. 21 seed, will next play Marie Bouzkova in the third round at Indian Wells.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.