Mood swings are the mother’s milk of tennis. After the sport was spiraling in disarray over the tedious squabbles about Novak Djokovic and COVID, Rafa stepped in and won the Aussie Open, lifting everyone’s spirits. Yesterday, when the popular Spaniard was on the brink of defeat, gloom descended on Indian Wells. Then he charged back to win – and elation reigned.
As Indian Wells began, Naomi Osaka seemed healthy, relaxed – almost radiant. She shared endearing stories about her family’s dogs with the media and joked that it seemed as if reporters were learning Japanese. Her previous fears, her doubts and fragility, appeared to be in her rearview mirror.
She reported that she was trying to enjoy herself and her tennis more. And fans were encouraging her to have fun. After a tight opening round win over Sloane Stephens, she said, “My old self wouldn’t have been grateful for playing in a big stadium with fans. My past self might have been extremely tense…I might have been too tense to think logically.”
Then she was triggered. Early in her next match against the considerable No. 21 Katerina Kudermetova, a fan called out: “Naomi, you suck!”
The jerk got to her.
Tears welled up, her chest heaved. She’s a sensitive soul. Serena, who’s survived many a battle, recently observed about Naomi, “I’m thick and she’s thin.” Osaka tried to shake it off. She ran in place and stroked shadow shots. She asked the umpire to seek out the heckler. The ump said she couldn’t.
Then she asked to speak on the microphone to the crowd. She told the umpire she wouldn’t curse, that she doesn’t curse. She said she had something in her heart. But she was told “No.” Granted, it would have been unprecedented for a player to speak to a crowd mid-match. But something should have been done.
Thanks to Osaka, Olympics gymnast Simone Biles and others, mental wellness has been front and center on our minds. The meltdown of Russian skaters at the Olympics was one of the more dysfunctional moments in sports history. Even Nick Kyrgios wrote, “Be Positive” on a camera lens recently. A while ago Naomi told us, “I felt lost…I was shriveling.”
Now officials were caught flat-footed. They not only didn’t give Naomi the mike, they didn’t hunt down and kick the heckler out, nor did the ump even make an announcement such as, “Out of courtesy to the players, please show our competitors the respect they deserve.”
After Naomi lost 6-0, 6-4, she candidly explained to the crowd, “To be honest, I’ve been heckled before, [and] it didn’t really bother me. But to be heckled here – I watched a video of Venus and Serena get heckled here and if you never watched it, you should watch it. I don’t know why, but it got into my head and got replayed a lot. I’m trying not to cry.”
Taunting is common in sports. Trash talk is an art form in many arenas. Entire stadiums can erupt with jeers. “Boston sucks” often reverberates through Yankee Stadium. Even in the genteel sport of tennis, heckling is commonplace. Sometimes you feel you’re at the Roman Coliseum when you go to a college match. In New York, Madrid and Melbourne, crowds have gotten all over Daniil Medvedev. Decades ago, Mal Washington complained about the taunts of rowdy Brazilians at the Davis Cup. And just last week, Alexander Zverev made a similar comment. Davis Cup play is not for the timid.
Andy Murray told me, “I watch a football or a soccer match and a player’s going to take a throw-in or a corner kick and the crowd are just hurling insults…I always think, ‘How’s that allowed? You can’t do that.’ If you’re doing that…in any other sort of work environment that’s obviously not tolerated.
“I’ve obviously played in…Davis Cup, where the atmosphere’s intense, and sometimes things are said, and it’s not that comfortable. [But] it’s also something that’s always just kind of been part of sports…[You] have to kind of be used to that or be able to deal with that, too, even though it’s not pleasant.
“Obviously I feel for Naomi. It upset her a lot…But it’s always been something that’s been part of sport…You have to be prepared for that…and be able to tolerate it because it does happen regularly across all sports.”
But there’s been no tennis incident quite like the 2001 Indian Wells final, when Serena was booed for over two hours. For 14 years both she and Venus boycotted the tournament.
Serena recalled in a 2015 Time Magazine interview, “I felt like I lost the biggest game ever. I lost a bigger fight for equality.” Just recently she told actor Will Smith that she was still traumatized by the boos she heard during the final: “I’ll never forget driving back…I was just bawling…crying and crying and crying. Even when I went back 14 years later it was very traumatizing…Talk about post traumatic stress and mental anxiety. I remember sitting at the bathroom thinking, ‘Wait, I’m not going to go back. I just don’t think I should do this. What if they start booing again?’”
Yesterday’s match leaves us asking questions. The Williams family incident from 21 years ago still reverberates. How long will we be learning from it? Is Osaka’s upset just temporary, just a stand-alone happening? Will she continue on what appeared to be an upward-trending path to mental wellness and strength? Will she, like Serena and Venus, choose not to play Indian Wells, or understand it was only one abusive spectator? And why, with its extensive security, was Indian Wells not able to track down the rowdy fan and toss her out, as the NBA regularly does? In the future, will officials be more prepared and adept when another abusive situation arises? And if an athlete can’t deal with some degree of abuse that sports fans may unleash, should they even be competing?
After Osaka spoke, court announcer Andrew Krasny tried to ease the tension of the moment, telling Naomi, “Out of 10,000 people here, one voice can’t drown out 9,999 others, and we love you here.”
Osaka’s rise to stardom began when she won Indian Wells in 2018. She then gave a whimsical, oh-my-God acceptance speech filled with charming teen awkwardness, big-stage self-consciousness and candor.
Those sweet days of innocence seem a long way away.