I’m sure Naomi Osaka, who has withdrawn from the French Open, would rather we focused on the tennis – right now, she needs to be out of the spotlight – but that is no longer an option. The eloquent statement about her decision, posted on social media, raises questions that cannot be ignored. Questions that, if properly confronted, will have implications way beyond Roland Garros.
First, some background. Last week, the world number two stated that she would not participate in press conferences during the French Open. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health,” the 23-year-old wrote on social media, “and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.” Osaka was then fined $15,000 after refusing to speak to the press following her first-round victory over Romania’s Patricia Maria Tig.
Threatened with possible expulsion from the tournament, Osaka took matters into her own hands. “This isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago,” she explained on Monday night. “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my wellbeing, is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.
“The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I am introverted and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones, as that helps dull my social anxiety. Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I want to apologise to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”
Serena Williams, Billie Jean King and Olympic heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson were quick to support Osaka. Her feelings, clearly, are shared by many sports stars.
We have little choice, then, but to re-evaluate what exactly we expect of people who play professional sport. Is it enough for them to entertain on the pitch or the court? It should be. To put it crudely, that is all their job description requires of them. But we want more. We want to know how it felt to win or lose; whether or not a rivalry has become personal; why they played that shot at this moment. We want to “know” the person behind the sporting magic. That is understandable. But wanting something and expecting it are, of course, entirely different things.
There are some sports stars who seem to enjoy opening up and chatting to the media. That’s great. But it is a bonus, not a right. When an individual experiences conflict between what is expected of them as a sports star and, for want of a better word, as a celebrity – as Osaka obviously does – we are faced with a choice. We either accept them as they are or we risk losing them from the sporting world altogether. Our insistence that Osaka must speak to the press during the French Open means we won’t actually see her play tennis. Is that, really, a satisfactory outcome? It is an absurd situation, which reads like a self-defeating riddle: we wanted Osaka to talk about tennis, so she has stopped playing tennis, in order not to talk about it.
There is an argument that stars have a duty to their sport. By speaking to the media, they promote the sport, increase its profile, and raise advertising and broadcasting revenues, which can then be put back into the sport. The more we see of the stars, the more people are encouraged to take the sport up. As Piers Morgan – who else? – stated: “She [Osaka] attacked the media for doing their jobs. As [Rafael] Nadal etc said this week, without media support, tennis would not be the big sport it is and the players wouldn’t be rich, famous stars.”
I just don’t agree. Yes, the media’s coverage of, say, tennis promotes the sport. Of course it does. But it is the quality of the action, not what the players say, which makes tennis worth covering. Whether or not Osaka speaks to the press, we would still want to watch her play tennis. To take Morgan’s argument to its risible conclusion, imagine a media-friendly, colourful character with endless bon mots and anecdotes, who was also… terrible at tennis. I think it’s fair to say they wouldn’t be in the media for very long. Media coverage comes about because of sporting ability, not the other way round.
Players should be encouraged to speak to the press, for the reasons laid out above, but for some it is easier to let the sport do the talking. You won’t find many serious fans complaining about that. As golfer Andrew Johnston put it: “She’s there to play tennis.”
It is a great shame that we won’t see Osaka again at this year’s French Open – and you can only wish her well. But her courageous stance has started a conversation that we should welcome. For too long, we have taken our eye off the ball, obsessing over press conferences, endorsements, Twitter spats and interviews, all the while forgetting the thing that really matters.
Without the sport, none of the above exists. By withdrawing from this tournament, Osaka has put her mental health first. But she has also asked important – and necessary – questions of the sport that made her.