Written by: Erica
Edited by: Jagat
Visual by: Sarah
Naomi Osaka is an exceptional young tennis player who has been emerging as a global star ever since she won in the 2018 Grand Slam U.S. Open, winning 3 more majors after that, and now ranking No. 2 by the Women’s Tennis Association. With Naomi being an icon in the tennis world, everyone was stunned when the four-time champion decided to sit out one of the most important sporting events of the year: the 2021 Grand Slam French Open.
Her reason for stepping down was to prioritize her own mental health. Before the tournament, she openly announced that she would not be participating in the post-match press conferences to occur during the French Open, held in Paris. However, the French Tennis Association threatened her with a fine of $15,000 dollars and disqualification from future Grand Slam tournaments, citing that she was going against the sport’s code of conduct. The next day, she announced that she would be withdrawing from the tournament, and would be taking “time away” from the tennis court.
In this statement she issued via Twitter, she admits that she felt “anxious and vulnerable” before the Paris Open, which explains why she refused to participate in any conferences during the tournament. This was also not the first time she has been in a similar situation, as she also admits that she has “suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and [has] had a really hard time coping with that.”
While many were disappointed by her withdrawal, many fans and fellow athletes also supported her as her move opened the conversation on the importance of mental health. NBA Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard was one of the athletes who supported her decision, suggesting others to do the same: “It’s a shame that there are people out there that don’t respect and support it,” he said in an interview, “She’s the one that has to go out there and perform, and answer to critics and rise to the occasion, and train and prepare herself to go out there and do that […] nobody else.”
Serena Williams, whom Osaka played against in the notorious 2018 Grand Slam U.S Open Finals, also pledged her support in a recent press conference. “I feel for Naomi,” she said, “I wish I could give her a hug cause I know what it’s like.”
The controversy has shed light on how the media and sports officials treat athletes and how some athletes find this pressure hard to deal with. Due to the rise of concerns on outdated press conference models and the mental wellbeing of athletes, the same leaders who threatened Osaka reacted to her withdrawal by promising to address such issues and offered her their support and assistance. In a statement the French Tennis Association issued after the withdrawal, they expressed a more sympathetic sentiment, saying, “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. 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.”
Hopefully, this issue will push sporting officials, organizations and the sports media to provide allowance for athletes to focus on their mental health, while also giving them freedom to focus on playing their sport without the overbearing pressure of the press.
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Wiśniewski, Lindsey “Damian Lillard Says He ‘Supports and Respects’ Naomi Osaka after French Open Exit.” RSN, 31 May 2021, http://www.nbcsports.com/northwest/trail-blazers/damian-lillard-says-he-supports-and-respects-naomi-osaka-after-french-open.