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Naomi Osaka has been telling us for a while that she was uncomfortable at best and suffering at worst.
She said in a December 2020 "Vogue" cover story that she felt like she would start shaking when she had to speak in front of a crowd. She revealed nearly 13 months ago that she'd been missing out on some things because of her extreme shyness. Three years ago she openly alluded to media that she was in the midst of a depressive episode after losing a clay court match.
And if she wasn't flat-out telling us, it was pretty clear from just watching her when she had to be in front of a microphone and cameras that she was itching to be anywhere else.
So why is anyone surprised Osaka dropped out of the French Open?
And, most importantly, why is anyone demonizing her now?
Her withdrawal on Monday was the culmination of a turbulent few days that began when she announced that in the interest of self-care and her own well-being, she wouldn't be doing media conferences during the tournament.
The French Open fined her $15,000 when she stayed true to her word and did not attend her first-round post-match availability, and also threatened to suspend her from future Grand Slams, citing the sport's code of conduct.
After Osaka withdrew — and this is 100 percent true, though so hypocritical it reads like Onion-style satire — the president of the French Tennis Federation read a statement to media and left the room without taking any questions.
Officials from all four majors reportedly reached out to Osaka after her initial no-media announcement, apparently expressing concern for her well-being. There have been statements that the sport's governing bodies are committed to players' health.
But their knee-jerk reaction to one of the game's biggest stars, a young woman with such global appeal due to her Japanese-Haitian heritage and American upbringing that she's entered into endorsement partnerships with several of the biggest brands on the planet, was to punish her and make it clear that she has to play by their rules or might not get to play at all.
What, exactly, does Naomi Osaka owe tennis and its fans?
What, exactly, does Naomi Osaka owe sports media?
Her job is playing tennis. The way tennis is structured, she's essentially an independent contractor. There are rules about media obligations, but the French Open and the sport in general need Osaka a lot more than she needs them. It's hard to believe there couldn't have been some sort of accommodation made, maybe something as simple as Osaka providing written answers to a handful of submitted questions immediately after she played.
Of course, pushing back against the status quo has led to performative pearl-clutching, because how dare Osaka not want to answer a barrage of questions about why she has thus far struggled on clay, the surface at the French Open. Look at transcripts from her post-match availabilities during this spring's clay court tournaments. She fielded nearly the same questions every time, as well as ones about a new endorsement deal, chairing the Met Gala, a male athlete wearing a clothing collaboration she was part of, and if it's difficult for her to balance tennis and her off-court pursuits.
This is what you're up in arms about not being able to ask?
Unsurprisingly, some in the tennis media have been just as bad as the game's gatekeepers, grossly conflating Osaka's desire for all of us to speak up about racial injustice with her desire to avoid large, obligatory media gatherings.
Media members' job is to offer insight and information, and we need athletes' help to do that. I get it. But what insight can you gain by asking Osaka the same questions over and over again? She's made it pretty clear by now that she's not going to offer up the candor after matches that other players do, the type of copy headline writers love.
If history is a guide, however, the uproar over Osaka's decision is less about her and far more about an athlete — a Black woman at that — drawing a line in the sand.
Other athletes, like the NBA's Kevin Love, have been open about their mental health struggles and are celebrated for their bravery and for starting a needed discussion. Love and others have tried to not just end the stigma, but to tell the world that anxiety and depression don't discriminate, nor do they care that you make however much money.
Osaka's gender, skin color and status as not just one of the best players in tennis but also one of the highest-earning female athletes ever are certainly playing a role here. The same people who tell her to just shut up and play when she wears face masks featuring the names of Black Americans slain by police or vigilante citizens would now tell her to just shut up and play when she's admitting real pain.
Not surprisingly, Osaka's post on Instagram, which spelled out the circumstances that led to her withdrawal (and didn't owe us in the first place), drew supportive comments from fellow tennis stars Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and Coco Gauff, Olympic icon Usain Bolt, WNBA standout Skylar Diggins-Smith, Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton, and Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving.
All of them, at some level, understand the pressure Osaka is feeling, particularly in this social media age. Many of them likely wish they didn't have to speak to the media as much as they do. Some have admitted to their own psychological battles.
Osaka has been telling us for years that she does not like media conferences and endures actual, physical reactions to them, but she's gone along with them because it's expected of her.
She doesn't want to just go along now.
Her own well-being is more valuable to her.
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