Naomi Osaka's abrupt end at French Open should start new beginning for tennis in improving partnership with its stars
Naomi Osaka, locked in a test of wills with the French Open about her media obligations, withdrew from the major championship Monday, citing mental health concerns.
Osaka had refused to meet with the media during the tournament. She said it was in an effort to avoid what she considered a stressful and potentially unhealthy situation. The French Open, like all tournaments, requires such sessions, citing the need for publicity to drive ticket sales, television ratings and sponsorships.
Osaka had begun earning $15,000 fines and was facing possible expulsion from the Grand Slam event.
Instead she stepped away entirely, first from the tournament and perhaps from the sport for awhile.
“I think the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my own well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” Osaka said in a statement posted on social media. “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer.
“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."
Trying to figure out what to do next — without the fines and threats and back and forth — should be the goal. Perhaps a balance can be reached. Or 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.
This is modern society running up against an ancient sport. This is the 125th French Open. Osaka is 23 years old. Mental health is better understood these days. Anxiety is no longer a taboo term — or it shouldn’t be. Just grinding through a problem is no longer considered the answer.
Finding ways to protect star players, and even help them excel, should be a goal of everyone involved in the sport.
At the same time, this is a business. The French Open needs publicity. All of tennis does — it lags in popularity in the United States. Osaka is the sympathetic figure here and the one with millions of fans, but promoters seeking to make this sport thrive aren’t automatically heartless either.
For generations tennis players helped promote the sport, these tournaments and the industry that fund the operation. Osaka has benefitted from that.
It needs to be a partnership though, because 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.
“The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka said. “Anyone that knows me knows that I am introverted, and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.
“I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak with the world’s media."
The solution, as it is with many mental health issues, is to talk it out … and listen to each other.
Osaka acknowledged Monday that the media actually isn’t all that bad — “the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt).”
Yet she still fears interacting with them, even after what is often easy early round victories, noting that the mere thought of it had left her “feeling vulnerable and anxious.”
Is there a way to solve that? Can treatment help Osaka overcome the fear while the promoters try to meet her in the middle? This doesn’t seem to be an unconquerable divide. It certainly shouldn’t be.
The two sides need each other. As such, they should work together.
It’s good that Osaka was honest with her situation and chose to focus on herself. It’s unfortunate that it spoils her chances in Paris, but something had to give. This is just one tournament in what is hopefully a long career full of them.
Naomi Osaka is a wonderful player and personality. The last thing the sport of tennis needs is for the business of tennis to force her to the sideline, which appears to be the last thing she wants either.
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