Naomi Osaka broke down in tears during her match at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, on Saturday after a heckler shouted, “Naomi, you suck!”
Osaka, a 24-year old four-time Grand Slam champion, has grappled with mental health issues in the past from being admittedly too hard on herself.
However, Osaka heard the taunt after losing the serve in the first game of her second-round match with Veronika Kudermetova. It struck a nerve with the tennis player who requested to talk with the crowd; the request was highly out of the ordinary.
Naomi Osaka asked for the microphone after her loss against Veronika Kudermetova. Here's what she said. pic.twitter.com/0Pj9WnNe4t
— The Tennis Letter (@TheTennisLetter) March 13, 2022
No Way Out
Osaka was visibly shaken and looking for a way to cope, but her requests were denied.
Last May, at the French Open, Osaka asked the Roland-Garros officials to skip her media obligations. The request was denied, prompting her to reveal she “struggled with long bouts of depression and anxiety” after her notorious U.S. Open in 2018.
However, Osaka opted to quit the tournament altogether to focus on herself, and that hiatus from the game stretched into the Olympics.
Simone Biles Joins Mental Health Fight
Not long after, gymnastics GOAT Simone Biles decided to withdraw from five of her six finals at the Olympics in July to focus on her mental health.
Biles experienced something foreign to the world but well-known in her sport, the twisties: a phenomenon that competes with spatial awareness.
Both Osaka and Biles were virtually ubiquitous with effective marketing campaigns across various sponsor product categories while attempting to understand therapy and themselves simultaneously.
Naomi Osaka didn’t deserve this… pic.twitter.com/sQLbjsT2p3
— dana (@jazdahubi) March 13, 2022
History of Trauma
At the 2021 U.S. Open, Osaka lost in round three to Leylah Fernandez, causing her to give a tearful update.
“I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do. Honestly I don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.”
The words felt almost fatal for a sport that had crowned Osaka queen after the legendary run of both Venus and Serena Williams. However, it was also the experiences of the Williams sisters that shed light on Osaka’s “condition.”
“I just wanted to say ‘Thank You.”
“I’ve gotten heckled before but heckled here, I watched a video of Venus and Serena getting heckled here. If you haven’t watched it, you should watch it.”
— Andrew Jones (@TWDTV1) March 13, 2022
The Indian Wells Problem
In 2001, there was an incident at the Indian Wells tournament where Russian tennis player Elena Dementieva accused the Williams sister’s father, Richard Williams, of manipulation.
At the time, Venus Williams suffered a knee injury during the tournament leading her to withdraw from her semifinal match against Serena.
Serena advanced to the women’s singles final match against Kim Clijsters, but as Richard and Venus Williams entered the stands to watch, the crowd booed them mercilessly.
“I don’t know why, but it went into my head, and it got replayed a lot,” said Osaka.
Serena said that the trauma at the time fueled her motivation to win, and she did.
Butta says hi 🎾🐶💕 pic.twitter.com/M4pLPtHV0E
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) March 8, 2022
Athletes vs. Fans
In a world where top global athletes are scrutinized and judged daily on television, social media and more, having tough skin is an implicit prerequisite. However, one only has to look at the saga between the Philadelphia 76ers fans and Ben Simmons to see that Osaka is not alone.
After being heckled by Sixers fans during the 2021 playoff season for lack of hitting jump shots, Ben Simmons decided he would not be back on the team and worked a trade to the Brooklyn Nets.
As the world watched an organization lose the trust between the front office and the locker room, Simmons decided he would not subject himself to the wrath of Philly fans.
However, now that he has been traded, the question is has he worked on his ability to take massive criticism as New York City is a larger media market with a bullhorn full of opinions.
The thing that got Naomi Osaka upset, was not just the fact that the "fan' was heckling..That fan was being ALLOWED to repeatedly heckle and no one did anything about it. Naomi had to ask the officials could the heckler be removed.
This is how systematic white supremacy works
— Tariq Nasheed 🇺🇸 (@tariqnasheed) March 13, 2022
Tougher Than Leather
“It’s heartbreaking to see, but you just have to tough it out sometimes, if you can,” Tennis Channel analyst and legend Martina Navratilova said after Osaka’s loss.
“Most of all, don’t take it personally. And if you can’t [do that], don’t play until you can handle it, forever, or for now. Just take care of yourself first.”
The question of whether Naomi Osaka is too traumatized for the opinions of the world or even from the fans watching her in real-time to be championship-caliber is there and something only she can answer.
However, fans everywhere should understand that the energy they give is transferrable even when it is negative.