Paris – The weeklong confrontation between Naomi Osaka, the second-ranked woman in tennis, and leaders of the sport’s four Grand Slam tournaments turned bitter Monday when Osaka withdrew from the French Open citing concerns for her mental health.
The move was a dramatic turn in the high-stakes standoff between the most powerful officials in tennis and Osaka. The 23-year-old is not only the world’s highest paid female athlete but a generational star who has quickly become the most magnetic figure in tennis.
“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” Osaka said in an Instagram post.
It is the first time in professional tennis that a star as significant as Osaka who has not suffered a physical injury has walked away in the middle of an event as big as the French Open, and Gilles Moretton, president of the French Federation of Tennis, called her withdrawal “unfortunate.”
She had never before spoken in public about her depression, which she said began after her 2018 victory over Serena Williams at the U.S. Open before a boisterous crowd that was firmly behind her opponent.
“I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer,” she added. “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.” She did not indicate when she would return to tournament play.
Moretten said in a statement that tournament organizers wished her the “quickest possible recovery.”
“We are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka,” he said. “We remain very committed to all athletes’ well-being and to continually improving every aspect of players’ experience in our tournament, including with the media, like we have always strived to do.”
The dispute between Osaka and tournament officials began Wednesday when she announced she would not participate in post-match news conferences during the French Open because she said negative questions about her play affected her mental health. It came to a head Sunday after her first-round win, and she made good on her promise to skip the news conference.
Within hours Osaka was fined $15,000 by the French Open’s tournament referee, and the leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments — the Australian, French and U.S. opens and Wimbledon — threatened that she could be expelled from the French Open and face harsher penalties if she would not fulfill her media obligations.
Players are subject to fines of up to $20,000 for skipping a news conference, though the fines have historically been far less. Still, tour officials and most players have long believed that news conferences are important for the promotion of the sport.
Few if any of Osaka’s colleagues have shown unequivocal support for her stance.
“Press and players and the tournaments comes hand in hand,” said Victoria Azarenka, a winner of two Grand Slam events. “I think it’s very important in developing our sport, in promoting our sport.” She added that there were moments when the media did need to be more compassionate.
Williams said she has been through many difficult news conferences during her career but viewed the experiences as having made her stronger. “I feel for Naomi, and I wish I could give her a hug because I’ve been in those situations,” the 23-time Grand Slam tournament winner said. “You have to let her handle it the way she wants to in the best way she can.”
In her social media post last Wednesday, Osaka said that having to answer questions after a defeat was harmful to her mental health.
“If the organizations think they can keep saying, ‘do press or you’re going to get fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh,” she wrote.
Last week the WTA Tour said it welcomed a dialogue with Osaka about mental health but stood by its position on press obligations for players. “Professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans to speak to the media surrounding their competition, allowing them the opportunity to share their perspective and tell their story,” the WTA said.
This is not the first time that Osaka, a private person who rarely grants interviews with the mainstream Western media, has taken a public stand on an issue. Last summer tennis officials suspended play at the Western & Southern Open after the four-time Grand Slam tournament winner announced she would not play her semifinal match to draw attention to the issue of police violence against Black people following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The suspension of play, a move that several sports undertook as athletes threatened a boycott, allowed Osaka to remain in the tournament. She won her postponed semifinal match and then defaulted the final because of an injury.
This time, however, the leaders of the sport’s most prestigious events refused to bend.
In the statement signed by Jayne Hrdlicka, the head of Tennis Australia; Moretton, president of the France Tennis Federation; Ian Hewitt, chair of the All England Lawn Tennis Club; and Mike McNulty, chair of the United States Tennis Association; the officials said they had reached out to Osaka to open a discussion about both her well-being and concerns she had about news conferences and mental health.
Osaka, they said, refused to engage with them, leaving them with no choice but to pursue significant penalties to help ensure that she did not gain an advantage over her competitors.
“We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement,” the officials stated. “As a sport there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honor their commitments.”
Though she skipped her post-match news conference Sunday, Osaka did take three questions from an on-court interviewer, Fabrice Santoro, after the match and a few more queries on her way off the court from Wowow, the Japanese broadcaster with which she is under contract. Osaka plays for Japan and lives in the United States.
Osaka’s sister, Mari, a former professional tennis player, indicated in a post on Reddit that Naomi Osaka’s anxiety was caused in part by her struggles to win on clay courts like the one at the French Open. She said the press asks about her sister’s poor performance every time she plays on clay, which hurts her.
By avoiding news conferences Mari Osaka said, her sister could “block everything out. No talking to people who is going to put doubt in her mind.”
In her post on Monday, Naomi Osaka described herself as an introverted person who suffers from anxiety before she has to speak with the press. She said she wrote to tournament officials privately to apologize for the distraction she had created and offered to speak with them after the tournament about potentially changing rules requiring players to engage with the media that she described as “outdated.”
Since the inception of social media more than a decade ago, sports stars, politicians and celebrities, especially those who are younger, have increasingly used it to speak directly to their fans. The pandemic, which has forced nearly all news conferences in sports to be held virtually, has accelerated the power shift, making the events that led to Osaka’s withdrawal from the tournament even more surprising.
Sofia Kenin, the player of the year on the women’s tour in 2020, said she respected Osaka’s decision, and acknowledged that the pressures of being a young star are intense.
“This is what you signed up for,” Kenin said. “This is sport. There’s expectations from the outside, sponsors, and everyone. You just have to somehow manage it.”
Osaka said she planned to take some time away from the tennis court. She did not specify whether she would play in the next Grand Slam tournament, Wimbledon, which begins in just four weeks, or just two weeks after the conclusion of the French Open.
Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam that is played on grass, another surface where Osaka’s performance has not matched her dominance on hard courts. She has never made it past the third round at Wimbledon, which is widely considered the most important championship in the sport.
“I’ll see you when I see you,” she wrote to end her Instagram post.
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