Late on Monday night in Paris, when the first round action at Roland Garros was ongoing, Naomi Osaka announced her withdrawal from the tournament following the fall-out from her decision to boycott media activity at the Grand Slam, saying she has “suffered long bouts of depression” and needed to “take some time away from the court”.
It was an unsavoury end to an episode that escalated in the first two days of the Grand Slam after the 23-year-old announced last week that she would not be doing the mandatory press conferences at Roland Garros. She had said then that they had a detrimental effect on her mental health and even in her original statement, accepted that she would pay the fine instead.
The Japanese star was indeed fined $15,000 on Sunday following her first round win but the issue snowballed further when she was informed of further consequences, including a possible disqualification from the event and future Major suspension, in a joint-statement by all four Grand Slams. The statement also said that Osaka had not engaged in a discussion about her decision when approached.
The issue came to a head when the world No 2 withdrew from the event.
Here’s how the issue unfolded.
Wednesday – Osaka announces she will skip press conferences at French Open
Osaka, who is yet to go beyond the third round at Roland Garros, was on a winning streak at Majors having won US Open 2020 and Australian Open 2021, while missing the season-end clay court Slam last year. She was on a 14-match win streak, that would extend to 15 on Sunday.
Days before the tournament, Osaka had announced on her social media that she will not take part in news conferences at the forthcoming French Open, believing that some post-match inquests are little more than “kicking a person while they’re down”.
The four-time Grand Slam title winner, the world’s highest earning female athlete as per Forbes’ list last year, had said she will donate the fines she will accrue to mental health charities.
“I have often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I am not going to subject myself to people who doubt me,” she wrote.
This caught attention because under tennis tournament rules, all players are required to hold press conferences after each match and a blanket boycott was unprecedented.
It should be noted that Osaka regularly packs out media rooms, fields questions in Japanese from reporters who travel to cover her and is regarded as one of the world’s most marketable stars.
Thursday, Friday — Reactions to Osaka’s boycott decision
French Tennis Federation president Gilles Moretton immediately slammed Osaka’s decision.
“It is a phenomenal error and it shows to what extent it is necessary to have strong governance,” he said on Thursday. “What is happening is not, in my opinion, acceptable. It is tennis we want to promote.”
Tournament director Guy Forget said he was stunned by Osaka’s decision which he found at odds with a tournament still facing organisational challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic.
“As the tournament progresses, we will see how she behaves. I don’t know what her attitude will be in the coming days, but it doesn’t send a very positive message,” said Forget.
Without the knowledge of what we now know about the struggles Osaka said she went through since 2018, some players spoke about why media duties are relevant.
Rafael Nadal, the 13-time French Open champion, adding that he respected her decision, said media coverage has driven the success of the sport.
“I understand her, but for me without the press, without the people who are writing the news and achievements that we are having around the world probably we will not be the athletes that we are today,” said Nadal, a 20-time major winner.
“We won’t have the recognition that we have around the world, and we will not be that popular.”
2019 French Open winner Ashleigh Barty said carrying out media duties is part and parcel of the job.
“We know what we sign up for as professional tennis players,” the 25-year-old Australian said.
“I can’t really comment on what Naomi is feeling or her decisions she makes. At times press conferences are hard of course but it’s also not something that bothers me.
“I’ve never had problems answering questions. It’s not something that’s ever fazed me too much.
“And it certainly doesn’t keep me up at night what I say and hear or what you guys ask me.”
Sunday - Osaka’s match and statement from Majors
Osaka was fined $15,000 for her media boycott and intimated of more serious consequences should it continue, including a default and future Major suspensions, in a statement issued on behalf of all four Grand Slams. The Major events – Wimbledon, French Open, Australian Open and US Open – said they had written to Osaka “to check on her well-being and offer support.”
On the court, Osaka opened her campaign with a 6-4, 7-6 (7/4) victory over Romanian world number 63 Patricia Maria Tig. She gave a short on-court television interview after an impressive performance.
“For me, playing on clay is a work in progress,” she had said on a sun-kissed Court Philippe Chatrier.
“Hopefully the more I play, the better I will become. It’s a beautiful court. I’ve only played two matches here, one before the roof and one now so hopefully I’ll keep it going.”
But not long after, the repercussions started with news of her fine.
“We have advised Naomi Osaka that should she continue to ignore her media obligations, she would be exposing herself to possible further code of conduct infringement consequences. 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 said.
It also added added that the Roland-Garros teams “asked her to reconsider her position and tried unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being, understand the specifics of her issue and what might be done to address it on site.” Osaka was said to not have engaged with them.
But the part of the statement that warned of a ‘default’ hit the headlines.
The Grand Slam Board also said Osaka’s refusal to take part in media duties put opponents at a disadvantage.
“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 honour their commitments.”
Side note: Naomi and Mari Osaka’s social media posts.
Later on Sunday she published a tweet, saying: “anger is a lack of understanding. change makes people uncomfortable.”
But her sister Mari’s post on Reddit was more telling. Mari Osaka, a former player herself, said her sister had been struggling to cope in the run-up to Paris.
“Naomi mentioned to me before the tournament that a family member had come up to her and remarked that she’s bad on clay,” Mari is said to have written on Reddit.
“At every press conference she’s told she has a bad record on clay. When she lost in Rome, she was not OK mentally. She was completely shattered and I think everyone’s remarks and opinions have gotten to her head.... so her solution was to block everyone.”
She later replaced it with another statement apologising for making things worse.
Monday - Osaka announces her withdrawal, reveals ‘bouts of depression’
Following the controversial fall-out, Osaka announced on her social media that she is withdrawing from French Open as she felt it was the ‘best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being.’
“I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer,” she said in her statement.
Osaka said she has apologised to organisers over the affair which has dominated the early stages of the French Open ever since she warned last week that she would not carry out any media activity.
She also revealed she has “suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 (when she beat Serena Williams for her first Slam title)“ and that in Paris she was “already feeling vulnerable and anxious and will now “take some time away from the court”.
“I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite out-dated in parts and I wanted to highlight that,” she wrote.
French Open chief’s response
FFT president Moretton said he “was sorry and sad” about the incident.
“We are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka. The outcome of Naomi withdrawing from Roland Garros is unfortunate,” said Moretton.
“We wish her the best and the quickest possible recovery,” Moretton added as he, ironically, read out a prepared statement and did not take questions.
“We look forward to having Naomi in our tournament next year. As all the Grand Slams, the WTA, the ATP, and the ITF, 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.”
Who said what after
Serena Williams said she sympathised with Osaka.
“The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like,” said the 39-year-old, after her first-round 7-6 (8/6), 6-2 win over Irina-Camelia Begu in the first ever scheduled night match at Roland Garros.
“We have different personalities, and people are different. Not everyone is the same. 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...
“I’ve been where I’ve been very difficult to walk in (to press conferences) in those moments. But, you know, it made me stronger.”
Sofia Kenin said “I respect her decision. I respect what she does. I can’t really comment on that. I feel like everyone’s dealing with their own stuff.”
Martina Navratilova said she fully supported Osaka’s decision.
Tuesday: Another statement from Grand Slams
On behalf of the Grand Slams, we wish to offer Naomi Osaka our support and assistance in any way possible as she takes time away from the court. She is an exceptional athlete and we look forward to her return as soon as she deems appropriate.
Mental health is a very challenging issue, which deserves our utmost attention. It is both complex and personal, as what affects one individual does not necessarily affect another. We commend Naomi for sharing in her own words the pressures and anxieties she is feeling and we empathise with the unique pressures tennis players may face. While players’ well-being has always been a priority to the Grand Slams, our intention, together with the WTA, the ATP and the ITF, is to advance mental health and well-being through further actions.
Together as a community we will continue to improve the player experience at our tournaments, including as it relates to media. Change should come through the lens of maintaining a fair playing field, regardless of ranking or status. Sport requires rules and regulations to ensure that no player has an unfair advantage over another.
We intend to work alongside the players, the tours, the media and the broader tennis community to create meaningful improvements. As Grand Slams, we aim to create the stage for the players to achieve the highest accolades in our sport.
On behalf of:
Jayne Hrdlicka, Tennis Australia Chair & President
Gilles Moretton, FFT President
Ian Hewitt, AELTC Chairman
Mike McNulty, USTA Chairman of the Board & President
With AFP Inputs