Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka has spoken about suffering “long bouts of depression” since 2018, the year of her first US Open win.
When you’re suffering from depression, the medical advice is to check in with your therapist, take walks, eat well, sleep properly and avoid distressing situations. At no point is the advice to front the international media in a combative press conference format designed to elicit extreme emotional responses from you.
Over the course of their lives, people who are managing mental illness learn in the most debilitating, exhausting way that engaging with a distressing situation doesn’t snap you out of distress. It locks you into it.
So, Osaka skipped a post-match press conference after her first-round victory in the French Open this week, and decided she wouldn’t participate in media for the rest of the tournament.
It’s reasonable, it’s understandable and it’s basic self-care. She is one of the best tennis players in the world, holds multiple Grand Slam titles and the demands of competing at the highest international level should give her the right to judge what off-court activities best serve the quality of her game.
Osaka has now withdrawn from the French Open and issued a touching personal statement. She explained there were ongoing issues with her mental health, that she did not wish to be a “distraction” for other players. She also wrote: “I wanna apologise to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt.”
The statement was beyond generous. The only person actually hurt by the goings-on at Roland Garros is Naomi Osaka … and every single person with a depressive or other mental illness watching this cruelty unfold, in horror.
Forcing athletes to play through injuries is one of the biggest possible scandals in all sports. It mutilates bodies. It destroys careers. The ruthless and cynical minds in modern commercial sport accept that it also costs money – in settlements, care payouts, brand damage.
Decreasing stigmatisation means people can apparently publicly admit to having mental illnesses – but, apparently, only on their own time
While over recent years media and other institutional narratives have become more amenable to an understanding of mental illness as illness, the institutional attitude on display at Roland Garros this week reveals this understanding is tenuous and conditional.
Decreasing stigmatisation means people can apparently publicly admit to having mental illnesses – but, apparently, only on their own time, and as long as they don’t interrupt extraneous activities that other people may wish them to indulge in.
People who live with depression are obviously more than capable of holding down jobs – whether it’s as tennis players, or journalists, or leading their countries to victory in the second world war. The conditions required to excel at these pursuits is the same with managing any injury; the empowerment to evaluate your own personal capacity and maintain your systems of care.
Fate, it seems, has provided the incident with which to properly illustrate a parallel. Naomi Osaka’s colleague, the Czech tennis champion Petra Kvitová, suffered a freak ankle injury after a fall at – no less – a French Open press conference this week. Kvitova has also withdrawn from the tournament.
Does the commentator in a conservative broadsheet who denounced Osaka as “lame” and a “princess” for missing that press conference for mental health reasons also begrudge Kvitova for going off to get an MRI?
It’s heartening to see the likes of tennis great Martina Navratilova and other athletes back Osaka up, and make the public call both for player respect and, you know, basic human healthcare.
It’s less impressive to see other greats, like Mats Wilander, insist that the pointless circus of a tennis press conference is a necessary part of a tennis player’s job and Osaka is obliged to endure it. Maybe if Wilander had been subjected to relentlessly humiliating questions about his sexuality or his looks or buying handbags or asked to do a “twirl” like an owned piece of dancing meat – y’know, like female players are – he’d have more sympathy.
The point’s been made that Naomi Osaka has the means to suck up ongoing fines for skipping press conferences because she earns tens of millions from her brand endorsements. Those in the business of tournament management would do well consider; she’s not earning endorsement millions because of her performance in freakin’ press conferences.
What a powerful statement of affirmation and solidarity it would be to millions of human beings with mental illnesses to just let Naomi Osaka manage her own health, judge her own game, and focus on tennis.
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