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It didn’t have to be this way. Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open on Monday was an unnecessary and embarrassing low point for professional tennis.
The situation is complex, involving mental health, press freedom and money. But surely having one of the world’s best tennis players withdraw from a top tournament, citing her mental wellbeing, is a regrettable outcome for everyone involved.
As this week progresses, however, there are encouraging signs that something positive can come out of this unfortunate situation.
On Tuesday, the leaders of the four major tennis tournaments, known as Grand Slams, released a statement thanking Osaka for sharing her story and said they would direct more attention to the mental health of its players. This was after they had fined and threatened Osaka with disqualification or future suspension.
“Mental health is a very challenging issue, which deserves our utmost attention. It is both complex and personal, as what affects one individual does not necessarily affect another,” those in charge of the French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open said in a statement. “We commend Naomi for sharing in her own words the pressures and anxieties she is feeling and we empathize with the unique pressures tennis players may face.”
A major point of contention in Osaka’s case was her skipping a post-match press conference on Sunday. Under Grand Slam tournament rules, all players must attend such sessions. Osaka’s absence resulted in a $15,000 fine, and a threat to ban the world’s second ranked female tennis player from future Grand Slam Events.
Before the tournament started, Osaka had said, via Twitter last Wednesday, that she would skip post-match press conferences in Paris for her mental health.
“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” the 23-year-old wrote. She added that questions from the press often build doubt in players’ minds. “I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.”
She said she hoped the money from fines she was likely to be assessed for would go to mental health charities.
Then on Sunday, Osaka skipped the press conference after her first round victory. The fine, and threat of suspension from future Grand Slam events, soon followed. That news was delivered by Gilles Moretton, the French Tennis Federation president, who, it should be noted, read a statement to the media but declined to answer any questions.
“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 tweeted on Monday. She added that she’d “suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018” and that she “had a really hard time coping with that.”
The reaction was swift, with some condemning Osaka as a spoiled narcissist who should follow the rules. Others criticized her for not speaking out earlier, a criticism that fails to recognize the perils of talking publicly about mental health concerns.
The more humane responses, often from fellow athletes, urged tournament organizers, sports leagues, sponsors and others to reconsider the whole situation — from the pressure on athletes, which has increased during the pandemic, to the tradition of post-match press conferences, which are often more a search for a headline-grabbing moment than a real attempt to understand what happened during a contest.
This unfortunate situation could be a needed launch pad for a more thorough discussion about mental health concerns, and especially the too-often hidden struggles of elite athletes. In many cases, these athletes are viewed as having superhuman powers of strength, concentration and grit. In reality, like all humans they can sometimes suffer bouts of doubt, anxiety and depression.
We must change the culture to allow athletes, along with all people, to feel comfortable talking about their health, which includes both physical and mental aspects. They should be able to do this without fear of reprisals from leagues, coaches, teammates, opponents, sponsors or fans.
“It’s hard to spin this chapter as anything other than ugly, but it is a chapter and not a final verdict,” Sports Illustrated writer Jon Wertheim said from Paris.
Like Wertheim, we hope the next chapter — for tennis and sports in general — will be a better, more humane one.