Naomi Osaka, in a tennis hat and ponytail, puts her hand on her head

Japan’s Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open sparks conversation on mental health in elite sports 

Some in the sports world are saying the conversation is long overdue.

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Naomi Osaka, of Japan, reacts during her match against Maria Sakkari, of Greece, in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open tennis tournament in Miami Gardens, Florida, March 31, 2021.

Credit:

Lynne Sladky/AP

Japanese tennis superstar Naomi Osaka announced on Monday her decision to withdraw from the French Open in Paris.

Before the competition began last week, the 23-year-old sparked controversy when she said she would opt out of press conferences to protect her mental health. She followed through with her plan on Sunday, skipping her postmatch press conference, and therefore, breaking her contract. (Professional athletes are contractually obligated to speak to members of the press.)

Leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments slapped her with a $15,000 fine and a threat of expulsion from the court.

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Osaka didn’t wait for them to make the call. In a statement posted on social media on May 31, Osaka announced her withdrawal: “The truth is, I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”

Some people in the sports world are saying Osaka's decision is opening up a long-overdue conversation that could be a game changer for how mental health is treated in elite sports. But critics say that speaking to the media is part of the job, and that players have a responsibility to make themselves available to the press.

This isn't the first time that Osaka has been subject to public scrutiny.

During the trophy ceremony at the 2018 US Open tournament that Osaka referenced above, the crowd booed her for defeating fan favorite Serena Williams. Williams immediately defended Osaka, asking the crowd to stop and “give everyone the credit where credit’s due.”

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Veteran Williams continued to support Osaka this week.

“I feel for Naomi. 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.”

Serena Williams, tennis pro player

“I feel for Naomi,” Williams said at a press conference on Monday. “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.”

Athletes from a variety of sports and nationalities are now speaking up to say they relate to Osaka, too.

Chris Kluwe, former NFL player for the Minnesota Vikings, said fans and the media too often disregard athletes’ mental health.

“As an athlete, you’re kind of considered to be this, almost, like, Roman gladiator, where you’re in this arena and anything goes because you’re there for entertainment. But that’s not the world,” Kluwe told The World. “Once you step away from whatever playing surface it is you play on, you’re a human being just like everyone else.”

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Kluwe thinks there should be a cooling-off period between the end of play and press conferences, to allow athletes to compose themselves after hours of work and pressure. He also pointed out that if an athlete was physically injured, no one would question skipping postgame interviews.

“But the thing is, your brain is just as much a part of your body as your knee or your hamstring or your ribs.”

Chris Kluwe, former NFL player for the Minnesota Vikings

“But if I, as an NFL player, went out there and had a really bad day and my mental processes were not in the same spot as they were before, everyone would be like, ‘Oh, you need to tough it out,’” he said. “But the thing is, your brain is just as much a part of your body as your knee or your hamstring or your ribs.”

Sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz agrees that mental health needs to be prioritized for elite athletes.

“An athlete is, first of all, a human being,” said Abramowicz, who’s at the French Open to support 20-year-old Polish pro Iga Świątek.

Most athletes don’t travel with a mental health specialist, but Abramowicz believes more of them should.

“I think that there is a lot to do in terms of education,” she said.

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Abramowicz said athletes currently are trained on how to focus during competition, but she’d like to see the conversation change to include athletes’ mental health away from the game, too.

Osaka’s withdrawal, as a leading figure in tennis, Abramowicz said, could be a game changer in terms of prioritizing mental health.

Former basketball player Rod Benson, who retired in 2018 and is now a columnist for SFGate, said mental health was never talked about when he competed in the US and South Korea.

“This is why Naomi is blowing up because this is a new conversation,” Benson said, adding that this is a unique moment to redefine what greatness in sports is.

“If our old conception is [that] winning the most makes you the greatest, our new conception should be winning, but winning in all aspects of life. Winning for yourself, I think, will be the new definition of what greatness is.”

Rod Benson, former basketball player

“If our old conception is [that] winning the most makes you the greatest, our new conception should be winning, but winning in all aspects of life. Winning for yourself, I think, will be the new definition of what greatness is.”

Not everyone jumped to support Osaka’s decision. Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal was among those who said speaking to the media is part of the job.

“I understand her, but on the other hand, for me, without the press, without the people who normally are writing the news and the achievements that we are having around the world, probably we would not be the athletes we are today, and we would not be that popular,” Nadal said at a press conference last week.

The Women's Tennis Association said it would “welcome dialogue with Naomi (and all players) to discuss possible approaches” regarding mental health concerns.

The French Tennis Federation president, Gilles Moretton, spoke to the press after Osaka's announcement.

“We are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka,” Moretton said. “We wish her the best and the quickest possible recovery, and we look forward to having Naomi in our tournament next year.”

Moretton continued to say that all of the Grand Slams are committed to improving athletes’ experiences in their tournaments, including with the media.

Neither the WTA nor the federation replied to The World’s request for comment on how they will do so.

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