Naomi Osaka’s French Open Withdrawal Puts the Spotlight on Mental Health

Naomi Osaka’s French Open Withdrawal Puts the Spotlight on Mental Health

Grand Slam Champion Naomi Osaka of Japan in action during her 2019 US Open third round match at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. – New York – August 31, 2019 (Shutterstock)

By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

It’s second day of play at the French Open yet it’s hard to imagine a bigger story emerging from this year’s tournament. On Monday, Naomi Osaka announced that she is withdrawing from the event. “I’ll take some time away from the court,” she said, in the wake of the controversy over her decision last week to decline to go to mandatory press conferences. Reporting from the tournament on the grounds in Paris, Jon Wertheim shares his thoughts on Osaka’s decision and its impact.

What were your initial thoughts on hearing today’s news?

Jon Wertheim: My first thought was one of profound empathy for Osaka. My next was of deep disappointment, because it shouldn’t have come to this. There are infinite angles to this story. But distilled to its essence, it is about a vulnerable athlete who is clearly detailed, and her wellbeing ought to be our first priority. Her decision to decline the press conferences may have been poorly executed and the explanation in her initial post may have begged for more details and logic, but this wasn’t about defiance so much as it was about self-care and self-reflection. As we learn more about mental health and become as acquainted with the rhythms and symptoms, as we are with physical injuries, I suspect we will look back on this as a watershed moment.

But there is also disappointment and even anger here, because it should not have come to this. Anyone who knows Osaka knows she isn’t entitled or a grandstander as she has been portrayed. You had a feeling she did not realize how quickly this situation would escalate. She won her first match on Sunday playing the fearless tennis that has characterized her career. She accommodated an on-court interview and there was a feeling that the air was coming out of this controversy. Then, the four majors got together—something they famously don’t do often—and released a harsh, even menacing and humiliating statement, essentially threatening to ban her. To use a French word, a little nuance would have been nice. A cursory knowledge of Osaka would have gone a long way.

Where does she go from here?

JW: One virtue of tennis: there are plenty of entry points. Wimbledon starts four weeks from today. There are other tournaments throughout the summer. We hope she return when she is ready and in a better place mentally.

What are the other players saying?

JW: One constituency that has acquitted themselves well: the players. Without coordination, they have all said the same thing. They empathize with Osaka and wish her well, but don’t agree with her premise. Most of them seemed fine with the press obligations. Some said it is even essential. No one played the blame game against the media.

Did you know Osaka was in this type of dark place?

JW: There were reports that she was very emotional after suffering a loss in Miami. She had won the previous majors she had entered at the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, but she was really struggling on the clay. She had referenced mental health before. One irony: she had always been something of a media darling. Her press conferences were inevitably engaging and different, and I think a lot of us in the press room were surprised to hear this was the source of so much anxiety.

Have you ever seen anything like this?

JW: Never. We’ve seen players defiantly eat fines, we’ve seen players defaulted for inadvertently hitting officials with a ball, we’ve seen players retire with injuries. But I can’t recall anything like this.

Is it naive to ask if anything good can come out of this?

JW: No. because some good has to come out of it. For one, we are learning about mental illness. And as obvious as it should be, that wealth and athletic success don’t insulate someone. We are learning about the role of media and social media. We are learning about empathy and lack of empathy. A few minutes from this writing, Serena Williams, age 39, will take the court. She is living proof that players can persist, endure controversy, and play for years beyond expectation, earning great affection along the way. It’s hard to spin this chapter as anything other than ugly, but it is a chapter and not a final verdict.

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