Tennis star Naomi Osaka has shared her views on her French Open withdrawal due to mental health reasons and said that the traditional format of press conferences should perhaps be changed, in an essay for Time magazine.
The 23-year-old set off a debate recently about mental health after ending her French Open campaign just one match in, over a dispute on media duties.
The Japanese player had said in a statement before the tournament that she won’t post-match news conferences as they were detrimental to her mental health and likened them to “kicking people when they’re down”. She later revealed her battle with depression and anxiety in a post on social media, saying she wanted to take time away from the game to get better.
In her essay, titled It’s O.K. Not to Be O.K, she has explained the reasoning behind her actions, which she admitted confused some, and the lessons she has learned.
“Lesson one: you can never please everyone. The world is as divided now as I can remember in my short 23 years. Issues that are so obvious to me at face value, like wearing a mask in a pandemic or kneeling to show support for anti-racism, are ferociously contested. I mean, wow. So, when I said I needed to miss French Open press conferences to take care of myself mentally, I should have been prepared for what unfolded,” she wrote.
On the topic of media interactions, Osaka clarified that her decision was not about the press, but rather the traditional format of the press conference. She also asked the media for more empathy.
“I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms—frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me. I do not wish that on anyone and hope that we can enact measures to protect athletes, especially the fragile ones. I also do not want to have to engage in a scrutiny of my personal medical history ever again. So I ask the press for some level of privacy and empathy next time we meet,” she added.
The four-time Grand Slam champion also offered a solution saying that giving tennis players can be small number of sick days where they are excused from your press commitments.
Osaka, preparing to return to competition at the Tokyo Olympics, says former US first lady Michelle Obama and Michael Phelps were among those who offered support after she withdrew from the French Open citing mental health reasons.
The four-time Grand Slam champion from Japan said Phelps, the 23-time Olympic swimming gold medallist who has opened up about his own mental health struggles, had told her that by speaking up she may have saved a life.
“If that’s true, then it was all worth it,” Osaka said of the controversy which saw her fined $15,000 for failing to meet mandatory media requirements.
Osaka said she still believed the format of press conferences was “out of date and in great need of a refresh.
“I believe that we can make it better, more interesting and more enjoyable for each side,” she wrote. “Less subject vs. object; more peer to peer.”
But the former world number one, who also skipped Wimbledon, wrote that she hopes sport authorities will “enact measures to protect athletes, especially the fragile ones,” perhaps allowing players to sometimes forego media obligations without punishment.
“There can be moments for any of us where we are dealing with issues behind the scenes,” Osaka said. “Each of us as humans is going through something on some level.
“I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s O.K. to not be O.K., and it’s O.K. to talk about it,” Osaka added. “There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel.”
Osaka said that after taking several weeks to “recharge and spend time with my loved ones” she “could not be more excited to play in Tokyo.
“An Olympic Games itself is special...I hope I can make them (her home fans) proud.”
(With AFP inputs)
You can read the full essay here.