Tennis icon Rafael Nadal opted for a tough love approach in his advice to Naomi Osaka after a heckler’s taunts at Indian Wells reduced her to tears.
Osaka, 24, complained to the umpire in California and asked if she could use the microphone to address the crowd after a woman in the audience could be heard shouting: “Naomi, you suck!”
The four-time major champion saw out the remainder of a 6-0, 6-4 second-round defeat by Veronika Kudermetova but was visibly rocked by the incident.
Nadal, 35, sympathised with his peer for the abuse she faced prior to her Indian Wells exit, though he also acknowledged players must be able to withstand such distractions.
“In the real world, that happens, you know? I feel very sorry for her,” the 2022 Australia Open champion told reporters after beating Dan Evans 7-5 6-3 on Monday. “We are very lucky people that we’re able to enjoy amazing experiences… because we are tennis players.
“Even if is terrible to hear… we need to be prepared for that, no? We need to resist these kind of issues that can happen when you are exposed to the people. Nothing is perfect in this life, no? We need to be ready for adversities.
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“I understand that probably Naomi suffered a lot with these kind of issues that she has, mental [health] issues. The only thing that I wish her is recover well from that and wish her all the very best.”
Osaka’s profile as a champion of mental health grew in 2021 after she withdrew from the French Open draw in order to take time away from the spotlight.
That decision drew criticism in some quarters, although many praised the Japan-born superstar for her bravery in deciding to prioritise her own well-being above her sporting endeavours.
That time away from tennis contributed to Osaka plummeting in the WTA rankings, where she currently sits at 78th in the world.
British legend Andy Murray also showed compassion for Osaka and questioned why heckling is allowed, but he mirrored Nadal’s thoughts in suggesting players have to be able to cope.
“If you go and watch a basketball match, for example, and a player’s taking free throws, I would say like almost every basketball match I’ve been to one of the players has been heckled by the crowd as well,” he said following his own Indian Wells exit at the hands of Alexander Bublik.
“And whilst it is wrong for those individuals to be doing it, the athletes obviously have to kind of be used to that as well or be able to deal with that too, even though it’s not pleasant.”
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Osaka said in her post-match press conference that the heckler incident reminded her of crowd abuse Serena and Venus Williams faced at Indian Wells in 2001, leading them to boycott the competition for 14 years.
Nadal indirectly witnessed the effect spectators can have on one’s performance after the crowd turned against opponent Daniil Medvedev en route to him completing a might comeback in the Australian Open final.
The Russian was subject to jeers while Spanish favourite Nadal received constant adulation, and Medvedev dubbed the Rod Laver Arena audience “disrespectful” for their behaviour following his loss.
He too showed sympathy for Osaka following the abuse she received at Indian Wells, reminding tennis players are humans before adding: “I can understand that Naomi didn’t feel that great when she heard it and I can completely understand her feelings.”
While Osaka’s tournament is over, Nadal moved into the last 16 of the men’s competition at Indian Wells and will face American Reilly Opelka on Wednesday.