On Wednesday May 26th Naomi Osaka, 4-time Grand Slam winner, announced that she would not be speaking with the media during the French Open. Osaka cited her mental health as the reason behind her decision to not engage with the press during Roland Garros. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athlete’s mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” Osaka explained. “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’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”
She went on to say, “I’ve watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room and I know you have as well. I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.”
She clarified, “Me not doing press is nothing personal to the tournament and a [of] couple journalists [that] have interviewed me since I was young so I have a friendly relationship with most of them. However, if the organizations think that they can just keep saying, ‘do press or you’re gonna be fined’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.”
She said finally, “Anyways, I hope the considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity.”
Osaka began her bid for the title on Sunday with a 6-4, 7-6(4) win against Romania’s Patricia Maria Tig. This marked her 15th consecutive win at a major match. This match was held on a clay-court which is a surface that Osaka has mentioned is still “a work in progress.” The grand slam titles she has won before all happened on hard courts.
During her on-court interview Osaka told Fabrice Santoro, “I’m really glad that I won, it’s a very beautiful court. I’ve only played two matches here – one before the roof (was installed) and one right now. Hopefully I’ll keep it going.”
Her next matchup was to be against Romanian tennis player Ana Bogdan. Just as promised Osaka did not appear at a press conference and the tournament organization was displeased.
Just as the No. 2-ranked Osaka anticipated she was heavily fined to the tune of $15,000. The Officials of all four of the Grand Slams – Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open – released a joint statement informing Osaka of her contractual obligations and warned that she could possibly face expulsion from the tournament.
The joint statement read: “Naomi Osaka today chose not to honour her contractual media obligations. The Roland-Garros referee has therefore issued her a $15,000 fine, in keeping with article III H. of the Code of Conduct. The mental health of players competing in our tournaments and on the Tours is of the utmost importance to the Grand Slams.
We individually and collectively have significant resources dedicated to player well-being. In order to continue to improve however, we need engagement from the players to understand their perspective and find ways to improve their experiences. Every year we seek to deliver better experiences to our fans, our players and our people, and we have a long and successful track record in achievement on this count.
A core element of the Grand Slam regulations is the responsibility of the players to engage with the media, whatever the result of their match, a responsibility which players take for the benefit of the sport, the fans and for themselves. These interactions allow both the players and the media to share their perspective and for the players to tell their story. The facilitation of media to a broad array of channels, both traditional and digital, is a major contributor to the development and growth of our sport and the fan base of individual players.
We have advised Naomi Osaka that should she continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, 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 (Code of Conduct article III T.) and the trigger of a major offence investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions (Code of Conduct article IV A.3.).
We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement.”
A day after this fine was issued, 23-year old Osaka withdrew from the French Open prior to her second-round match. She released another statement saying, “…this isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago. I think now the best things for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”
She went on to say, “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal, and my message could have been clearer. More importantly I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly. The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”
She concluded her statement by saying, “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.”
Throughout this process Osaka has received an outpouring of support as well as a great deal of criticism.
FFT President Gilles Moretton released a statement on Monday saying, “First and foremost, we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka. The outcome of Naomi withdrawing from Roland-Garros is unfortunate. We wish her the best and the quickest possible recovery, and we look forward to having Naomi at 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.”
As Osaka mentioned in her withdrawal from the tournament, hopefully this starts a much-needed discussion surrounding the mental health of athletes.
The 18-time Grand Slam champion Martina Navratilova wrote: “I am so sad about Naomi Osaka. I truly hope she will be ok. As athletes we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental & emotional aspect gets short shrift. This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference. Good luck Naomi- we are all pulling for you!”
It is hard not to think of a 14-year-old Venus Williams that had to endure an interview with an ill-intentioned interviewer during the 1995 ABC NEWS, “Day One” program. Williams explained that she is confident, and she knows that she can beat an upcoming opponent to which the interviewer repeated questions to sow seeds of doubt into her young mind. At that point, her father Richard Williams, steps in and ends the interview as he sees the subtleties of what is happening. If they are willing to subject a child to these kinds of mind games, imagine how reckless things become as athletes grow older.
26 years later and not much has changed. The irony of all of this happening during May, Mental Health Awareness month is almost too good. Osaka putting her mental health first will not only set an example for other athletes but also hopefully lead to changes that can moves Sports forward.