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WATCH: Osaka speaks to Indian Wells crowd after second-round loss

The headline in the New York Times as the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo were about to get underway last July declared: “Naomi Osaka Returns to the Stage on Her Terms.”

On Saturday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Osaka demonstrated—once again—that engaging the game on her terms may not stand up to the strains and pressures manufactured by her occupation and the rules, opponents, and fans that inflame her turmoil.

The 24-year old four-time Grand Slam champion had just lost serve in the first game of her second-round match with Veronika Kudermetova when a heckler in the crowd yelled, “Naomi, you suck!” The unraveling that followed, which included Osaka’s bizarre request to address the crowd on two occasions during the match, was not just puzzling, it was downright sad.

Last May, the shy Japanese-Haitian lost a seemingly innocuous showdown with Roland Garros officials over her desire to skip an accepted feature of tournaments, mandatory but generally collegial meetings with the press. Rebuffed by officials, gaining little support from her peers, Osaka divulged that she had “struggled with long bouts of depression and anxiety" since winning the US Open in 2018.

Osaka quit the French Open, in which she was the second seed, opting instead for a long break that lasted until the Olympics. She single-handedly launched a resonant conversation about mental health, even as her presence in the world of fashion, social media, and marketing remained undiminished.

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Later in the year, Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron in her home country of Japan, but she was denied a medal when her game guttered out, losing in straight sets in the third round to No. 41 Marketa Vondrousova. At the US Open a few weeks later, Osaka again rebelled against the terms of the game.

Petulant and visibly frustrated, she lost in round three to then-No. 73 Leylah Fernandez. Breaking down in tears afterwards, Osaka announced that she was taking another extended hiatus, telling reporters: "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."

Osaka avoided playing again until early January, and has since played just eight matches—including this most recent loss. She hasn’t made a final since she won the 2021 Australian Open. Her ranking is down to No. 78, her exhaustively documented ambivalence toward tennis only magnified by her innate hyper-sensitivity.

Ironically, Osaka said that the heckler triggered vivid memories of the way Serena and Venus Williams were treated in 2001 by a hostile crowd at Indian Wells.

“I don’t know why, but it went into my head, and it got replayed a lot,” Osaka told the crowd after the match in an unusual loser’s on-court interview. She was referring to video footage of the controversy in 2001 and suggested that everyone watch it. But there were scant similarities between the two incidents. The Indian Wells crowd on Saturday was overwhelmingly in her corner. They helped propel her to a rousing comeback, without a peep from any heckler.

There was also one instructive comparison to be made. Despite the tremendous uproar swirling around Serena Williams during that 2001 Indian Wells final against Kim Clijsters, Williams doubled-down, held her composure—she has said that she was traumatized by the crowd’s hostility—and went on to win. The reality is that in a sport of individuals there are no safe spaces. You want to have things on your own terms? You had better be thick-skinned, resilient—tough inside and out.

Serena Williams is such a person. Naomi Osaka is not. That may make your heart go out to her, but it doesn’t help her own cause.

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Osaka was playing her first tournament since January's Australian Open.

Osaka was playing her first tournament since January's Australian Open.

There’s another factor in play here. The relationship between a fan and a pro athlete is transactional. The fan buys a ticket (or tunes in to a broadcast), and the performer puts on a show and indirectly gets paid by the fan. No fan wants to leave the tournament grounds muttering, “I paid a hundred bucks for this?” It’s easy to get frustrated or feel resentful toward a player who, like Osaka, is complicated, extremely successful, but perhaps not always all-in. Some just want to see high-quality tennis, not a contemporary interpretation of Hamlet.

You have to be a real moron to endorse heckling, but taunting players is a habit likely as old as sports competition. Hecklers are crude and rude, an irritating fact in an athlete’s life.

The bar for ejecting hecklers from events is set pretty high. It’s unlikely Osaka can do any more about them than she can about WTA rules about press conferences, the rust that accumulates in her game during extended hiatuses, the pressure of expectations, social media trolls, or snarky comments about her image in the marketplace, where she was the dominant female athlete in 2021.

Reacting to Osaka’s loss, Tennis Channel analyst and tennis icon Martina Navratilova said, “It’s heartbreaking to see, but you just have to tough it out sometimes, if you can. 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.”

Osaka has made an effort to find the comfort zone where she can compete on the tour free of stress and anxiety. She deserves support and respect in her struggle. But it’s still unclear that she can do that on her own terms.

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