After a week-long, uncomfortable, confrontation with leaders of the tennis association, Naomi Osaka made the decision to quit the French Open— shocking tennis fans around the world and opening up a dialogue about mental health in the process.
The decision came after the tennis star was fined $15,000 for skipping a press conference at the tournament. Osaka was also warned that a failure to attend press events could result in her suspension from the competition. Osaka, who is a four-time Grand Slam winner, and is currently ranked No. 2 in women’s tennis, had announced prior to the event that she would not be doing press for the French Open. The up-and-coming athlete had cited mental health concerns as her reason for skipping, and claimed that press events were actually harmful for the athlete’s mental well-being.
Her decision initially sparked outrage in the tennis community, with many claiming that her lack of participation was disrespectful and that Osaka had a responsibility to speak to the press. The French Open issued a statement about the fine and their threats to expel Osaka. In the statement, they describe the press event as one of Osaka’s ‘obligations,’ and thus, there must be consequences if a player is unwilling to meet these obligations. “A core element of the Grand Slam regulations is the responsibility of the players to engage with the media, whatever the result of their match, a responsibility which players take for the benefit of the sport, the fans and for themselves.” The association then went on to claim that Osaka’s press boycott directly violated their Code of Conduct.
However, in response to the backlash, Osaka decided to take a stand against the institution— challenging their norms and traditions in the process. In a Twitter post on the 31st of May, the tennis star announced that she would be withdrawing from the French Open, revealing to the world her own mental health struggles in the process. “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,” Osaka revealed. She then went on to explain that she has been dealing with social anxiety, and that while the tennis press has always been kind to her, these feelings of anxiety and vulnerability are oftentimes exacerbated by press conferences. “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” she admitted. I mean, who wouldn’t get anxiety from that?
Following her decision, the world seemed to rally behind her, commending her for her vulnerability and wishing her the best with her mental health struggles. Two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry tweeted his support for the tennis star, along with many other figures from the sports world. Serena Williams, Osaka’s childhood idol and ‘tennis mom’ expressed support for her ‘tennis daughter,’ while acknowledging that Osaka is doing the best that she can. “I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug, because I know what it’s like,” Williams said. “You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to and the best way that she thinks she can, and that’s the only thing I can say, I think she’s doing the best that she can.” If anyone understands what the No. 2 tennis seed is going through right now, it is Serena Williams, who personally has had difficulties with the press throughout her career.
In response to Naomi Osaka’s decision other (less likely) allies have issued their support, including the sleep app Calm, which has pledged to pay the fine for any tennis player who opts out of 2021 Grand Slam media appearances due to mental health reasons. For many, Osaka’s decision is far bigger than her. It is a decisive stand against an antiquated institution, and is opening up an incredibly important dialogue about a topic that is oftentimes stigmatized and disparaged.
In making this decision, Osaka may have temporarily halted her tennis career, but in doing so she has elevated herself beyond the world of professional sports. She has shown the world that she is more than just an incredible player, and that a multifaceted and complex person exists behind her fantastic tennis swing. While Osaka’s professional career may be uncertain for now, she has left a permanent mark in the world of tennis and beyond— one with far more important consequences than a trophy.