World famous tennis player Naomi Osaka announced that she will be dropping out of the French Open, claiming that she needs to take this time to focus on her mental health and well-being.
After being threatened with the possibility of disqualification and fined $15,000 by Grand Slam officials for refusing to partake in the press conferences, Naomi Osaka decided to take matters into her own hands. The 23-year-old tennis star took to social media in an Instagram post explaining that she has been having difficulty coping with ‘long bouts of depression’ since the 2018 U.S. Open.
However, what generated the most media buzz was when Osaka revealed that she suffers from social anxiety and sent a formal request to the tournament telling them that she was going to opt out of the press conferences. In her post, she apologized for leaving the tournament. “I am not a natural public speaker,” Osaka said. “And I get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”
The shocking decision did garner some backlash, but Osaka was primarily praised for her vulnerability and strength, especially from top athletes such as Michael Phelps, Venus Williams, and Steph Curry. Some even shared their own battles with mental health at the height of their careers, fully understanding the pressures put on professional athletes to perform for the media.
Michael Phelps, who has been public about his mental health struggles stated: “We are understanding that this is something that, it doesn’t matter if you’re number one in the world or the average Joe, anybody can go through this. It is real.”
Despite media outlets and tabloids denouncing the highest-paid female athlete, calling her an “arrogant spoiled brat” and claiming her withdrawal is due to her “diva behavior”, her decision ignited the conversation on the importance of putting yourself first.
Throughout Osaka’s already illustrious tennis career, she has faced more than enough criticism with the media taking jabs due to her race, gender, age and athletic performance. Even from the very beginning, when she first came onto the scene, after defeating Serena Williams in what some would consider a controversial win at the 2018 U.S. Open, she was greeted with ‘boos’ as she stepped up to the podium.
Being half Haitian and half Japanese, many journalists have questioned just how Japanese Osaka is and provoked her to speak Japanese at press conferences. There have also been a number of times where she was probed with questions degrading her athletic ability, insinuating that she might not be good enough because of her age. Like many female athletes, she has been a part of many false headlines, starting drama and pitting her against some of her idols.
Many have tried to argue that if Osaka couldn’t handle the press conferences and media attention, she shouldn’t be a professional athlete in the first place as it ‘comes with the job.’ However, an athlete’s primary job is to take care of themselves physically so they can perform well and win. Everything else, including media appearances and press conferences, is secondary. Osaka didn’t become a professional athlete to get mercilessly ridiculed every time she doesn’t win a match.
In the 2019 Wimbledon tournament, Osaka was berated by reporters after she lost to Yulia Putintseva, to the point where she was very visibly overwhelmed and eventually told the press conference organizers, “I’m about to cry,” and was escorted out immediately after.
With all of that scrutiny, it’s no wonder she’s had difficulty dealing with her mental health. The public views professional athletes as performers. With millions of social media followers, gracing the covers of magazines, starring in commercials, they associate them more as a celebrity and entertainer rather than an athlete. They are put up on pedestals, expected to do and be everything all at once.
Osaka has trained all her life to be able to live out her dream and inspire others, only to have the very sport she loves become extremely detrimental to her mental health. To receive the kind of hate she has throughout her career can take a massive toll on anyone.
In her decision, Osaka has been compared to Meghan Markle, another Black woman in the media that received enormous amounts of worldwide scrutiny for choosing to stay away from the spotlight after admitting that, at one point, it made her suicidal. Both women are extremely brave considering the kind of backlash they’ve both received in their careers.
Athletes from other sports have publicly expressed their unwillingness to attend press conferences, looking uninterested in front of the microphone and only present due to contractual obligations. These outdated rules charge athletes thousands of dollars for missing these appearances, regardless of the reason. They are expected to be in top physical condition but rarely, if ever, get some sort of support when it comes to their mental health.
Osaka wrote in her statement that she hopes the Grand Slam officials, as well as other organizations, will start taking the athlete’s mental health into consideration and change their outdated regulations.
It seems that more and more people are relinquishing the mentality that jobs have to be purely about the hustle and grind rather than taking time for their well-being. A work environment can have a huge impact on how well a person performs, whether they’re an athlete or not. At the end of the day, is a job worth it if it doesn’t bring joy into your life? This kind of negativity can spill over into all aspects of your life until it becomes all-consuming.
We still have a long way to go when it comes to the conversation surrounding putting your mental health first, especially when it comes to the workplace. However, Naomi Osaka has shown that you truly are the only person that can advocate for your mental health. Don’t wait until you’re pushed too far before you start taking matters into your own hands.