Tennis Star Naomi Osaka Says 'It's O.K. Not To Be O.K.'
Jul 09, 2021 by apost team
Naomi Osaka, the Four-time Grand Slam tennis star, shocked the sports world in May when she withdrew from the French Open. Osaka, the highest-paid female athlete globally, quit the competition after a dispute with tournament officials over press conference appearances. When the high-profile tennis player skipped a post-match news conference because of their impact on her mental health, the French Open’s tournament referee fined Osaka $15,000. On top of that, tournament officials told the 23-year-old athlete that they could eject her from the competition if she didn’t attend the news conferences.
That’s when Osaka withdrew from the tournament, which is extremely rare for an uninjured tennis player to do. Alongside her withdrawal announcement, Osaka opened up about her struggles with anxiety and depression, which she says she has dealt with since 2018. While many were supportive of Osaka’s move to prioritize her mental health, other athletes and French Open officials said that press conferences and the sport go hand in hand.
Osaka spoke out again on Thursday, July 8, in a widely shared essay for Time. In the essay, she addresses not only her relationship with the press, but also the importance of athlete mental health — a topic that doesn’t get much coverage in the media. She also thanked the many athletes and public figures, such as Meghan Markle, Michelle Obama, Michael Phelps, Steph Curry and Novak Djokovic, who supported her decision to leave the French Open.
The 23-year-old athlete will represent Japan at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“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,” Osaka wrote in a May 31 Instagram post, announcing her departure from the French Open.
“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety,” she continued.
Osaka goes on to say that although the tennis press never mistreated her, she finds it anxiety-inducing and stressful to speak to international media.
In response to Osaka’s withdrawal, prominent tennis officials from France, England, Australia and the U.S. released a statement that said that they had reached out to the tennis star regarding her mental health concerns. However, they also explained that the press conference rules are in place for a reason.
“We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement,” the officials wrote. “As a sport there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honor their commitments.”
In a since-deleted post on Reddit, Osaka’s sister, a former professional tennis player herself, wrote that Naomi Osaka’s anxiety was rooted in the fact that the press constantly asks negative questions about her performance on clay courts.
Osaka expanded on her problem with post-match press conferences in her Time essay, calling the format “out of date and in great need of a refresh.”
“I believe that we can make it better, more interesting and more enjoyable for each side. Less subject vs. object; more peer to peer,” Osaka wrote.
“There can be moments for any of us where we are dealing with issues behind the scenes. Each of us as humans is going through something on some level,” Osaka added.
Osaka reiterated that she doesn’t have a problem with the media itself; rather, she objects to the current press conference format. The tennis pro also laid out some concrete ideas for reform.
“I have numerous suggestions to offer the tennis hierarchy, but my No. 1 suggestion would be to allow a small number of ‘sick days’ per year where you are excused from your press commitments without having to disclose your personal reason,” Osaka proposed.
“I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s O.K. to not be O.K., and it’s O.K. to talk about it. There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel,” Osaka wrote at the end of her piece. “Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up I may have saved a life. If that’s true, then it was all worth it.”
Osaka, who relinquished her American citizenship in 2019, will play for Japan during the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, which start on July 23.
Naomi Osaka (2021), (Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty Images)
“I could not be more excited to play in Tokyo. An Olympic Games itself is special, but to have the opportunity to play in front of the Japanese fans is a dream come true,” Osaka wrote. “I hope I can make them proud.”
What do you think about Osaka’s essay and decision to withdraw from the French Open? Let us know — and be sure to pass this on to friends and family members to get their opinions.