Opinion

It doesn’t matter how it happened – Naomi Osaka was right to withdraw from the French Open to care for her mental health

If one thing can be learned from the withdrawal of Naomi Osaka from tennis’ French Open, it is the importance of communication. Before the tournament, world number 2, Naomi Osaka stated she was ‘not going to do any press during Roland Garros.’ However, after public debate and a tournament issued fine, Osaka withdrew from the French Open.

When we talk about Naomi as a public figure, it is so easy to forget that she is a 23-year old woman who is struggling with her mental health – the true centre of this story. It is difficult to imagine the pressure that comes with being a celebrity and she is famously a shy personality. I am instantly reminded of a cringe-worthy interview in 2019 where Ellen DeGeneres made repeated comments about Naomi’s love life whilst she looked uncomfortable. So, it is not surprising that she does not like press interviews. However, her statement to avoid press completely backfired and sadly caused her more harm than good.

To understand the reaction to Naomi’s original statement, it is important to understand the wording. Wording makes a difference. 

Osaka stated: ‘I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athlete’s mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one’. 

Because this statement was a bit ambiguous, the tennis community didn’t really know what to make of it. Osaka’s statement suggested she was taking a stand against the treatment of athletes, however, without the participation of other athletes, a press boycott was never going to carry any weight.

This caused debate, even amongst players, with the BBC reporting ‘the general consensus among Osaka’s fellow professionals, who have been speaking at Roland Garros on Friday, is one of respect for her stance but believing the media obligations are “part of the job”’. Therefore, it is somewhat understandable that the French Open issued Osaka a $15,000 fine for missing her post-match press conference because it was seen as an evasion of her media obligations.

However, I wonder whether there would have been so much debate if Osaka had worded her statement differently. Osaka choose not to speak about her personal situation and instead spoke for the whole community – at which point players responded that this was not the case for them. But should Osaka have to be so candid? Mental health is intensely personal. I fear an attempt to protect herself backfired massively, adding stress onto a girl who was already feeling vulnerable. 

Undoubtedly, the situation could have been met with a lot more sensitivity. Whilst Naomi originally didn’t explain her mental health circumstances, it didn’t take a take a genius to realise there was something deeper going on. I understand the position of Roland Garros to issue a fine for not fulfilling an obligation of her job, however, using the official twitter to humiliate Naomi was unnecessary and spiteful. Although now removed, whoever thought it was a good idea to post pictures of other players in press conferences with the caption: “They understood the assignment”, must have had a severe lapse in judgement.

I think the debate needs to move away from “who is in the right?” and “should Osaka have done this?” to what can be done to prevent situations like this in the future? To begin with I was thinking about athlete’s media responsibilities and changes that could be made to support players with mental health issues. However, I believe instead of making changes to only support those that are struggling, changes should be made to make the system kinder so that everyone is protected. Athletes shouldn’t just be protected once the damage is already done. Only they know what will make them more comfortable but a more open dialogue between players, press and tournament directors can make it happen. I imagine allowing a coach to sit next to their player in press interviews would be a good start – but who am I to say? However, will all the good will in the world mental health issues will still occur, so maybe we should show a little more understanding when they do. 

In her withdrawal statement, Osaka openly stated she has ‘suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018’. The overwhelming response has been that everyone wants Naomi to be okay.  I believe that a break is exactly what Osaka needs in this moment and time to focus on herself. After all, Naomi the human being is much more important than Naomi the celebrity. In her statement, Naomi vowed to ‘work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans’ , so hopefully something good can come from this truly sad situation. After all, a situation where a player as talented as Osaka felt unable to compete due to mental health problems would be an incredibly sad situation for not only the fans, who would miss out on the chance to watch (potentially) the best player of this next generation, but for Naomi herself who has worked for this opportunity her whole life. It would be a shame to watch her potential not be fully realised.

Rebecca Dawson is a second-year Geography student at the University of Leicester. She is vice captain at UOL Tennis and is interested in mental health, popular culture and current affairs.