Naomi Osaka made headlines last week by withdrawing from the French Open, one of the most hallowed events in tennis. Her withdrawal was not because of an injury or a family emergency that required immediate attention. According to Osaka, her decision was an act of self-care as she plans to place a high priority on her mental health.
“The truth is that I have suffered from long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka stated, also citing her struggles with social anxiety.
Before withdrawing, Osaka was fined $15,000 for failing to appear before the media after the first round of play last Sunday and received a public statement from the French Open, Australian Open, U.S. Open, and Wimbledon threatening that “should she continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, she would be exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences.”
The powers that be made it abundantly clear that the code of conduct was more important than Osaka’s mental well-being. But Osaka continues to prioritize herself, with news breaking Monday that she pulled out of a lead-up tournament to Wimbledon in Berlin next week.
Fans might think that Osaka’s struggles with social anxiety would have been enough to convince the governing bodies, as the face of the sport, she needed a break. But it’s easy to forget the psychological demands that come with athletic prowess — including the constant expectation for athletes to explain themselves while under public scrutiny and stress.
Osaka is, of course, not the first athlete to give the media and public the “silent treatment.” Earlier this year, for example, former Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz took a break from speaking with the press after being benched, and reportedly Philly media had been blocked from asking questions in his introductory press conference as the new quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. Some criticism of Wentz then, and Osaka now, reflected the sentiment that the public is entitled to unlimited access to athletes, forgetting that these athletes are human beings who experience their own trauma and need for rest as they navigate life.
The expectations seem to transcend the required press conferences, extending to fans viewing athletes as objects for taunting. Since the NBA playoffs began, five NBA venues, including the Wells Fargo Center, have banned fans from entering because of altercations with players, like a Sixers fan pouring popcorn on Washington Wizards starter Russell Westbrook.
In that context, as the tennis world and beyond weighed in on Osaka’s stunning move, the outpouring of support she received is heartening. Fellow tennis icons Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova voiced empathy for the young tennis star, and even Will Smith shared a heartfelt message on Instagram in support of Osaka.
In a society that prides itself on “toughness,” Osaka’s move is iconoclastic. Her display of courage, at the peak of her athletic powers while under enormous pressure to be the next standard-bearer of women’s tennis, is admirable. And the support she’s garnering — the same Grand Slam committee that threatened punishment if she didn’t speak to the media responded to her withdrawal with a pledge to support athletes’ mental health — portends important change.
Wherever you land on her withdrawal, Osaka has challenged our society to rethink and reimagine how far we’re willing to go in our professions and lives at the neglect of our mental health. We all may not be superstar athletes who are constantly in the spotlight, but in some way, any of us might fail to do what’s best for our mental health out of fear of losing the positions that we fought so hard to acquire.
Of all the serves that the reigning U.S. Open champion has rendered in her short but remarkable career, Osaka may have saved the best one for herself. As a woman of color in the largely white, male-dominated space of tennis, she made a commitment to herself and her mental health that takes precedence over the prestige that comes from winning Grand Slam titles. In her estimation, she owed that to herself. She doesn’t owe us anything — but she’s giving us a new standard for how to treat athletes and ourselves.
Rashad Grove is a journalist, media personality, and pastor of First Baptist Church in Wayne. @thegroveness