Naomi Osaka was sending warning signals. Something wasn’t right. The world’s best women’s tennis player was not in the state of mind to fully devote herself to the sport she loves and has mastered. Osaka suddenly withdrew from the French Open on Monday due to mental health issues after winning her opening match and being fined $15,000 for not speaking to the media, a requirement of all participating players.
In a statement issued on Monday, the day before her scheduled second-round match, Osaka, a four-time Grand-Slam champion, provided an explanation for her actions: “This isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended,” she said. “I think now, the best thing 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.”
Osaka acknowledged that she has experienced long bouts of depression since defeating Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open finals, her first grand slam win. The 23-year-old of Haitian and Japanese descent who was born in Japan, also revealed she suffers from anxiety before speaking with the media.
“Anyone that knows me knows, I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety,” she said. Last Wednesday, Osaka posted on social media that she would not fulfill press obligations at the French Open.
“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt),” wrote Osaka, “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”
Mental health, specifically in sports, is not given the same understanding or attention as physical injuries. There are no X-rays or MRIs that can be used to gain an immediate diagnosis of mental health. A person’s actions, silence or speaking out are all indications, with a lot of unknown gray areas.
An increasing number of athletes are publicly sharing their struggles with mental health issues, which had previously been viewed as a damaging stigma to athletes’ careers. The NBA and NFL among other leagues have created mental health programs and significantly expanded mental health resources available to their players as they’ve witnessed former and current athletes go
through painful battles.
Former NBA player Delonte West contends with bipolar disorder that led him to drug abuse and living on the streets in several cities. New York City basketball legend Chamique Holdsclaw, a six-time WNBA All-Star, the 1999 WNBA No. 1 overall pick, two-time AP college Player of the Year, and three-time NCAA champion at the University of Tennessee, is today, at 43, a mental health advocate and subject of “Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw.”
In a March 2015 interview with the Washington Post, Holdsclaw said of her path to wellness, “At first I was like, ‘Whatever.’ That whole denial phase…I was really good at basketball. That covered a lot of stuff up, and I failed to really deal with the illness. I threw myself into sports. Distracting everyone. Wearing that mask…I just wish that mental health was talked about back then.”
Let’s hope Osaka finds wellness and balance, with that being more important than her winning another Grand Slam title.