Mental health in tennis: Naomi Osaka withdraws from French Open amid debate over press conference
Updated: Jan 27, 2022
There has been an interesting mental health debate coming out of the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris over the last couple of days.
The controversy has come from world number 2 Naomi Osaka who announced via social media that she would not be giving any news conferences during the tournament because she wants to protect her mental health.
The statement has been the subject of much debate, and opinion amongst players and tournament officials has been very divided.
In her Twitter post she said that expecting players to answer questions after a defeat amounted to ‘kicking a person while they’re down’, adding that:
“I have always felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health….. 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 who doubt me.”
Following her win in the first round on Sunday and her subsequent lack of cooperation with press obligations, the tournament organisers wrote to her offering support and to remind her that:
“The rules exist to ensure all players are treated exactly the same.”
It is very difficult to know who is right in all of this and after a lot of discussion and debate the result was that Osaka sadly withdrew from the tournament last night.
Before the announcement of her withdrawal many of the top players gave their thoughts on the situation and opinions were conflicting.
Thirteen-time winner of Roland Garros and twenty-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal said:
"I understand her but for me, without the press, without the people who are writing the news and achievements that we are having around the world, probably we will not be the athletes that we are today. We won't have the recognition that we have around the world, and we will not be that popular."
This is a valid point because without the element of interaction between the media and the players the sport isn’t anywhere near as exciting or interesting for the fans.
There is also the commercial side of things to consider, something that British tennis player Naomi Broady highlights by saying:
“Largely the prize money given to us is from the media rights that the tournament sells and if you're not participating with the media then maybe you can't participate in the tournament.”
After all the controversy and opinion, Naomi Osaka then released another statement on Twitter last night saying the following:
“The best thing for the tournament, the other players and my wellbeing is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris. The truth is I have suffered bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. In Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious, so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I am going to take some time away from the court now.”
A sister’s insights
Mari Osaka, a former player herself, told the press that her sister was struggling to cope in the run-up to Paris.
“Naomi mentioned to me before the tournament that a family member had come up to her and remarked that she’s bad on clay. At every press conference she’s told she has a bad record on clay. When she lost in Rome, she was not OK mentally. She was completely shattered, and I think everyone’s remarks and opinions have gotten to her head and she herself believed that she was bad on clay.”
It’s very difficult to know what to say about all of this because obviously if she’s been suffering from depression then that’s very serious and she should be being helped and cared for in the most supportive way possible.
Unfortunately though, the federation was not able to exercise any kind of protocol of care because Naomi’s announcement was made so hastily.
What I find difficult to understand is that if she’s been suffering from depression then how the hell has she been able to win four Grand Slams alongside it?!
When I was in the throes of depression, I was completely crippled by it and I couldn’t even get out of bed. I had to give up my career completely - there was absolutely no way that I could compete in that horrific state.
I don’t think it’s possible to label something as depression until it significantly impairs the functioning of the individual - so what is going on here? It’s a very confusing situation.
The other thing I find difficult to understand is that she’s still happy to use social media to voice her opinions even though that can have a negative impact on one’s mental health.
I’d have been more inclined to sympathise with her if she’d got her team to release the statement saying that she was taking a break from media altogether.
However, having said all of that, if she is suffering from depression then she has my full sympathies because it’s an absolutely hideous thing to have to go through, especially when you’re young, vulnerable, and in the public eye.
She has raised an interesting point in all the commotion, and I do think that the player/media relationship needs looking into. I’ve often seen awkward videos with young tennis players when they’re being asked critical questions about not only their tennis but also their personal life or clothing and that should never be allowed to happen.
A journalist’s perspective
I read an interesting opinion from journalist Russell Fuller who makes some valid points about the fact that journalists have jobs to do and part of that is reporting what the players say when they come off court.
He illustrates his point through Osaka’s 2019 Wimbledon interview after she lost in the first round. He asked her if she felt that it had been difficult to adjust to being a major star in such a short space of time, and she asked the moderator if she could leave saying that she thought she was going to cry.
These situations are so difficult for everyone involved because it must be horrible for the player to have to sit and answer questions when they’ve just lost yet it is the journalist’s job to get the information to write the articles. So it's impossible to know who is right here.
But, doing a sulky interview with monosyllabic replies doesn’t do anyone any good and maybe this story highlights the need for better and more extensive media training combined with mental health support for young players.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of the conversation in the next few weeks and what changes (if any) are made as a result of this interesting debacle.
I really don't know what to make of it all, but I do know that it's not fair for any of us to have an opinion until we know the full extent of the mental health troubles that Osaka is experiencing.
If you would like to read the full story, then you can find it in an article from The Wall Street Journal which I have added here.
Thanks for reading,
Speak to you soon,