On the Indian Wells Open earlier this yr, Naomi Osaka’s return to tennis was persevering with splendidly. She appeared comfortable when she appeared at a pretournament press convention in early March, the place she advised reporters that she was feeling “really grateful.” Then, she swiftly defeated Sloane Stephens within the first spherical. It was a glimmer of the glory of her first Girls’s Tennis Affiliation (WTA) title at Indian Wells, in 2018, a profession breakthrough that might be the primary in a string of awe-inspiring victories, together with 4 Grand Slam titles, to come back. It was additionally a pointy distinction from a yr in the past, when Osaka dropped out of the French Open in Might, and later in September introduced that she was “coping with some stuff” and could be taking a break from enjoying, after shedding to Leylah Fernandez within the third spherical of the U.S. Open in September.
However then it occurred. Within the first set of her match towards Veronika Kurdemetova within the second spherical, a heckler yelled, “Naomi, you suck!”—irreparably shifting Osaka’s power and the general tenor of the sport. After her defeat, Osaka addressed the group whereas wiping away tears. “To be sincere, I’ve gotten heckled earlier than, it didn’t actually trouble me,” she mentioned. “However [being] heckled right here, I watched a video of Venus and Serena [Williams] getting heckled right here, and for those who’ve by no means watched it, it’s best to watch it. I don’t know why, but it surely went into my head.”
The incident that Osaka was referring to is well-known: In 2001, Venus and Serena had been set to compete towards one another within the semifinals at Indian Wells, till Venus pulled out on the final minute as a result of tendinitis. Although Serena ended up profitable the title, spectators booed her in her finals match towards Kim Clijsters, and her father, Richard, additionally reported being threatened with racial violence whereas sitting within the crowd. The expertise impacted Serena a lot that she boycotted the event for 14 years, and has mentioned that she’s still traumatized by her mistreatment regardless of her return there in 2015.
In inspecting each situations—the Williams sisters’ in 2001 and Osaka’s in 2022—there exists the disappointing realization that, in 20 years, not a lot has modified with regard to how athletes, notably Black feminine ones, are handled. Maybe Osaka herself felt it that day. (By means of her publicist, Osaka advised SELF that she most well-liked not to reply to any questions on what occurred at Indian Wells.) Compounded by the expectation that Black ladies are anticipated to ceaselessly carry out labor for society’s consolation or leisure, well-known athletes like Osaka and the Williams sisters are in a double bind as a result of their notoriety and expertise. Their fame reduces the general public’s potential to empathize with their private struggles, whereas society at giant expects athletes to carry out, carry out, carry out, even two years right into a pandemic the place many are critiquing our tradition’s obsession with productiveness. For many who are descendants of the enslaved, this racially coded expectation solely demonstrates how a lot their value is seen by others as being hooked up to their labor.