Naomi Osaka’s emotional, tear-filled comments after she was heckled during her second-round loss in Indian Wells on Saturday immediately drew comparisons to the infamous incident at the same tournament in 2001 when the Williams sisters were mercilessly – and unjustly - booed. While the setting was the same and both instances reveal an ugly side of fandom, the circumstances surrounding each are decidedly not similar.
At the 2001 tournament, minutes before a highly anticipated semi-final clash between Venus and Serena (who at that point were already both Grand Slam champions), Venus withdrew due to an injury. The next day, during the final between Serena and Kim Clijsters, a significant portion of the crowd heckled and booed Serena, as well as Venus and their father Richard who were watching the match at courtside. Serena eventually won the final as a proud and defiant Richard looked on.
There was much talk at the time that perhaps Richard Williams had “orchestrated” the withdrawal by Venus so as to give Serena a chance to shine. And while Richard Williams left himself open for criticism with his highly unconventional – and extraordinarily successful – coaching techniques, the thought that the sisters would conspire and rob the event of fair competition was a stretch. And, indeed, the sisters had already faced off on a bigger stage when Venus defeated Serena in the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 2000, just eight months prior.
What made the 2001 situation with the Williams sisters particularly repulsive was the mob mentality of an overwhelmingly white, well-off throng spewing insults and raining down boos on a young, black athlete.
Serena said afterward that, “Nothing like this had ever happened to me. What was most surprising about this uproar was the fact that tennis fans are typically a well-mannered bunch. They’re respectful. They sit still. And in Palm Springs, especially, they tended to be pretty well-heeled, too. But I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people – mostly older, mostly white – standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob.
“I don’t mean to use such inflammatory language to describe the scene, but that’s really how it seemed from where I was down on the court. Like these people were gonna come looking for me after the match.”
The Williams sisters from that point on boycotted the event until 2015 when Serena once again played in Indian Wells (Venus joined her a year later).
Fast forward 21 years to Saturday’s incident with Osaka and the circumstances are different. This time there was no entitled, bullying mob, but rather a sole fan who let loose with the pathetic invective of “you suck, Naomi”. If it wasn’t so hurtful to Osaka, there is humour in the utter absurdity and idiocy of such a comment. Osaka “sucks”, really? One of the greatest athletes on the planet, who no doubt has accomplished more and worked harder for such than the woman who felt it was okay to yell such a thing.
Andrew Krasny, who handles the post-match interviews on-court for Indian Wells, was no doubt aware of the tournament's history when he said to Osaka, "Out of about 10,000 people, one person's voice can't weigh out 9,999 others. We love you here."
Unfortunately, abuse from fans who feel they have the right to say anything, no matter how vulgar or just plain wrong, because they have paid to watch athletes perform, is increasingly common.
Players at this year's Australian Open questioned whether fans' boos (or was it siuus?) had gone too far. England players were racially abused by their own 'supporters' after their loss at last year's European Championship; the NBA has banned fans for confronting players at games; and NFL players were booed during a moment of silence to acknowledge inequality. The behaviour even extends to professional wrestling, where WWE star Seth Rollins was attacked by a fan at an event in New York last year.
And the discourtesy is a reflection of a wider breakdown of respect in society. The unofficial rules of decorum, part of the collective and informal social contract, have been tossed aside. One need only look back at Joe Biden's State of the Union speech a couple of weeks ago when the ultra-conservative member of Congress Lauren Boebert booed while the president was speaking about military veterans' issues and the death of his son Beau.
Osaka has been struggling to deal with the demands of being in the spotlight and she’s had a very rough 12 months. Most striking was her refusal to engage in press conferences at the 2021 French Open, which resulted in her withdrawal from the tournament.
Some believed answering questions is part of an athlete's job, others commended Osaka for having the courage to reveal her vulnerability in a very public forum. She went on to miss Wimbledon due to mental health issues and, after a third-round loss at the US Open, she took another break from the sport saying that winning did not make her "feel happy" any longer.
Yet putting aside the obvious fact that heckling someone who has been struggling with their mental health is ignorant and cruel, the woman who told Osaka she "sucks" should be reminded of this: though the 24-year-old has tumbled from world No 1 to 78, she has still won a Slam in each of the last four years. No other tennis player aside from Novak Djokovic can say the same.