Naomi Osaka is a remarkable tennis player. She is ranked No. 2 in the world, with seven tournament victories and four Grand Slam titles, having twice won the U.S. Open (in 2018 and 2020) and the Australian Open (2019 and 2021).
In 19 career Grand Slams, she has won the tournament or lost by the fourth round: In other words, she is 12-0 — undefeated — in quarterfinals, semifinals and finals, the matches that count most and, consequently, have the most pressure.
More remarkable still, she has done all that at the age of 23. When most people her age are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, she is already the world’s highest paid female athlete, earning what is estimated to be in excess of $55 million a year.
It is the intersection of those two facts — her age and her earnings — that has fanned much of the controversy surrounding her decision to forgo news conferences during the French Open and then, after she stood by the pledge and was fined $15,000, to withdraw from the tournament. A committed social activist, Osaka has, perhaps inadvertently, launched a long overdue public conversation about mental health. For that, she should be applauded, not attacked.
Despite her extraordinary record of success, the French Open has been an insurmountable challenge for Osaka. In four tournaments held on the Roland Garros clay courts, the farthest she has gone is the third round. Those struggles, along with her long-time difficulty with public speaking, prompted her to announce via social media prior to the tournament that she would not appear at obligatory news conferences after a match.
The imposition of a fine when she kept her word after a first-round win prompted her to pull out of the tournament, citing her mental well-being and a desire not to distract from the tennis being played.
Osaka has been criticized for biting the hand that feeds her. She earns millions for being a public figure but she was unwilling to live up to her obligations to the sport and the public that make the paycheck possible. News conferences are supposed to provide color and context for fans and viewers. They also provide photo ops for sponsors as competitors speak against a backdrop of corporate logos and props.
Eliminate the news conference and a valuable public relations and branding opportunity is lost. That threatens the sport’s bottom line. Tournament organizers around the world have already noted a diminution of media interest in their events.
News conferences can be grinding and sometimes dehumanizing events. The performance on the court that they are supposed to explore is an excuse to manufacture drama. While the media subjects both men and women athletes to this process, content analyses reveal that female athletes are asked much more personal, tangential and often demeaning questions.
The French Open’s insistence on Osaka’s attendance at the post-match news conference — a position it took after consulting with organizers of other Grand Slam events — seemed to denigrate or dismiss her mental health concerns. Osaka is an introvert with high expectations of herself and who battles anxiety and depression. Success and those earnings have not eliminated her unease; in some cases they have amplified it.
Yet, athletes have been expected to “suck it up” or tune out the distraction. That is, after all, the sign of a superior performer: a single-minded focus and a determination to succeed against all odds. That attitude has built winners, but it has also left many athletes burned out, and, in some cases, threatened their mental and physical health and their lives.
Osaka is also a campaigner for social justice. At last year’s U.S. Open, every day she wore a mask bearing the name of a different Black man or woman who had been killed. Last summer, she got a tournament she was playing in to delay competition for one day after another Black man was shot by police. She wanted to force a focus on issues of race and equality. It is not clear if she sought this time to focus attention on mental health issues, but she has done just that.
The day after her withdrawal, the French Tennis Federation, along with the organizers of the other Grand Slam tournaments issued another statement, one with a different tone. In it, the officials offered Osaka “our support and assistance in any way possible as she takes time away from the court. She is an exceptional athlete and we look forward to her return as soon as she deems appropriate.”
The Women’s Tennis Association, which has had a Mental Health and Wellness team for more than two decades, released its own statement explaining that mental health was one of its highest priorities.
Other sports organizations and federations should make it a priority as well. Mental health must not be a taboo subject for world-class athletes or ordinary citizens. Surveys show that more than half the Japanese public is worried and anxious as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We must address these fears, and Osaka’s courage and forthright acknowledgement of her own problems can help set an example.
Such outspokenness can be controversial. Calls for racial justice by Osaka and other athletes have generated anger and pushback among American conservatives, who tell them to stick to their sports. Such behavior is not typical of Japanese celebrities either, who are preferred — or encouraged — to stay away from tough topics.
We welcome Naomi Osaka’s words and deeds and wish her all the best in her struggle to stay fit and healthy and at the top of her game. And we look forward to seeing her lifting more trophies — when she feels ready to compete again.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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