The weeklong confrontation between Naomi Osaka, four-time Grand Slam champion, and powerful officials of the French Open turned bitter on Monday as the Japanese tennis superstar decided to drop out of the French Open 2021, also known as Roland Garros. The 23-year-old took to social media to announce her decision to quit French Open midway, saying that she has struggled with depression and anxiety.
The dispute between Osaka and the tournament officially began on Wednesday when she announced that she would not participate in a post-match news conference during French Open as the negative questions about her game affected her mental health.
On Sunday, the second-seeded Osaka did good on her promise and did not appear for the press conference after winning the first-round win at Roland Garros. She was subsequently fined $15,000 by all four Grand Slam tournaments—including Roland Garros, Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open.
In a joint statement, the organizations warned Osaka that she could face disqualification or even suspension if she continues to avoid the media. “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,” read the statement. “We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement. As a sport, there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honour their commitments."
Why did Osaka boycott press conference?
The four-time Grand Slam champion explained in her statement that she decided because she has suffered from anxiety and mental health issues after being subjected to questions from the media.
“Hey everyone, this isn't a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago,” she began. “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.”
Explaining that she had suffered from depression since the US Open in 2018, she said, "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."
Describing herself as an introvert person, she wrote, “Anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”
She also stated that she has “nothing against” journalist with whom she had shared a “friendly relationship" while adding she is not a “natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to media. "I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try and engage and give you the best answers I can." she said in the statement.
Osaka’s interactions with media have often gone viral on social media due to her witty answers.
Osaka further added that her choice was an act of self-care. “here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.”
Not the first time Osaka has taken a stand
Osaka is the world's highest-paid female athlete ever and has a huge following around the world. She is known to be vocal and has taken a public stand on several issues related to social injustice and racism.
Osaka threw her support behind the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, posting news footage of the death of George Floyd in June and tweeting "There comes a time when silence is betrayal. In August 2020, tennis officials had to suspend a play at the Western & Southern Open after Osaka announced that she would not play her semifinal match to draw attention to the issue of police violence against Black people.
First time a player left the tournament midway
Although many top players have skipped the press conference after losing a match in the past, this was the first time when a player had announced in advance to not attend media interactions. It is also the first time in professional tennis that a player who has not suffered a physical injury has walked away in the middle of a tournament as big as the French Open.
Osaka outpouring on mental health have resonated with the sporting world including Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and CoCo Gauff but few have given her unequivocal support.
Rafael Nadal, a 13-time champion in Paris said that even though he respected her and understood why she took her stand, the media has played an important role in popularising the sport and players.
"I understand her, but on the other hand, for me, I mean, without the press, without the people who normally are travelling 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 are not gonna have the recognition that we have around the world, and we will not be that popular, no," Nadal said during a pre-tournament conference.
World Number 1 men's player Novak Djokovic also disagreed with Osaka's decision.
"I understand that press conferences sometimes can be very unpleasant. And it's not something that you enjoy, always, you know, especially if you lose a match or something like this. But it is part of the sport and part of your life on the tour. This is something we have to do, otherwise, we will get fined. I mean, that's at least the case on the men's side. I don't know about the rules on the women's side. So that's all I can say," Djokovic said.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka opined that in today's world, athletes and press go together. "Press and players and the tournaments come hand in hand. I think it’s very important in developing our sport, in promoting our sport,” Azarenka said.
French Open champion Iga Swiatek said that there should be a proper balance between the two. “Talking to press after a loss is not the most enjoyable thing to do. It may be hard, but I feel like with proper kind of support and, with distance and balance, it's part of the job." Iga said.
There is still a lack of support for Osaka among her peers for her actions, but her latest remarks have surely opened the debate on the mental health effects on a player after beiing subjected to questions from the media.
In her statement, Osaka said she has planned to take some time away from the tennis court. I’ll see you when I see you,” she wrote to end her statement.