World No.2 Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from the French Open, a day after she was fined $15,000 and threatened with expulsion for deciding not to speak to media after her first-round victory.
Osaka, who is a four-time Grand Slam champion and one of the biggest names in tennis, had released a statement last week saying she would not participate in press conferences during the French Open, citing they had an adverse impact on her mental health.
The board of Grand Slam tennis tournaments issued her with a warning that “she would be exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences” if she didn’t engage with press during the rest of the tournament.
“As might be expected, repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament… and the trigger of a major offence investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future grand slam suspensions,” the statement from the board said.
Instead, Osaka has decided to withdraw from the tournament altogether, saying it would be the best thing for the tournament, the other players and her own wellbeing.
“I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly,” she said in a new statement.
Osaka revealed she has been suffering from depression for three years and had written privately to the tournament organisers ahead of time explaining her decision.
“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety,” she said.
“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can.”
Osaka also said she felt like the strict rules around athlete’s media appearances were outdated, and she only wanted to protect her mental health when she said she would skip the media rounds. She also said she was looking forward to collaborating with the Tour to make things better for all involved, especially when it comes to mental health.
“So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it pre-emptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.
“I wrote privately to the tournament apologizing and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense.
“I’m gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.”
Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open comes after she spent the better part of 2020 dedicating her time to social activism, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. She’s spoken openly about being a shy and anxious person, but chose to made waves anyway when she became the first tennis player to strike in solidarity after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Her actions prompted the rest of the sport to follow. It’s clear she takes her role as a leader in a predominantly white sport seriously, saying at the time, “before I am an athlete, I am a black woman”.
Now, amid the pandemic, Osaka has been slated as Japan’s face of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics – a high pressure role considering the public protests against the controversial Games being held at all.
Despite clearly not being comfortable with media conferences, Osaka has never stepped away from it before last week, when she said the pressure was getting to her, and her mental health wasn’t up to it.
Osaka is just 23 years old and has never been more vulnerable. Some space and support could go a long way to improving outcomes not just for her, but all athletes in high pressured careers.