Naomi Osaka’s Next Chapter

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At the Indian Wells Open earlier this year, Naomi Osaka’s return to tennis continued beautifully. She seemed at ease when she appeared at a pre-tournament press conference in early March, where she told reporters she was “really grateful”. She then quickly defeated Sloane Stephens in the first round. It was a glimmer of glory of her first Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) title in Indian Wells in 2018, a career breakthrough that would be the first in a string of impressive victories, including four Grand Slam titles to come. It was also a sharp contrast to a year ago when Osaka was eliminated from the French Open in May and later in September announced she was “getting to grips with some things” and taking a break from play 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 shit!” – irreparably changing Osaka’s energy and overall tenor of the game. After her defeat, Osaka addressed the crowd and wiped away tears. “I’ve been molested before to be honest, it didn’t really bother me,” she said. “But [being] Heckling here, I saw a video of Venus and Serena [Williams] You’ll be scolded here, and if you’ve never seen it, you should check it out. I don’t know why, but it crossed my mind.”

The incident Osaka alluded to is well known: in 2001, Venus and Serena were scheduled to play in the semifinals at Indian Wells until Venus was eliminated at the last minute due to tendinitis. Although Serena ended up winning the title, she was booed by the crowd in her final match against Kim Clijsters and her father Richard also reported that he was threatened with racist violence while sitting in the crowd. The experience affected Serena so much that she boycotted the tournament for 14 years, saying that despite returning there in 2015, she is still traumatized by her mistreatment.

Examining both cases – that of the Williams sisters in 2001 and that of the Osakas in 2022 – the disappointing finding is that not much has changed in 20 years in terms of how athletes, particularly black women, are treated. Maybe Osaka felt it himself that day. (About her publicist, Osaka told SELF that she prefers not to respond to questions about the events at Indian Wells.) Add to this the expectation that black women are expected to work non-stop for the comfort or entertainment of society , famous athletes like Osaka and the Williams sisters are in a bind because of their fame and talent. Her fame reduces the public’s ability to empathize with her personal struggles, while society in general expects athletes to perform, perform, perform, even two years into a pandemic that has seen many reflect our culture’s obsession with productivity criticize. For those who are descendants of the enslaved, this racially coded expectation only shows how much their worth is seen by others as tied to their work.

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