At the Indian Wells Open earlier this year, Naomi Osaka’s return to tennis was still going strong. She seemed at ease when she appeared at a pre-tournament press conference in early March, where she told reporters she felt “really grateful”. Then she quickly beat Sloane Stephens in the first round. It was a glimmer of glory from her maiden Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) title at Indian Wells in 2018, a career breakthrough that would be the first in a string of impressive victories, including four Grand Slam titles. , coming. It was also a stark contrast to a year ago, when Osaka dropped out of the French Open in May, and later in September announced that she was “dealing with some things” and that she would be taking a break 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 shouted, “Naomi, you suck! », irreparably modifying the energy of Osaka and the general tenor of the match. After her defeat, Osaka addressed the crowd while wiping away her tears. “To be honest, I’ve been heckled before, it didn’t really bother me,” she said. “But [being] heckled here i watched a video of venus and serena [Williams] get heckled here, and if you’ve never watched it, you should watch it. I don’t know why, but it crossed my mind.
The incident Osaka was referring to is well known: in 2001, Venus and Serena were scheduled to meet in the semi-finals at Indian Wells, until Venus withdrew at the last minute due to tendonitis. Although Serena ended up winning the title, spectators booed her during her final match against Kim Clijsters, and her father, Richard, also said he was threatened with racial abuse while sitting in the crowd . The experience affected Serena so deeply that she boycotted the tournament for 14 years and said she was still traumatized by its mistreatment despite returning there in 2015.
Looking at both cases – the Williams sisters in 2001 and the Osaka sisters in 2022 – there is the disappointing realization that in 20 years little has changed in the way athletes, especially women black, are processed. Maybe Osaka herself felt it that day. (Through her publicist, Osaka told SELF she prefers not to answer any questions about what happened in Indian Wells.) Compounded by the expectation that black women are expected to perform endlessly a job for the comfort or entertainment of society, 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 understand their personal struggles, while society as a whole expects athletes to perform, perform, perform, even two years into a pandemic where many criticize the obsession with our culture for productivity. For those who are descendants of slaves, this racially encoded expectation only demonstrates how much their value is perceived by others as attached to their work.