After Osaka's Surprise Withdrawal, a Lively Debate

Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova, others rally to support tennis star's mental health
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 1, 2021 8:21 AM CDT
The Lessons From 'L'Affaire Osaka'
Japan's Naomi Osaka serves the ball to Romania's Patricia Maria Tig during their first round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium Sunday in Paris.   (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Naomi Osaka's decision to withdraw from the French Open rather than face mandatory media interviews has become one of the most talked-about stories in sports, with folks speaking out on behalf of the world's second-ranked women's tennis player, who admitted to battling depression and social anxiety, and others siding with tournament officials, who threatened to suspend her from future Grand Slams. Behind it all, a discussion of mental health. The latest:

  • In a Monday interview, Serena Williams said she wanted to give Osaka a hug, but also suggested her rival was thin-skinned. "We have different personalities," she said, per the New York Times. "I'm thick. Other people are thin. Everyone is different and everyone handles things differently. You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to and the best way she thinks she can."

  • "I feel for her, and I feel the sport in general has mishandled this," especially when "the pandemic … has been so hard on so many young people," Pam Shriver, a former leading player and president of the WTA Tour Players Association, tells the Times. "I just feel that Grand Slam statement poured fuel on the flames in a way that was irreversible."
  • Writing at USA Today, Don Wolken notes the statement from tournament officials, announcing a $15,000 fine on Osaka and threatening further penalties, was "over the top." But "the Grand Slams weren't going to let a top player establish a precedent that they could opt out of required media availabilities if they have enough money to pay the fines," he writes.
  • As for 23-year-old Osaka, "few of us can even pretend to understand what it’s been like to be her over the last three years," Wolken writes. She was turned "into a global sports superstar almost overnight." Still, she was wrong to issue "a wider indictment of the notion that athletes should answer questions about their performance," especially "on the eve of the French Open with no negotiation or chance to accommodate her."

  • The Times' Christopher Clarey faults Osaka for her handling of the issue, noting "media coverage, much of it favorable, has helped Osaka become the world's best paid female athlete," earning more than $55 million in the last year. "Facing unwelcome questions, even in defeat, does not seem like too much to ask," he writes. "But one of the takeaways from l’affaire Osaka may be the realization that some players really do find it all too much to bear."
  • At Bloomberg, Osaka gets credit for bringing more awareness to mental health in the world of sport, which brings intense scrutiny and pressure. Studies show "an estimated one-third of athletes suffer at some point from a mental-health crisis that manifests as depression and anxiety, eating disorders and burnout" and "conditions can be even tougher for athletes in the pandemic era," per the outlet.
  • Dai Tamesue, a Japanese Olympic sprinter, says Osaka's message is especially important coming from a Japanese person, whose home country places unreasonably high standards on athletes, per Bloomberg. "Athletes are held up in society as role models who aren’t supposed to say anything that suggests they are weak," he says. And "especially in Japan, there's a desire to make them fit a certain mold."
  • "As athletes we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental & emotional aspect gets short shrift. This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference," tweeted former top player Martina Navratilova, per People. "It's incredibly brave that Naomi Osaka has revealed her truth about her struggle with depression. Right now, the important thing is that we give her the space and time she needs," added Billie Jean King.
  • "Perhaps the tournaments can do a better job helping players such as Osaka, who is naturally shy, to better handle postmatch interview sessions that more often than not are mundane and even unfriendly," writes Yahoo columnist Dan Wetzel. "No one wins if Osaka, a four-time major champion, is sitting out big events because a secondary part of her job (albeit part of her job) is causing her too much stress." "But promoters seeking to make this sport thrive aren't automatically heartless either," he adds. "This is a business” and "the French Open needs publicity."
(More Naomi Osaka stories.)

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