Naomi Osaka took her mental health issues to the next level by withdrawing from the French Open.

The world number two- and four-time Grand Slam winner, Osaka did not take part in the expected media conference after the match and was fined $15,000 (£10,570) following a win over Romania’s Patricia Maria Tig. The organisers of the four Grand Slams – Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open – released a joint statement saying Osaka could face “more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions” for her decision.

Osaka’s rebuttal was swift and effective.

Osaka,23, announced her decision to withdraw from the tournament altogether, stating her intention to “take some time away from the court now”.

“When the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans,” she added.

The French Tennis Federation president Gilles Moretton who is in charge of the French Open, said the withdrawal of Osaka was “unfortunate” and “we are sorry and sad for Naomi”.

“We wish her the best and quickest possible recovery, and we look forward to having Naomi at our tournament next year,” he added.

“We remain very committed to all athletes’ wellbeing and to continually improving every aspect of players’ experience in our tournament, including with the media, like we have always strived to do.”

The pendulum has clearly swung in favour of the athlete’s mental health as a priority over the ritualistic expectations, often dictated by finances and sponsorship, of the sport and its governance.

Osaka has been the first high profile athlete to challenge such doctrine.

“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I want to apologise to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can. So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious, so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it pre-emptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.”

Naomi Osaka, Statement release.

Osaka has revealed to the general public her struggle with mental health issues over most of her life.

As such, she has become a reluctant advocate for those athletes from all backgrounds who have experienced similar mental torment.

“I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly.

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

“Anyone that knows me knows I am introverted and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”

There has been some support from tennis players, current and former, and other sports for Osaka’s predicament.

Coco Gauff, American world number 25: “Stay strong. I admire your vulnerability.”

Martina Navratilova, 18-time Grand Slam singles champion: “I am so sad about Naomi Osaka. I truly hope she will be ok. As athletes we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental and emotional aspect gets short shrift. This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference. Good luck Naomi – we are all pulling for you!”

Stephen Curry, American basketball player: “You shouldn’t ever have to make a decision like this. So damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be don’t protect their own. Major respect.”

Katarina Johnson-Thompson, British heptathlete: “She’s so brave to speak out and protect her well-being. Mental health, especially in sport, is such a risky topic to be open about. Hopefully change will come off the back of her withdrawal and it will open up conversations around depression in sport to break down the stigma.”

France’s Gael Monfils said he hoped Osaka would make a “speedy recovery”, saying the sport needs her “back on the court, back in the press conferences and back happy”.

“It’s a very tough situation for her. I feel for her, because I have been struggling quite a lot as well,” added Monfils, who has been open about his own feelings during the pandemic.

“It’s a big moment for everybody, even outside of tennis, what we are experiencing now.”

Seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams acknowledged that speaking to the media was “definitely not easy to do for anyone”.

“For me personally, I know every single person asking me a question can’t play as well as I can and never will, so no matter what you say or what you write, you’ll never light a candle to me,” said the 40-year-old American.

“That’s how I deal with it. But each person deals with it differently.”

Serena Williams was asked if she felt enough is done by the WTA and Grand Slams to help tennis players’ mental health off the court.

“I feel like there is a lot of articles and stuff that they put out,” she said. “I think you really have to step forward and make an effort, just as in anything. You have to be able to make an effort and say, I need help with A, B, C and D, and talk to someone.

“I think that’s so important to have a sounding board, whether it’s someone at the WTA or whether it’s someone in your life. Maybe it’s someone that you just talk to on a weekly basis.”

Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton also weighed in on the debate.

Hamilton believed the reaction Naomi Osaka had received following her withdrawal from the French Open was “ridiculous”. He added that the response from the tennis authorities to Osaka was “not cool”.

Hamilton said most athletes were “not prepared” for success and that the pressures of fame “weigh heavily on you”.

“It can be daunting still standing behind a camera,” he lamented.

“It is not the easiest, particularly if you are an introvert and you do struggle to be under those pressures.”

Hamilton was clearly talking about his own experience over many years of dealing with the media and its expectations. In a sport known for its ruthlessness.

“When I came into F1, the team had PR. I was never prepared for being thrown in front of a camera. I was never guided as to what to look out for and helped to navigate through that, so I sort of learned through mistakes.

“But when I was young, I was thrown into the pit and wasn’t given any guidance or support.”

Hamilton said Osaka had been “incredibly brave” to take her stance and called on the tennis authorities to reconsider their response.

“It is now asking those in power and putting them in question and making them have to think about how they react, because the way they reacted was not good – with the fine,” he said.

“Someone talking about their personal mental health and then being fined for it – that was not cool.

“They could have definitely handled it better, and I hope they will take a deep dive into it and find a way to navigate it better in the future. As athletes, we are pushing ourselves to the limit, we are on the edge and we are only human beings.”

In what seemed like damage control, the four Grand Slams representatives have since adopted a more understanding and conciliatory position.

“We wish to offer Naomi Osaka our support and assistance in any way possible as she takes time away from the court,” the Grand Slams said.

“She is an exceptional athlete and we look forward to her return as soon as she deems appropriate.”

“While players’ wellbeing has always been a priority to the Grand Slams, our intention, together with the WTA, the ATP and the ITF, is to advance mental health and wellbeing through further actions,” it added.

“Together as a community we will continue to improve the player experience at our tournaments, including as it relates to media.

“Change should come through the lens of maintaining a fair playing field, regardless of ranking or status. Sport requires rules and regulations to ensure that no player has an unfair advantage over another.

“We intend to work alongside the players, the tours, the media and the broader tennis community to create meaningful improvements.”

What this means exactly, is yet to be determined.

The ramifications are likely to be global – any athlete, any sport, at any level.

If a player is suffering from a mental illness and no longer able to continue in their functioning, then to fine or threaten them with expulsion is morally and medically ludicrous.

Authorities no doubt fear that the new paradigm may well be exploited by those who have more of a personality problem with authority rather than a bonafide mental health issue.

Meanwhile, Osaka has thanked her fans “for all the love” she has received since her withdrawal from the French Open.

“Haven’t been on my phone much but I wanted to hop on here and tell you all that I really appreciate it,” she said.

In an ominous portent of things to come, Naomi Osaka has pulled out of next week’s Berlin WTA 500 grass-court event following her French Open withdrawal.

“We have received notification Naomi Osaka cannot start in Berlin. After consulting her management, she will take a break,” said a spokesman for the Berlin event, which starts on 14 June.

The latest withdrawal surely casts some doubt as to whether Osaka will play Wimbledon in few weeks time.

The subject of mental health is a delicate one. It is a complex issue, multifactorial. The focus Osaka brings here is the relationship between the athlete and the media, as both represent their chosen sport.

Ultimately, the core issue is that of control.

Is the individual in the best position to advocate their psychological state, or is it up to an external authority, in charge of a sport’s governance and a purported obligation to millions of fans and television networks?

For Osaka, the choice is clear. She will not be dictated to by others.

There may well be a history of depression, anxiety, social phobia and likely Avoidant Personality Disorder, but there is also a strong hint of passive-aggressive opposition in this most extraordinary of athletes.

Ludo Aequitas – Mental Health and Equality Through Sport – welcomes the discussion.


Image via ABC

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