Naomi Osaka, the highest paid female athlete to date, recently withdrew from the French Open and announced on Monday that she will also withdraw from the Berlin WTA 500 tournament. Osaka is 23 and is currently ranked number one by the Women’s Tennis Association in singles and number two in doubles, and is the first Asian player to hold the top rank in singles. Osaka has defeated long time tennis star Serena Williams and made over 37 million in endorsement deals last year.
Making enormous strides as a young, non-white female athlete and especially so in an underappreciated women’s sport, it was very shocking to hear of her depart from the French Open and subsequently from the Berlin 500 tournament. Doing what was best for her mental health, most were understanding and many of her competitors gave their praise and support for her decision. Osaka tweeted announcing her initial decision to not speak to the press on Twitter stating, “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for an athlete’s mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.” After her announcement began to garner a lot of attention, she released another tweet explaining her leave from current play, “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players, and my well-being is I withdraw from the tournament so everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”
Serena Williams responded to Osaka’s decision by saying “I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like… You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can.” While many agreed with Williams and shared similar sentiments, Osaka did receive a fair amount of backlash from her decision. Many criticized her for not being mentally tough and encouraged her to just talk to the press. Borris Becker, another tennis star, had a slightly different opinion, stating he was scared how Osaka’s career would fare after this decision and if she could not learn to handle the stress of a professional sports career.
Osaka told the press that she had too much anxiety over post-game press conferences; having dealt with anxiety and depression for a while and feels that interacting with the press increases her anxiety. When Osaka refused to speak to the press after her first French Open match, she was fined $15,000 and could have faced more severe punishment if she continued to ignore the press. Osaka later withdrew from the tournament after and announced her mental health was more important than her playing at this moment.
Many of you may remember a similar situation with the Seattle Seahawks running back, Marshawn Lynch, who would refuse to speak at press conferences. While it was included in his contract that he attends press conferences he told the press in a 2015 press conference that he did not appreciate the media constantly in his face hounding him, and that he felt the media was mad at him whether he spoke or not so he would prefer to say nothing at all. Called to be in compliance with his contract he would show up at every press conference and sit there not speaking or saying no comment. It came to be a joke to everyone and later clips of him at press conferences were turned into viral memes. We can see the comparison here and I wonder if the difference in reaction is because of the difference in sport or the difference in gender of the player. Both players are highly praised in their respective sports, they are top performing athletes and are both old and mature enough to make their own decisions as for what is best for them and their mental health.
Mental health struggles, although not new, have become newly accepted in society and it is a relatively new idea that celebrities, professionals and professional athletes can openly talk about their mental health struggles and hope to not to be put down for them. Although many still are, it is a sad thing to witness someone receive negative comments after claiming they are doing what they believe is in their best interests. We all struggle with mental health in one way or another and if Osaka believes it is best for her to not talk to the press, that should be a respected opinion by the community.
There will always be players, whether that is newbies who want to get their name out there and enjoy the spotlight, captains such as Megan Rapinoe and LeBron James who enjoy speaking on behalf of their team and feel it is in their duties as captains and team members to speak, or just someone who enjoys talking and doesn’t mind speaking to the press, there will never be a shortage of players, coaches, and staff members who are willing to give their opinion and comment at press conferences. All players should not be mandated to speak to the press if it is something they are not comfortable with.
With the negative reaction Osaka received, the fine and the additional media coverage she received after announcing she wanted very little, Osaka was forced to drop out from two major tournaments. Osaka discussed how she feels the tennis community, and higher ups could do a better job of supporting players and ensuring that they have good mental health. She and many others hope this starts the process of bettering all athletes’ mental health and changing outdated rules; hopefully this change does not come at the cost of a young star’s tennis career.