At the Indian Wells Open earlier this year, Naomi Osaka’s return to tennis was continuing wonderfully. She seemed at ease when she appeared at a pretournament press conference in early March, where she told reporters that she was feeling “really grateful.” Then, she swiftly defeated Sloane Stephens in the first round. It was a glimmer of the glory of her first Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) title at Indian Wells, in 2018, a career breakthrough that would be the first in a string of awe-inspiring victories, including four Grand Slam titles, to come. It was also a sharp contrast from a year ago, when Osaka dropped out of the French Open in May, and later in September announced that she was “dealing with some stuff” and would be taking a break from playing, after losing to Leylah Fernandez in the third round of the US Open in September.
But then it happened. In the first set of her match against Veronika Kurdemetova in the second round, a heckler yelled, “Naomi, you suck!”—irreparably shifting Osaka’s energy and the overall tenor of the game. After her defeat, Osaka addressed the crowd while wiping away tears. “To be honest, I’ve gotten heckled before, it didn’t really bother me,” she said. “Goal [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.”
The incident that Osaka was referring to is well-known: In 2001, Venus and Serena were set to compete against each other in the semifinals at Indian Wells, until Venus pulled out at the last minute due to tendinitis. Though Serena ended up winning the title, spectators booed her in her finals match against Kim Clijsters, and her father, Richard, also reported being threatened with racial violence while sitting in the crowd. The experience impacted Serena so much that she boycotted the tournament for 14 years, and has said that she’s still traumatized by her mistreatment despite her return there in 2015.
In examining both instances—the Williams sisters’ in 2001 and Osaka’s in 2022—there exists the disappointing realization that, in 20 years, not much has changed with regard to how athletes, particularly Black female ones, are treated. Perhaps Osaka herself felt it that day. (Through her publicist, Osaka told SELF that she preferred not to respond to any questions about what happened at Indian Wells.) Compounded by the expectation that Black women are expected to ceaselessly perform labor for society’s comfort or entertainment, famous athletes like Osaka and the Williams sisters are in a double bind due to their notoriety and talent. Their fame reduces the public’s ability to empathize with their personal struggles, while society at large expects athletes to perform, perform, perform, even two years into a pandemic where many are critiquing our culture’s obsession with productivity. For those who are descendants of the enslaved, this racially coded expectation only demonstrates how much their worth is seen by others as being attached to their labor.