At age 23, Naomi Osaka has been able to carve out a rightful spot in tennis history for herself. With four Grand Slam wins under her belt, she’s used the platform that comes along with her athletic prowess to champion social change. Last year, she took the opportunity to highlight social justice issues and amplify the message globally. This year, she’s tackling mental health and how it becomes exacerbated in the world of professional sports.
Over the last two months, Osaka has made life-altering decisions with her career to focus on herself–and her mental health–by stepping away from the sport, hopefully leading to an ever-lasting change in the world of tennis forever.
What happened at the French Open?
Four days before the French Open, which was held from May 30 to June 13, Osaka announced that she would not be participating in the press due to her mental health. In part, she wrote that people often do not have any regard for the mental health of athletes.
“We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me,” she wrote in a statement.
Osaka said that she has seen countless clips of athletes who have broken down in the press room after a loss, explaining that she sees that type of situation as “kicking a person while they’re down.”
“However, I think that organizations think that they can just keep saying ‘do press or you’re gonna be fine,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh,” she wrote. “Anyways, I hope the considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity.” Osaka was, indeed, fined $15,000 for not speaking to the media at the French Open.
Osaka’s struggle with mental health
It was not long after that the 23-year-old decided to withdraw from the French Open entirely. Osaka revealed in a lengthy statement that the situation ended in a place that she had never intended when she first spoke out about not participating in the mandatory press obligations. She wrote in another statement that the best thing for the tournament, the players, and her own well-being would be to withdraw from the tournament so “everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis.”
She said that she didn’t want to be a distraction, but that she was not trivializing mental health, either. Osaka revealed that she has suffered from long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018, citing difficulty with coping with her mental health. She explained that she is extremely introverted and wears headphones at tournaments to help minimize her social anxiety. Before she has to speak publicly, especially at media events, she struggles with bouts of anxiety and finds the situations incredibly stressful to navigate.
“So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences,” she wrote, later pointing out that she had intended to highlight some of the “outdated” aspects of the rules.
“I’m 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.”
What about Wimbledon?
Osaka’s break from the world of tennis did not just end at the French Open. The No.2 ranked player pulled out of the Berlin WTA 5000 grass-court tournament in addition to announcing that she would not be participating in Wimbledon which will be held between June 28 and July 11.
“She is taking some personal time with friends and family,” a statement from Osaka’s agent read. “She will be ready for the Olympics and is excited to play in front of her home fans.” Rafa Nadal took a page out of Osaka’s book and put his health before the game, announcing that he too would be withdrawing from both Wimbledon and the Olympics which will take place in Tokyo this summer.
“It’s never an easy decision to take but after listening to my body and discuss it with my team I understand that it is the right decision,” he wrote on Twitter. “The goal is to prolong my career and continue to do what makes me happy, that is to compete at the highest level and keep fighting for those professional and personal goals at the maximum level of competition.”
The outpour of support
While Osaka may have had to make some personal sacrifices to preserve her mental health, she is being praised by celebrities and athletes alike for prioritizing mental health over the game and starting an important conversation within the industry.
In the sports world, Osaka received a supportive tweet from the tennis legend Billie Jean King, who wrote, “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. We wish her well.”
Golden State Warriors’ point guard Stephen Curry defended Osaka after her decision, writing to her, “You shouldn’t ever have to make a decision like this, but so damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be don’t protect their own. Major respect.”
She even received support from Serena Williams, who said she wanted to give the 23-year-old a hug after her decision to withdraw from the French Open.
“The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi,” Serena said. “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.”
Photo Credit: Naomi Osaka Instagram