TENNIS champion Naomi Osaka’s battles with her mental health issues have been well documented.

Well documented, because Osaka has taken the position to be open and honest about her struggles with depression and anxiety.

As such, she has become a reluctant spokesperson for mental health issues in the realm of sport, attracting even more divisive opinion.

Osaka has used her popularity as a method of communication to ordinary folk regarding the effects of any form of discrimination on the human psyche.

It has forced many to review their behaviour towards athletes and perhaps by extension, their own interpersonal relationships.

This was evident in the recent Indian Wells Masters tournament in California. Someone from the crowd decided to heckle, if not abuse Osaka with shouts of “Naomi, you suck!”, during her match with Veronika Kudermetova.

Osaka, a four-time grand slam winner, lost 6-0, 6-4.

The crowd responded towards the heckler with its own form of dissent and disapproval, but the damage was done.

Osaka was upset enough to want to address the crowd with her feelings and opinion. She approached the umpire wanting permission to do so but was understandably denied.

However, Osaka did express her sentiments after the match.

“I just want to say, ‘Thank you,'” Osaka said. “I feel like I’ve cried enough on camera. I just wanted to say, to be honest, I’ve been heckled before, like it didn’t really bother me.”

Osaka’s explanation for her reaction was attributed to her recollection of Serena Williams and Venus Williams who had been heckled at Indian Wells early in their careers.

“I watched a video of Venus and Serena [Williams] getting heckled here, and if you’ve never watched it, you should watch it. I don’t know why, but it went into my head, and it got replayed a lot. I’m trying not to cry,” Osaka said.

Osaka was referring to events that took place at Indian Wells in 2001, which resulted in a 14-year boycott of the tournament by Serena and Venus Williams.

Osaka has since posted a defiant comment on Twitter, writing: “Very proud of myself for reaching a point in my life that despite the lows, I would still rather be myself than anyone else.”

Over the last year, Osaka has struggled with her tennis and the suffocation of expectations. She withdrew from the French Open to take a mental health hiatus. That came after Osaka refused to participate in post-match press conferences during the Grand Slam tournament.

Osaka sat out of Wimbledon last summer before returning to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Other tennis players reflected on Osaka being heckled, including fellow champion Rafael Nadal.

“I understand that Naomi suffered a lot with her kind of issues, mental issues. The only thing I wish her is recover well from that and wish her all the very best.

But the life, nothing is perfect in this life, no? We need to be ready for adversities,” Nadal said. Osaka is set to play next the Miami Masters after being granted a wildcard into the tournament.

It is likely that Nadal and Osaka represent opposite ends of the mental health spectrum.

Nadal prides himself on his mental strength, especially against adversity. He would regard tearfulness and anxiety as a form of mental weakness and capitulation, if not control.

Nadal has obsessive-compulsive personality traits, with a need to be in control through meticulous practice and perfectionism.

In Osaka, there is more of a sense of hypersensitivity and avoidant personality traits, with a need for acceptance and approval from others.

This is where the relationship with the crowd becomes centrally important.

There are those who respond to derision with a defiance and use it as motivation.

There are others who simply feel overwhelmed and humiliated.

Given the emphasis on mental health and its importance, the previous uncensored abuse from individuals in the crowd is likely to be under increased scrutiny in the future.

In all sports.

Any form of abuse, criticism or negativity towards players or officials will result in sanctions including expulsion.

It is not a matter of what we regard as mental strength or weakness, but simply mental health and its preservation.


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