High-profile Japanese athlete Naomi Osaka has bailed out of the French Open after her cry for help with mental issues was ignored. It is a reckoning for the sports industry’s inconsiderate treatment of their champions.
The tennis star had been refusing to make an appearance in mandatory news conferences, giving the excuse that she was not mentally prepared to conduct public interviews.
The heat escalated last week when the four-time major winner informed officials that she would not attend the French Open’s news conference after another successful win on Sunday, May 30. The officials responded by slapping her with a penalty of $15,000 and threatened to exclude her from the tournament.
Despite explaining that her mental state might not have been stable enough for her to make it up to the news conference, the star was chastised heavily on social media for her attitude. Several sports fans complained she relied on her position to neglect contractual responsibilities.
The French Open’s harsh pushback was the last straw for Osaka, who decided to withdraw from the tournament one day later.
“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can go back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” Osaka said in a statement on Twitter.
She revealed that she had suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018, and it has not been easy for her to try to live with it.
“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me, I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” she wrote.
Explaining her situation, the tennis star said the times she was away from post-winning news conferences were for “self-care.”
“I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.”
Since the announcement, Osaka received multiple support from other athletes, who said it had been a culture of careless attention from sports organizations on the mental struggles of one of their major drawcards.
On Tuesday, former Women’s Sports Foundation president Julie Foudy said Osaka’s leaving could be a mark of change in the way sports athletes’ mental health is treated.
“It sparked a discussion that’s long overdue,” said Foudy, also two-time Olympic winner and ex-captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, reported by The Washinton Post.
“I think most organizations, leagues and team owners do a terrible job of addressing this, even though you have athletes who are speaking up more and more and having the courage to say, ‘I have some things I’m dealing with and need help.’ Organizations can’t just keep sweeping [it under the rug] or threatening.”
In his reaction, NBA star Steph Curry tweeted: “You shouldnt ever have to make a decison like this-but so damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be dont protect their own. major respect.”
Heather O’Reilly, World Cup and Olympic champion in soccer, wrote: “I hope you feel better soon. You got this!!!”
“Even though it shouldn’t have to be like this, I’m proud of you for putting your foot down. Your mental health matters and should always come first,” gymnast Laurie Hernandez said.