Nascent tennis phenom Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open citing mental health issues after she refused to participate in a post-match press conference.
Following a first-round win over Romania’s Patricia Maria Tig, Japan’s first tennis star and second-ranked in the world, Osaka said that she privately informed Roland-Garros officials that she would “skip” press conferences to deal with feeling “vulnerable and anxious” leading up to the Grand Slam game. For her decision, they fined her $15,000 and warned her that her “infringement of mandatory media interviews” would lead to more fines and a possible dismissal. Other four Grand Slam tournaments threatened to bar her from competing in them.
On Twitter and in an Instagram post, Osaka admitted that she has been “suffering long bouts of depression since 2018.” She also said that she is an introvert who experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before press conferences, and often used headphones to “dull” her “social anxiety.” In a proactive way, she said she chose “self-care.” After behind-the-scenes talks became what she called a “distraction” during the Roland-Garros, Osaka called the rules “outdated” before she announced that she decided to take a break from competing entirely.
Serena Williams, who is still in the French Open, offered both understanding and perspective in being a high-profile media person under great pressure.
“Not everyone is the same. I’m thick. Other people are thin. Everyone is different and everyone handles things differently. You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to and the best way she thinks she can. That’s the only thing I can say: I think she is doing the best she can.” Said Williams at a postmatch press conference, “I feel like I wish I could give her a hug, because I know what it’s like. Like I said, I’ve been in those positions.”
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US sports icon and famed tennis champion, Billie Jean King posted on Twitter:
It’s incredibly brave that Naomi Osaka has revealed her truth about her struggle with depression. Right now, the important thing is that we give her the space and time she needs. With about six weeks until the start of the Summer Olympics, Osaka has yet to say if she will
Martina Navratilova said in a since-deleted tweet that Osaka’s action made it worse, she post on Twitter:
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 & 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!
Osaka isn’t the only athlete recorded to refuse to participate in a post-game press conference. In 2014, pro-football player, Marshawn Lynch was fined $50,000 for not availing himself to the media during the Super Bowl. He also was benched until he cooperated. So, he decided to take part in the press events, but answered each question with the same answer.
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Osaka, a 23-year-old Haitian-Japanese woman moved to the US from Japan when she was 3. She has decided to represent Japan in the coming Summer Olympics that will take place in Tokyo. While Osaka has not announced if she will not participate, Japan’s sports authority backed Osaka’s decision to take a break. “The first thing to be considered is Ms. Osaka’s health. I wish her the earliest possible recovery,” said Japan Tennis Association (JTA) Executive Director Toshihisa Tsuchihashi said in a statement on Tuesday.
While Osaka admits to struggling with mental health, she has been clear about using her platform to address racial injustices. Since 2020, Osaka has been an active voice in the Black Lives Matter social justice movement. In the 2020 US Open, she wore protective face masks with African Americans who were killed at the hands of police officers. Additionally, she was part of a collective of athletes who signed an open letter of refusal to participate in future sports activity after a Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer shot Jacob Blake in the back, paralyzing the Black father who was attempting to quell a fight.
To explain her withdrawal from the US Open, of which she had made it to the semi-finals round, Osaka Tweeted, “As a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.”
Osaka also expressed her concern for anti-Asian attacks against Asians in the diaspora. She posted on Instagram:
If people loved Asian people as much as they love bubble tea, anime, mochi, sushi, matcha, etc. Imagine profiting/enjoying things that come from a culture then attacking/diminishing the ethnic group that created it.
Ironically, the International Olympic Committee announced a ban on any Black Lives Matter paraphernalia or actions of protest. The IOC also said that it would punish those who raise a fist or kneel during ceremonies. The organization cited a rule stating, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
If Osaka does play in the Olympics in the coming months, she must decide if her convictions about race and social justice will be prominently displayed. If so, she will fall under more scrutiny. White-listed football player, Colin Kaepernick understands that all too well. Kaepernick has been shut out of the NFL for his stance against police killings and other racial inequalities. At games, he knelt in silence during the pledge of allegiance as a protest. His actions inspired other players across sports to be more vocal on the growing social angst in the country. Now, Kaepernick is more vocal about his positions. Subsequently, he is indefinitely sidelined.
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