When Naomi Osaka — the 23-year-old, No. 2-ranked tennis player in the world — announced she felt she had no choice but to withdraw from the French Open on Monday, the professional tennis world only had itself to blame.
Increased social awareness of mental health has spawned something of a burgeoning movement in the sports world.
Osaka first stated that her own mental health challenges, including social anxiety and depression, have pushed her to step away. But as anyone who has been following the drama of the past few days knows, Osaka is walking because she was being pressured to speak to the teeming media scrums against her will or risk getting kicked out of the tournament.
Osaka went public right before the French Open with a statement on social media saying she did not feel she was able to take part in the tournament press conferences and that she "often felt that people have no regard for athletes mental health."
Now Osaka has stated she is “gonna take some time away from the court now, but 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.”
It’s a hopeful thought, but one could well wonder whether the tin-eared tour will work with her.
Increased social awareness of mental health has spawned something of a burgeoning movement in the sports world. As a result, we’ve seen a long overdue shift of sports organizations and leagues promoting the importance of mental wellness and in many cases encouraging players to be open with the public about their challenges. Especially in the world of men’s sports, this new space for vulnerability has signaled a remarkable culture shift. All this is only part of what makes the response to Osaka by the four tennis Grand Slam tournaments so shocking.
The initial reaction by French Open was first to post a mocking tweet, which was quickly deleted.
The initial reaction by French Open was first to post a mocking tweet, which was quickly deleted. A formal statement was then issued, signed by the heads of the organizations that run the French Open and the other three Grand Slam tournaments, stating that Osaka risked not only fines but being kicked out of the tournaments for refusing to speak with press.
"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," their statement read. "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 her original statement, Osaka had said, "If the organizations think that they can just keep saying, 'do press or you're gonna be fined', and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh."
Imagine the NBA banning LeBron James from the playoff finals for refusing interviews.
And one could laugh, but the entire scenario is more disturbing than funny. Imagine the NBA banning LeBron James from the playoff finals for refusing interviews or Tom Brady being prevented from playing in the Super Bowl because he wanted to skip media day. It would never happen. When you consider the fact that Osaka is also doing exactly what we keep telling athletes we want them to do — being open about personal mental health — the league’s cold rebuff of her concerns is all the more brazen.
It is also impossible to not see the gender and race prejudice at play in the ugliness of the formal reply: the disrespect, the eye rolling, the arrogance. League reps might as well have told Osaka to take an aspirin and lie down and everything would be alright.
It echoes how female tennis players have been treated historically, from the days of corsets and passing out on center court to Billie Jean King’s fight for some semblance of equal pay to Serena and Venus Williams being put through the ringer for being Black women dominating a country club sport.
Professional athletes have spent much of the last year flexing their economic and political power. Now, from the executive suites to the stands, there is an ugly push to roll all of that back.
Osaka too has been outspoken throughout her young career and spent the last year advocating for others. In 2020, she championed the Black Lives Matter movement during the U.S. Open by wearing masks that bore the names of Black men and women killed by police.
Now she is advocating for herself and being punished for it.
The backlash from tournament officials feels like a tone-deaf attempt to discipline tennis’s brightest young female star; to make sure a young athlete knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is not bigger than the sport; to tell Osaka to do as she is told, mental well-being be damned.
It is also impossible to not see the gender and race prejudice at play
There has been a lot of media hand-wringing about Osaka’s position, with journalists wanting to defend her right to protect her mental health while also acknowledging — in far less harsh language than the tennis tournament dictators — that doing interviews and talking to the press really matters: for the health and growth of tennis, for the parts of the world that hang on the every quote of these athletes and for basic accountability for what the players are doing on — and at times off — the court.
These points are valid; but the real question is a cultural one, not one of the press. There should be a way to find common ground with Osaka, or any athlete, a way to figure out how to make sure these press events are designed to be less taxing and more accommodating, especially to someone who is openly saying they are struggling with mental health. But the response from tournament officials have made the possibility of striking common ground feel unlikely.
Meanwhile, the minders of tennis seem to be sending an ugly message to their athletes, particularly women and even more particularly young women of color: Advocate for your mental health, as long as it doesn’t gum up the corporate machinery.
If the responses so far are any indication, this approach is simply not going to fly in 2021. And the Grand Slam authoritarians of tennis are going to have to learn that lesson the hard way. For now though, we have no Osaka at Roland-Garros, and the entire sport is weaker for it.