In 2018, Naomi Osaka was booed for winning. It haunts her.

It's a hard video to watch. Naomi Osaka stands beside Serena Williams on the podium after winning the 2018 US Open. 

As the announcer welcomes everyone to the broadcast, a low rumble of sound starts to build. Initially, it sounds like cheering. But as host Tom Rinaldi pauses, the booing gets unmistakingly clearer. 

After enduring it for 30 seconds, a then 20-year-old Osaka pushes her cap forward to shield her eyes. Noticing her sadness, Williams puts her arm around Osaka as the young up-and-coming tennis star sobs.

Watch the 2018 US Open trophy ceremony with winner Naomi Osaka and runner-up Serena Williams. Post continues after video. 

Video via ESPN

Osaka is being booed for winning. It's her first Grand Slam win. Her moment. But the crowd is there for Williams. During the match, Williams had accused the chair umpire of sexism after being given a penalty, and her fans are showing their support and outrage at her loss.

Playing that final against her idol, Williams, was Osaka's childhood dream. But instead of answering Rinaldi's question of, "how does the dream compare to reality?" a teary Osaka tells the crowd: "I'm going to sort of defer from your question, I'm sorry... I know that everyone was cheering for her, and I am sorry it had to end like this. I just want to say thank you for watching the match."


Watching the uncomfortable and cruel reality of Osaka's first big win play out, it's incredible she even held herself together enough to answer questions, compose herself, and accept her trophy. 

It wasn't until three years later that we learnt how traumatising that experience actually was for Osaka.

As the French Open got underway in Paris in 2021, Osaka released a statement. 

"I'm not going to do any press during Roland Garros. I've often felt that people have no regard for athlete's mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one," she wrote.


Accepting that she'd be penalised for choosing to sit out of this part of her job, Osaka wrote that she hoped, "the considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity".

Osaka said the decision was "nothing personal" against the tournament or journalists.

"I've watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room...

"I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they're down and I don't understand the reasoning behind it."

Tennis players are required to attend post-match news conferences at major tournaments, and it didn't take long for Osaka's tweet to be plastered on practically every news site in the world as commentators dissected whether there was merit to her complaints. While many applauded her honesty, a large chunk of the commentary was brutal.

Following her announcement, the Roland-Garros officials said they had asked Osaka to reconsider her position and tried unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being, understand the specifics of her issue and what might be done to address it.

They said they received a "lack of engagement" from Osaka, and so after her first-round win with no press conference appearance, she was fined $AU19,000. 

The next day Osaka tweeted: "Anger is a lack of understanding. Change makes people uncomfortable," and then the next day, she announced she was withdrawing from the competition.

"The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that....

"I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris." 


In making the decision to take some time away from the court, Osaka hoped that she'd be about to reach out "when the time is right" to discuss how the Tour could make things better for players, press and fans. 

She sat out of Wimbledon, instead focusing her efforts on the Olympics and Cincinnati Open later that year. 

Reflecting on the Olympics, (which she was knocked out of in the third round), she admitted she regretted not having "more fun," and "failed to consistently find joy" in the experience. 

But in 2022, the tennis champion appeared more positive about her future in the sport and her mental health. 

Speaking to Harpers Bazaar, she explained "This year, I am in a different state for sure. While I may not always feel 100 per cent, I am able to voice feelings".

In July 2023, she took another break from the sport, to welcome her first child, Shai, with rapper Cordae. 

Finding the experience of motherhood transformative, Osaka told Glamour, "I just don't really care about other people's opinions anymore".

After contesting her first tournament since September 2022 at the beginning of the year in Brisbane, Osaka has just been knocked out of the Australian Open in the third round - her second competition since giving birth.

Naomi Osaka after losing to Caroline Garcia on Day 2 of the 2024 Australian Open. Image: Robert Prange/Getty.


While she admitted she was disappointed, she is choosing to be kind to herself. 

"I have to tell myself: 'Hey, six months ago you were pregnant,'" she said, during a post-match interview. 

Motherhood appears to have done wonders for Osaka's mindset as she navigates a return to tennis. The re-set she needed. 

As she told reporters, "It was just really nice to be on Rod Laver again, hear the audience, how much they interacted with the match".

Watch this space, this is only the start of Osaka's 'comeback.' 

Feature image: Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty Images.